As Tijuana Locks Down, Migrants At U.S.-Mexico Border Stuck In Dangerous Limbo

Erin Siegal McIntyre

When a bullet cracked the front window of a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, earlier this week, coordinator Paulina Olvera Cáñez immediately thought of the children inside.

“When the families heard the gunfire, they threw themselves to the floor,” she said. “Many here fled violence. One woman couldn’t stop shaking — she said it felt like home in Cameroon.”

In the past month, Olvera Cáñez said, shelter residents at Espacio Migrante have been attacked and robbed, express-kidnapped and extorted by police. None of that is unique in Tijuana, where crime has soared over the last 12 months

In this case, the stray bullet came from a group of police officers opening fire during a sloppy downtown car chase, which was caught on tape by the shelter’s security camera. But no one at the shelter was hurt. The bullet hit the window of a vacant office; most staff were at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That stroke of luck is one of very few these days for migrants staring down the pandemic in Tijuana, where refugees from around the world already face daily dangers. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has only made it worse. The government’s stay-at-home orders mean many people facing crowded shelter conditions and limited medical resources are now effectively immobile. Others can’t find shelter at all, as facilities take in fewer people so they can maintain physical distance. And there’s nowhere else to go: The U.S. closed its border to asylum-seekers, Mexico suspended refugee processing, and many migrants are afraid to go home to their native countries, even if it were safe to travel. 

That leaves many migrants stuck near the U.S.-Mexico border, vulnerable to both the coronavirus and other dangers.

“Refugees already have limited access to health care here,” said Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director for the Tijuana-based legal nonprofit Al Otro Lado. “If doctors have to choose who gets a ventilator,...

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