Twenty-four hours a day, adults with scuffed shoes and dusted pant legs file out of the Otay Mesa Port of Entry — sometimes alone and sometimes in groups — into
Many stop to charge their phones in the little plaza that receives southbound pedestrian traffic. Some hang around for hours, unsure of where to go next after their plans of reaching
Most are Mexican men. And for most, this is not the first time they're finding themselves abruptly returned to
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, border crossings dipped as countries closed down temporarily to slow the spread of the virus. Since
"I believe it's related to the pandemic's negative impact on the Mexican economy," said
Through May of fiscal 2021, about 40 percent of apprehensions along the
But the recent apprehension counts are greatly inflated from the actual number of people attempting to reach
The border-wide recidivism rate, or rate of repeat crossers, rose from 7 percent in fiscal 2019 to nearly 26 percent in 2020, according to
But even that does not fully capture the extent of the duplicate counts.
Nearly everyone interviewed by the
One man, who declined to be identified, said he'd lost count of how many times he tried. He tossed out a guess — 30.
Part of the reason that border crossers are able to try so many times is Title 42, the policy that the Trump administration put in place at the beginning of the pandemic and that the Biden administration has maintained. It gives border officials the power to immediately expel people they apprehend back to
Both administrations have claimed Title 42 is meant to keep COVID-19 out of
For border crossers who aren't trying to request asylum, the policy removes some of the consequences they would have otherwise faced for crossing multiple times. Illegal reentry is a federal felony and can come with up to two years in federal prison — or a decade or more if the individual has certain criminal history. Under Title 42, rather than refer repeat crossers for prosecution, agents are generally sending them back again and again and again.
After his most recent expulsion, the man who'd crossed dozens of times was not thinking about the
"If you need workers, why do you make it so hard for us to get there?" the man asked in Spanish.
A call from
The pandemic's economic repercussions have been felt in
"In the history of the border, you would say this looks like a lot of other periods where we had a lot of immigration from
The worker shortages in the
Hoping to save enough money to build a house for his family so that he wouldn't have to worry about rent amidst job instability in his hometown, Enrique agreed. He left his wife and son behind and set out for
He tried three times to cross near the Las Americas outlets, where a young Guatemalan girl was recently found left at the border alone by smugglers. Enrique said the smuggling group guiding him distracted
If he had made it across, his employer would've paid
Then, he tried with a smuggler who planned to pass out fake visas and take a group in a car through port-of-entry vehicle lanes. Success on that route meant a bill of
In the darkness, Tijuana streets can be especially dangerous for those who have been expelled. Both criminal organizations and police alike are known for beatings, robberies and worse, and, like deportees and other migrants, the expelled are often visibly vulnerable, making them likely targets.
In the daytime, the expelled often carry Styrofoam containers of sandwiches given to them while they were being processed for return. Overnight, there are no to-go meals — they come back with whatever they carried with them on the journey north, days or even hours before.
Many choose to sleep in the light of the port of entry plaza in the hopes that they will be safe there until morning.
After his failed attempts, Enrique ended up waiting a few weeks in a place where smugglers kept the men who were trying to cross, sleeping on a tile floor in a hallway with at least a dozen others and more in the other rooms.
When he finally made it through without getting caught, it was over the mountains.
As apprehensions have risen over the past year,
Agents often catch more than 200 people per day on the mountain, Macisaac said.
"We use [Title 42] to the fullest extent that we're able to," Macisaac said, meaning that most of those caught on the mountain are quickly expelled. "It really is around the clock."
On a recent morning, his radio crackled constantly with agents tracking different groups of migrants as he and fellow agent
Their SUV passed abandoned clothing, water bottles and dirty diapers that migrants have discarded along the way.
An agent driving the opposite direction along the road rolled up to their vehicle and rolled down the window.
"Did you see any bodies?" he asked Macisaac and Stephenson, using
Would-be crossers often hike to the mountain from a Mexican highway that runs along the border. Though a few sections of the mountain have border barriers erected, much of the border there has no fence at all because of the treacherous terrain.
Smugglers often zigzag away from trails and even crawl through the brush to keep from being detected, though the vegetation makes the hike that much slower and more difficult. In the summer, soaring temperatures combined with the strenuous trek can lead to heat exhaustion or worse, and smuggling groups often abandon migrants who lag behind on the mountain.
"They're misled about what they're getting into," Macisaac said, noting that many looking at
Francisco, a 23-year-old man from the state of
He'd fallen off of the border wall on a previous attempt, and his legs were already injured. On the mountain, he kept falling on steep boulders and banging his legs up even more. When he realized that he wasn't going to make it all of the way through, he told his brother he was stopping. His brother wanted to stay with him, but Francisco told him to keep moving. The two parted in tears.
"I didn't want to give up," Francisco said in Spanish. "I said, 'I have to get there, I have to get there.' I did everything. I gave it my all."
After he'd finished crying, Francisco went to find
His attempt at getting over the mountain was not completely free. He'd had to pay
He's waiting now with a new smuggler who said he can get into
'Killings every day'
Francisco's motivations for crossing are more layered than Enrique's.
Economics is part of it. His father is undocumented and works as a handyman. His father told him and his brother that they could easily get jobs with him and earn enough to save for a house. Francisco, who has a wife and 2-year-old, hopes that will take the pressure off of his need to find work back home, where long-term jobs that pay enough to make ends meet are difficult to come by.
During the pandemic, he went an entire month without work, he said, and his father had to send him money to help his family.
Francisco is also worried about the violence in his city, and that is the first reason he gave when asked why he wanted to go north.
"Killings, killings every day," he said.
Francisco has seen cartels burn homes near where his family lives, and the increasing violence also makes finding steady work even more difficult, he said.
In addition to officially recognized homicides,
"The murders are just the tip of the iceberg," Meade said.
In recent years, an increasing number of Mexican migrants have sought asylum from the country's violence. But the long-term mentality in
"I'm sure there's a lot of 'Your cousin is here and says now's the time,'" Murphy said. "People are so desperate for hope. Even that little information is enough to move people."
Among those waiting at Casa Del Migrante is
"The truth is if that hadn't happened to me, I would've stayed there," Solis said. "I had two good jobs."
Because they are traveling as a family with their child, the couple have not tried to cross with a smuggler.
Most of the men staying there on a recent night were longtime deportees whose hopes of life in
"Un sueño americano es inalcanzable," said one 51-year-old who was deported 20 years ago. An American dream is unreachable.
Migrants become bait
Maria's American dream was meant to be a temporary one — a few years spent working to save up to pay off her land and finish building a home for her four children.
But what happened on her migrant journey turned her into an asylum seeker, one who was in enough imminent danger to qualify for a special exemption to Title 42 and enter
Now she may never be able to return home.
The single mother admitted she was naive when she set off with a friend to try her luck crossing the border. She thought it would be easy, like she had seen in TV shows and movies.
She worked several jobs before the pandemic, but after COVID-19 emerged, she lost all of them.
"The only thing I want is to work, to take care of my children, to pay for my land and to give my children a better future," she said in Spanish. "That's why I'm here."
But her friend gave up and went home, leaving her alone in the border city. She met a smuggler who took her outside of
Time after time, they failed. Maria began to notice more about the smugglers — their weapons, their drugs. She realized they were narcotraffickers, and that she and the other migrants were merely bait to distract border officials while the drugs crossed.
Perhaps, she thought, that's why the levantón never showed up for them.
"I saw and stayed quiet for my safety," she said.
When the smugglers began to ask her to do favors for them, she found a way to escape.
"I never thought I would've been involved with narcos," she said. "I had no idea."
"They told me they were going to kill me, that they knew where I was, that they would kill my children," she said.
Maria went into hiding until an attorney with
She worries about her children, who call her asking for money for food. If she's not able to send money to continue paying for her land, they will become homeless.
If she wins her asylum case, Maria hopes her children might be able to join her in
This story originally appeared in
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