City of Exiles
Every month, thousands of deportees from the United States and hundreds of asylum-seekers from around the world arrive in Tijuana. Many never leave.
Nicole Ramos, a 38-year-old lawyer from suburban New Jersey, sat nervously petting one of her many cats on a red couch next to the Buddha statue in the Tijuana apartment where she lives alone. Then Ramos’s phone buzzed with a text she’d been expecting all morning. More than 100 Central American and African migrants were passing through downtown Tijuana to a shelter already overcrowded with men and women who had just been deported from the United States.
Ramos and her two partners in a shoestring nonprofit called Al Otro Lado, or To the Other Side, are the only American attorneys based in Tijuana who work pro bono with both asylum-seekers and deportees — people approaching the United States from the south seeking safety and those pushed into Mexico from the north, banished by the U.S. government. Ramos shoved her bulky old laptop into a leather shoulder bag, grabbed her car keys, and stood up to do what she does many days a week for almost no pay.
All over this desert metropolis, in shelters and churches that care for migrants, Ramos provides a service that no Mexican or American government agency or NGO will. She absorbs the worst stories anybody has ever heard, full of rape and severed body parts and murdered children, and then she explains that any migrant who walks up to a U.S. border gate declaring fear of persecution has a legal right to apply for asylum. Ramos cautions that, since Donald Trump was elected president, Customs and Border Protection officers have been systematically denying people that legal right; she encourages everybody who has no prayer of qualifying for asylum to settle in Mexico; she promises the handful who do have a prayer that she will walk to the border gate with them and argue on their behalf; and she makes sure everyone understands that, thanks in large part to one of President Trump’s earliest executive orders, winning that argument with Customs and Border Protection condemns asylum-seekers to months or years in private, for-profit American detention centers.
“Good times,” Ramos said, yanking her leather bag over one shoulder and lifting a heavy cardboard box full of asylum applications off her coffee table. With jet-black hair, Ramos wore black Nikes, black jeans, a red plaid shirt that she hand-washed in a bathroom sink that morning, and a loose black cardigan. She kicked open her front door and stepped into a sunny courtyard. Yellow concrete walls bristled with shiny new razor wire meant to keep out the homeless junkies who live in the abandoned house next door and recently killed her favorite cat.
Ramos sank into the driver’s seat of her scratched and dented 1999 gold Lexus (“a gift from my rich ex-boyfriend’s parents”) and showed me how to use a ballpoint pen to operate the broken passenger-side seatbelt buckle. She asked me not to identify the neighborhood where she lives because many of her clients are being pursued by organized crime or violent domestic partners. She backed onto a dusty boulevard and waved hello to a woman in a jaguar costume juggling torches in traffic while her infant lay on the dirt median. After stopping at a Carl’s Jr. drive-thru for her standard breakfast of Coke, Ramos drove on a crosstown freeway parallel to the border wall, a multilayered collection of steel-and-concrete fences. For long stretches, it looked like nothing so much as a public art project with lushly colored murals of upside-down American flags and bolted-on coffins memorializing people who died trying to reach the other side.
That wall has made Tijuana the U.S. government’s preferred dumping ground for people kicked out of the United States — an estimated 4 million human beings in the past 20 years alone, herded through a steel gate onto the city’s sidewalks. More recently, as the Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of refugees admitted into the United States, Tijuana has also attracted thousands of asylum-seekers for the simple reason that it is one of the few places you can walk up to the U.S. border and plead your case in person. The number of people doing this in Tijuana fell briefly after Trump’s inauguration but has risen in every month since.
Customs and Border Protection is now so overwhelmed and so insufficiently staffed to cope with the volume that Tijuana’s plazas teem with people who have been turned away. Combined with the many thousands of deportees arriving in the city every month, the net effect is the transformation of Tijuana into one of the world’s great cities of exile. Without a single major aid organization providing significant relief, this flood tide of outsiders is pushing Tijuana toward a humanitarian crisis. So many churches and nonprofits have cleared out furniture and laid down mattresses that the number of shelters has jumped from five to 35 in the past year, and a loose network of volunteer activists has sprung up to help.
Ramos and her partners, Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro, play a singular role in that network by offering what might be called Tijuana’s only comprehensive exile service. Holding free legal clinics for deportees and looking for legal ways to reunite them with American families, they try also to soothe the trauma that comes from spending decades in the United States only to get arrested one day, shoved into a van, driven to a concrete wall, and forced through a door into a foreign city — “the psychological equivalent of getting pushed off a skyscraper,” as Phillips puts it. Al Otro Lado has become a first point of contact for the Tijuana shelter workers who take in migrants and the lead plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration — represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Immigration Council — for human rights abuses and violations of U.S. law by federal officers along the southern border.
On the freeway next to the border, Ramos sipped her Coke and, lost in thought, tailgated in the slow lane and hit potholes hard enough to bounce me off the ceiling. To the north, warships floated in the baby-blue San Diego harbor, while, to the south, cinder-block-and-plywood shantytowns covered Tijuana’s dun-colored desert hills and canyons. Ramos turned onto a quiet street of concrete homes, some with rooftop bedrooms made from wrecked cars. She parked in front of a low building with a sign offering Haitian grilled chicken for sale. A large purple mural on the adjacent structure depicted an anatomically correct human heart near lettering that declared the name of the shelter: Movimiento Juventud 2000, or Youth Movement 2000.
Men in soiled clothing sat on the sidewalk with the blank look of existential shock common among the recently deported. A day earlier, at yet another shelter where Ramos has become a fixture, I’d seen that same emptiness in a 53-year-old mechanic named Martin Soto. With salt-and-pepper hair buzzed short and lozenge-shaped black plastic eyeglasses, Soto spoke in softly questioning tones. “All my life I have worked as a mechanic,” he told me. “Sometimes I had my Social Security and everything.” Soto’s mind seemed to search back through the 20-plus years as he described good jobs in Los Angeles dealerships — Lexus, Toyota, VW in Santa Monica. “I come from a close family,” he said. Soto’s mother and father, siblings, adult children — all in California. With regret, he said that he’d nearly become a citizen once. Given all that stability, he seemed to wonder, how could it come to this? Soto thought he knew the answer: a pair of DUIs, expired papers. “It was really quite simple,” Soto said of that moment just a few days earlier. “They held up a picture and said, ‘Is this you?’ Maybe right now I don’t completely realize I’m here. I give a haircut to my son every two weeks. I go to sushi with my daughter. I see my kids every two or three days.”
At Movimiento Juventud 2000, Ramos stepped through a gate in a cinder-block wall. She entered into a courtyard crowded with Haitian families, who had walked and ridden buses from Brazil, and with dozens of Central Americans, who had come north in a caravan led by friends of Ramos in a collective called Pueblo Sin Fronteras. Most of those Central Americans had lost loved ones to organized-crime syndicates in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Four young Honduran transgender women stood together, including one who’d fled after a gang kidnapped her brother. “They sent a box to my mother with pieces of my brother’s body,” she said. “They sent pieces of his ear, fingers, pieces of his skin. They skinned him with a razor — a Gillette razor. They were skinning him alive.”
Three young Guinean men stood in a group, evidently nervous. One had a bandage around his foot from a snake bite suffered in a South American jungle. Another, named Alpha Barry, had quick, friendly eyes and a wide smile and deep scars across his lips. Barry’s front teeth had been shattered. He told me that he was a member of a large ethnic group called the Peul that is scattered across West Africa and currently in conflict with the Malinke and Sousou ethnic groups in Guinea. Barry ran an internet café in Conakry, the Guinean capital, until somebody stole his computers. He reported the loss to police only to have the thieves return and beat him so severely that he spent two months in a coma and emerged with a severe stutter.
Many Guinean asylum-seekers flee across the Mediterranean into Europe. Barry had a cousin in Maryland, so he chose the Western Hemisphere analogue. He flew to Brazil, where Guineans can get tourist visas, then rode buses north. In Colombia, he joined migrants from all over the world — Pakistanis, Eritreans, Nepalis, and Malians — for the 60-mile walk through the Darién Gap, a roadless rainforest that separates Colombia from Panama and harbors jaguars, FARC rebels, and right-wing paramilitaries. Navigating by scraps of cloth tied to trees, they were all bound for Tijuana. Migrants shudder when they speak of this part of the passage; they describe bandits routinely robbing and raping migrants, dead bodies by the trail, and people slipping off cliffs and drowning in rivers. Barry crossed Panama next and then walked across Nicaragua at night to avoid criminal gangs. Once he reached Honduras, he started riding buses north.
None of the migrants at Movimiento Juventud 2000, despite all they had risked to come so far, knew much about approaching the border wall. They fell quiet as Ramos explained that U.S. asylum law recognizes persecution only on the basis of race, nationality, religion, political beliefs, or membership in particular social groups — including certain gender identities and sexual orientations. The Haitians in the crowd looked crestfallen as Ramos said that poverty, no matter how life-threatening, does not count.
Ramos said that Pueblo Sin Fronteras planned to lead a mass march of asylum-seekers to the border gate, part of a new strategy for shaming border officers into obeying the law. All those present were welcome to join, and Ramos would plead their cases to border officers, but she could not promise that anyone would get through. Those who did should expect to yield all personal belongings on the other side. Border officers would allow a single three-minute phone call. Ramos recommended that they write somewhere on their skin the number of a person likely to answer that call. Next would come days of imprisonment without blankets in a frigid room. Then, a so-called “credible fear” interview, the first part of the asylum process. After that, indefinite incarceration while they await various court dates: Families would be separated, parents and children perhaps in different facilities.
An African man, standing nearby, said, “You stay in the camps six months?”
“It’s not a camp. It’s a detention center,” Ramos replied. “They don’t let you leave. I know it’s overwhelming and stressful, and it’s not right, but that’s how the law is there.”
Tijuana occupies such distinctive psychic real estate in the American mind — the original Sin City, drug cartel battleground — that its aura of transgression obscures the sheer immensity of the place. The second-largest city on the West Coast after Los Angeles, Tijuana is now more populous than Seattle and San Francisco combined and nearly equal to New York City in land area, a seemingly infinite sprawl of gated subdivisions, middle-class row houses, shantytowns, condo towers, factories, and gridlocked roundabouts with hundred-foot statues of, among other figures, an Aztec warrior and Abraham Lincoln.
Until the early 1990s, the border was so porous that migrant labor moved relatively easily back and forth; it made sense, in those days, to think of Tijuana as a mostly liminal phenomenon, a kind of binational collaboration defined by the profound economic asymmetry between the United States and Mexico. That ended when President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993, encouraging foreign corporations to enjoy cheap labor near the U.S. market. Clinton followed NAFTA with operations Gatekeeper and Hold the Line, which militarized the border infrastructure into one of the great control points between the affluent and developing worlds — comparable to Israel’s West Bank barrier and Spain’s holdings in Morocco. The age of mass deportations followed, and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama sent so many people into Tijuana that, by some estimates, at least half a million deportees settled there.
That Tijuana, City of Deportees — before the recent influx of asylum-seekers — was the one Ramos found in 2014. Born to Puerto Rican public school teachers in Manhattan and raised in suburban New Jersey, Ramos went to Bryn Mawr College and Temple Law School. After graduation, she worked for six years in Alabama as a federal public defender. “So, like, drug trafficking, kidnappings, sex offenders failing to register,” she says. “Postal people who steal the mail or go crazy and stop delivering it. I also did death penalty litigation, but some of my clients had narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies, and it was too easy for them to make me feel bad for them, which isn’t healthy. I have friends who are really great death penalty litigators. They are really cerebral, but that’s just not me. I’m not a legal genius. I just had certain skill sets.” Ramos started handling immigration cases but then walked away from her career as a criminal defense attorney to live with a boyfriend in Tijuana. To make ends meet, Ramos rented a tiny storefront office next to a laundromat, eventually hired a large male secretary/bodyguard, and represented people recently deported from the United States and hoping to gain legal re-entry.
In late 2015, Ramos volunteered at an older Tijuana shelter called Casa del Migrante, a large white concrete building in a hilltop neighborhood not far from the border. Established in 1987 to serve migrant workers who passed back and forth from the United States in the days of the porous border, Casa del Migrante began catering more to deportees after Operation Gatekeeper and stepped-up removals under Presidents Bush and Obama. There, Ramos met a Salvadoran single father with three children. They were all fleeing a transnational gang and wished to apply for U.S. asylum. The father told Ramos that border officers were not accepting applications at the gate. Ramos said this could not possibly be true. After World War II, when it emerged that the United States and other Western nations had refused entry to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and sent them home to die, the United States signed international treaties guaranteeing the rights of the persecuted to seek asylum. Now enshrined in federal law, those treaties stipulate that any foreign national appearing at our borders and expressing fear of violence at home must be granted an interview with a trained asylum officer. Customs and Border Protection officers have zero statutory authority in the matter.
“I remember telling this Salvadoran guy,” Ramos says, “ ‘What do you mean they won’t take you? They absolutely will.’ And he said, ‘No, really. They won’t.’ ” Ramos went to the gate alone for a look. She reread the law. Ramos drove this father and his children to the wall, parked, and took them to the port of entry. A remarkably intimidating proposition, this involves walking up concrete ramps past Mexican soldiers with assault rifles, then down a quarter-mile-long pedestrian bridge enclosed in steel mesh and patrolled by private security contractors with handguns. At the far end, the steel gate to America is guarded by heavily armed border officers with a legitimate fear of terrorism and no patience for questions.
“I told the officer they wanted to apply for asylum,” Ramos says. “The officer was incredulous. He said they had to go to the embassy. I said, ‘That’s not true.’ He asks if I’m an attorney. I say, ‘Yes.’ He says, ‘Mexican or American?’ I say, ‘American.’ He asks for proof, so I show him my card. He’s like, ‘OK, you can go in.’ ” Ramos found this infuriating. Where in the law does it say you need a lawyer to request asylum? What about all those people who don’t have one? Soon after, she did the same for a pregnant Honduran fleeing a man whom Ramos describes as “a psycho ex-partner who paid someone to push her into traffic.” Ramos’s mobile phone number was soon being circulated on the migrant trail north, and she acquired a reputation, in her words, as “that crazy lady in T.J. who helps people.”
In the summer of 2016, a wave of migrants from outside Latin America began arriving in Tijuana. The collapsing Brazilian economy was one reason, as thousands of Haitian-born workers there fled north. The escalating global refugee crisis also contributed, as ports of entry across the U.S. southern border reported 150 percent increase in asylum applicants over the previous year, including 2,788 Indians, 1,717 Chinese, 1,672 Romanians, 518 Bangladeshis, 531 Nepalis, 583 Ghanaians, 408 Cameroonians, 293 Eritreans, 158 Guineans, and many others.
“Everyone was coming to the front door from everywhere in the world,” says Father Patrick Murphy, the Catholic priest who runs Casa del Migrante. “From May 2016 until January 2017, we had 2,000 refugees from 32 different countries. You had to pull out Google translator and figure stuff out.”
Customs and Border Protection infrastructure and staffing in Tijuana were so inadequate for the demand that Mexican authorities asked the United States government to build more temporary holding pens, and border officers told asylum-seekers to ask Mexican authorities for tickets granting appointment dates with U.S. authorities. That created a Catch-22 when Mexican authorities gave tickets only to Haitians and U.S. authorities stopped admitting Haitians altogether. This struck Ramos as nonsensical and bewildering, especially when she presented a lone 7-year-old child at the gate and agents insisted that even unaccompanied children were supposed to get themselves tickets. Some of President Trump’s earliest executive orders further emboldened border officers to turn away asylum-seekers. Ramos and other attorneys from California to Texas claim to have observed border officers spreading falsehoods that Trump has ended all asylum, or that Mexicans and Muslims are no longer eligible, or that migrants can be flown back to whatever country they are fleeing. (Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.)
Ramos found herself in arguments with federal agents as she demanded they obey the law. She says officers responded by telling her clients, “You know, like, ‘She’s not really an attorney. She’s a fraud. What is she charging you?’ Psycho stuff. I’ve had supervisors say to me, ‘I know who you are, and I know what you’re doing.’ They think I’m coaching people to lie.”
Ramos posted a series of Facebook videos about these encounters and filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. In addition, the American Immigration Council filed a larger complaint that documented numerous instances of migrant families being denied at ports of entry, crossing illegally into the United States, getting arrested, and then appearing before immigration judges who found them to be perfectly plausible candidates for asylum. Grassroots activists, at about the same time, surreptitiously recorded border officers lying to asylum-seekers in precisely the way Ramos described.
Two Southern California nonprofits sent lawyers to accompany Ramos on a trip to the border. “That was a bad month, and I don’t think I was brushing my hair,” Ramos says, “but all these attorneys were dressed like real attorneys, and the officers behaved so differently. They were like, ‘Oh, come into our asylum lounge! Can I offer you a refreshment?’ I was like, ‘You know what? I may look a little insane right now, but you’re not going to break me.’ ”
Judy London of Public Counsel, the largest pro bono immigration law firm in the United States, was concerned the opposite might be true. “We are worried about Nicole,” London told me early last year, before Ramos joined Al Otro Lado. “She’s been threatened with arrest. It’s incredibly important work, and she’s absolutely helping people, but it’s impossible for one person to do alone.”
“Those are deportees right there, walking out,” said Ramos from behind the wheel of her Lexus. She was parked at a curb below a freeway overpass, looking at the same steel-enclosed pedestrian bridge that she walks with asylum-seekers bound for the U.S. port of entry. On the concrete ramp that zigzags down into a barren Tijuana plaza, half a dozen people — among the several hundred deported there every day — moved tentatively. “You can tell by their gray sweatpant uniforms,” Ramos said. “When you see them up closer, they look so lost, like it’s not reality. A lot of times they don’t know anybody here. They just get pushed into this carnivalesque, Alice in Wonderland, dropped-acid kind of city. It’s so terrifying.”
Compounding deportees’ fears are things many hear about Tijuana before they arrive: Drug cartels hang headless bodies from overpasses; local police target deportees for bribes; kidnappers pose as coyotes offering discount trips back into the United States and then imprison clients and cut off body parts to mail with ransom notes. All of that does happen, and competition between drug cartels drove Tijuana’s murder rate to an all-time high in 2017 with 1,744 homicides — making it one of the world’s ten most violent cities. The reputation of Tijuana’s taxi drivers adds to the fear. They have been known to approach deportees, offer rides to safety, and then charge exorbitant fees. Hoping to stop this exploitation, a friend of Ramos’s started greeting deportees at the wall, providing free transit to shelters; he was later found beaten nearly to death.
Still, the more universal experience among deportees is the crippling ache to go home and the way that ache can destroy a life. All deportees who walk toward downtown get an early warning when they cross a footbridge over the vast concrete causeway of the Tijuana River, dry except for a central trough flowing constantly with sewage. So many drug-addicted deportees live in the caves and flood tunnels of that causeway that “winding up in the river” is deportee shorthand for snapping under the emotional strain of banishment.
Ramos’s partners, Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro, both started working with migrants and deportees in Southern California but soon realized that the need was even greater in Tijuana, where many of their clients were ending up. Phillips consulted with the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the Federal Public Defender on so-called U visas available to undocumented immigrants who are victims of certain crimes in the United States who help law enforcement. Pinheiro built free legal-information programs for detainees, who do not have guaranteed access to lawyers and rarely speak to one before deportation. Both saw deportation destroy families and knew that Tijuana was filled with mothers and fathers unaware they might have legal avenues for return.
Phillips met Ramos while holding a free legal clinic at Casa del Migrante, trying to connect deportees with pro bono representation in the United States. “I even remember the dress Nicole was wearing,” Phillips says. “It was this black-and-white situation, and she had these enormous eyes. I was like, ‘Hey there, cosmic border sister.’ ” Phillips asked Ramos who on earth she was and what she was doing in Tijuana. The three women decided to join forces.
“Basically, that means we’re unemployed,” Ramos told me, as she drove her Lexus away from the border gate. “I mean, we’re employed. We’re just not … salaried. Erika’s applying for grants, and she thinks they’ll be able to pay me soon. I’m like, ‘How about a sandwich?’ ”
In the year since Ramos began working with Phillips and Pinheiro, ICE arrests in the United States have risen more than 30 percent and included many people without criminal records. Al Otro Lado has continued to hold free legal clinics staffed by volunteer American lawyers who cross the border for a day. They have aided several deportees in applying for U visas and done a lot of what Pinheiro calls “legal triage.” For deportees who have U.S.-citizen kids north of the border, this means filling out paperwork to get passports for those kids so they can visit. Pinheiro has even found deportees who turned out to be American citizens but either didn’t know it or couldn’t prove it in time to halt deportation. They have also made a mission of talking desperately homesick people out of attempting illegal re-entry because of risks that include kidnapping, sexual assault, death in the Sonoran Desert, and long prison sentences followed by lifetime bans from the United States.
“It’s these constant conversations,” says Ramos, “of a guy saying, ‘What if I turn myself in for asylum?’ I’m like, ‘That’s not going to work.’ ‘OK, I heard if I pay this much, they can get you across?’ Then I’ll say, ‘That’s a crime.’ ‘OK, but I got to get back.’ So it’s talking people down from the ledge: ‘There is a wall. It’s huge. There is a desert. Organized crime controls that desert. And there is a Border Patrol.’ ”
For all these reasons, Martin Soto, the Los Angeles mechanic, willed himself into facing Tijuana. The day after he arrived, he told me, “I spent four hours walking, to try not to feel scared. I went into the markets, I talked to the people. It’s not good to be here. I want to get out of here. It’s not like I like it. But I’ve changed my trip, like, ‘OK, now I’m here. You have to go outside and find your way. Tell yourself you have nothing there. You. Are. Here.’ ”
Soto knew that his mind would stabilize if he had work, so he looked for a job — of which there are plenty. Tijuana’s unemployment rate is only 2 percent, and more than 500 factories (BMW, Dell, Airbus) employ 250,000 workers. Anyone with decent English can walk into employment at one of 50 call centers that employ 8,000 deportees. The pay hurts — $1 or $2 an hour in a city where a small apartment rents for $200 a month. But it’s enough to get by, as Soto found when he landed work at a VW repair shop. Changing the brake pads on a Passat one day, he told me it was not easy to wake up and remember that he was in Mexico. “At the same time, you can jump in the river, but that’s not healthy,” he said.
Other deportees find it near impossible to accept Tijuana as home. José Mares, a tire-shop salesman from Lancaster, California, came into the United States at 2 and raised his now-20-year-old daughter alone. Earlier this year, Mares took her to McDonald’s for breakfast, then to a store where she worked. He drove to his own workplace. As he stepped out of his car, ICE agents handcuffed him. Six hours later, Mares stood on a Tijuana sidewalk. He lived for months in a cheap hotel, missing his daughter. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he climbed the Tijuana border fence. Border agents caught him almost instantly and redeported him. Mares tried a second time with the same outcome.
At an Al Otro Lado legal clinic, Mares learned that his daughter might someday be able to petition for his return. Pinheiro offered Mares a job at the office, where he now lives and works as a translator. Every day, Mares accompanies volunteer doctors who go into the river causeway to treat the open wounds of deportee addicts, and he approaches the most recent deportees on the street to offer hygiene kits with deodorant and razors and invitations to the office. “My daughter was here a couple weeks ago,” he told me. “She’s doing OK. I’m not going to say she’s doing great.”
RAMOs’S FRIENDS in Pueblo Sin Fronteras planned to have their Central American migrants as well as the Africans from Casa del Migrante rally first at a place called Friendship Park, where the border fence runs across the beach into the Pacific Ocean. Families divided by the border gather from both sides to see loved ones and whisper through steel mesh. The organizers hoped to use the spirit of the place to inspire the migrants as Ramos offered final advice about asking for asylum. Then everyone would drive closer to the gate, park, and march to the port of entry. Ramos would tell officers that every single person in the crowd was afraid of persecution. Every asylum-seeker would carry a Notice of Representation listing Ramos or another volunteer lawyer as his attorney of record. This would allow Al Otro Lado to visit them in detention, document their treatment by Customs and Border Protection, and represent everyone in immigration hearings.
By presenting so many asylum-seekers at once, with so many lawyers and observers, Ramos hoped to compel border officers to follow procedure and also to take pressure off herself. “I really wish we could just do these things as breakdance battles,” she said as she drove through light rain. “Like, first we bust all our moves, then they try to beat us, and if we win everybody gets asylum.”
Ramos reached Friendship Park just as that light rain turned into a downpour. She hung on for a while with a small crowd of volunteer human rights observers in town to support the caravan. Then, as wind blew the rain sideways, she used her mobile phone to call in a favor from the anarchists’ collective Food Not Bombs. They offered to host that morning’s rally at their soup kitchen and dormitory in Tijuana’s Zona de Tolerancia, the largest legal red-light district in North America. So Ramos contacted Casa del Migrante, where the Africans were staying. Then she contacted the leaders of that caravan of Central Americans.
Crossing Tijuana yet again, Ramos stopped for french fries at McDonald’s. She parked near the Tijuana Wax Museum, where you can see likenesses of Barack Obama, Mother Theresa, and an ancient Mayan priest ripping the bloody heart out of a sacrificial human victim. Then she walked past strip joints empty in the cold rain, with mariachi musicians and sex workers huddling under awnings. At Food Not Bombs, Ramos found Alpha Barry, the young Guinean man who was politely asking if anyone knew about asylum in Canada. Those four Honduran transgender women announced that they wished to apply for asylum in Mexico, instead of the United States, because it sounded safer — a choice consistent with a 150 percent increase in applications for Mexican asylum during the first three months of the Trump administration.
A volunteer handed out T-shirts donated by a local group of deported U.S. military veterans. The shirts were black with white lettering that said United Deported Veterans and Refugee Caravan 2017. The Central Americans pulled the T-shirts over their jackets and followed Ramos into the rain. Forming a column, they passed discount plastic surgery clinics, then climbed stairs onto a bridge over the Tijuana River. The brown water ran so high that homeless deportees sat in the rain on the banks. Beyond the bridge, Ramos and the crowd entered the plaza where deportees emerge.
To reach the port of entry, Ramos and the marchers started up the initial concrete ramps. Tijuana police officers videotaped their faces. The crowd passed Mexican soldiers, then entered that quarter-mile-long steel-enclosed pedestrian bridge spanning the international boundary. Halfway through, they passed the private security contractors. At the end, a narrower concrete ramp spiraled downward, forcing everyone into a slow and shuffling single file.
The door to America was a steel mesh gate about the size of an average household entry. Just inside, federal agents in body armor waited. As if tipped off to Ramos’s approach, they did not ask anyone to claim fear of persecution. They stepped aside and invited everyone to walk into U.S. territory and thereby enter the asylum system — the uniforms, three-minute phone calls, credible fear interviews.
One of the Central Americans, a Salvadoran mother with her husband and two teenage children, began to sob. An organized-crime syndicate had murdered her eldest son and raped the teenage daughter standing beside her. There was no going home — they would all be killed — and there was no staying in Mexico, given that same gang’s Mexican operations. Still, the future was terrifying. She and her husband would be held in separate detention centers and, if one were granted asylum and the other denied, quite possibly never see each other again. Her children might wind up in a third detention center. Ramos lunged to hug the woman closely, stepped back, and, weeping herself, watched the family pass through the gate into a concrete yard lined with border officers and through a doorway into a blank-walled federal building. When the last of the asylum-seekers had gone, Ramos walked out alone, back the way she came.