In early April, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Border Patrol agents had been keeping migrants out in the open, in the area between two layers of border wall, for days.
The agency was using the space as an open-air holding cell for extended periods of time since at least October of 2022, as media reports from Tijuana’s El Imparcial documented. The initial Union-Tribune investigation reported roughly 150 people held between the walls for up to 5 days, with agents providing them nothing to eat and very little water.
In the days leading up to the May 11, 2023 end of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, the area became a focus of media attention, as reports indicated about 1,000 migrants “stuck” between the wall layers for days before Border Patrol would process them, in the meantime relying on volunteers on the other side of the fence for basic needs.
The initial San Diego Union Tribune reports described the scene:
When a gate opened in the wall further into the United States, many of the migrants tried to walk or run out of the area. Border Patrol agents on ATVs and in cars quickly appeared and directed the group back inside the enclosure. That indicated that the migrants were not free to leave and thus in custody of the agents.
The group told the Union-Tribune that they’d been instructed to wait there to be processed by agents. The more than a dozen people interviewed by the Union-Tribune said they had crossed into the United States to seek asylum.
On May 13, the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) filed a complaint with DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties alleging that CBP “is detaining migrants in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions in an open-air corridor in California.” The complaint added, “CBP agents have only given migrants one small bottle of water a day and one granola bar, far from adequate to endure, leading migrants to eat leaves to survive.” SBCC noted that “CBP has provided only one port-a-potty for hundreds of people, which filled up weeks ago and is unusable.” A vast majority of migrants agreed with the statement, “If I did not receive food and water from volunteers, I would not get enough food and water from Border Patrol to survive.”
People from at least 15 countries, including more than a few children, spent as many as 7 days, according to SBCC, out in the open air between the wall layers, fashioning shelters from bits of plastic. Some used their mobile phones—charged with the help of volunteers on the other side of the fence—to order food deliveries from Tijuana restaurants.
The individuals in question had not made contact with U.S. Border Patrol personnel and were not constrained from further movement…At the time of this incident, the USBP San Diego Sector facilities were experiencing capacity issues and some transportation challenges which have since been remediated. Border Patrol Agents encountered and apprehended the migrants as soon as it was operationally feasible to do so.
Representative Robert Garcia (D-California) responded:
To say that it’s not happening or that they’re not aware of the incident I think is not acceptable…There are human beings here who need help and assistance. This idea that they can’t fess up to something that’s really an issue and really happening is very concerning. I hope that the department isn’t lying to us in Congress with these claims.
Rep. Garcia affirmed he was moving to launch an investigation through his work on the Homeland Security Committee.
In September 2023, as migration began increasing again to levels last seen in April, Border Patrol began to hold migrants in between the border wall layers again. Border Patrol was sending around 50 migrants at a time on buses to be processed, which was “a faster circulation of people than what we saw back in May,” Pedro Rios of AFSC told San Diego’s local CBS affiliate.
September reports indicate that the wait for processing was 24 to 36 hours. Border Patrol agents were handing out water bottles, cheese, and crackers. Volunteers provided all other supplies, from blankets to diapers to phone charging equipment, through the slats of the border wall.
As of late September 2023, migrants continued to await processing out in the open in an encampment between layers of the double border wall between San Diego and Tijuana. “An official familiar with the situation” told the Los Angeles Times, in a story published on September 16, “that the number of people between the walls is growing faster than agents can move them out.”
— Cuéllar, Mireya. “Trasladan a Los Retenidos Entre Los Dos Muros de La Línea Tijuana-San Diego.” La Jornada, May 15, 2023. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2023/05/15/politica/004n1pol.
— Garcia, Robert, Juan Vargas, and Delia C. Ramirez. “Letter to Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz,” May 5, 2023. https://ramirez.house.gov/sites/evo-subsites/ramirez.house.gov/files/evo-media-document/2023-05-05_letter-border-outdoor-detention-.pdf.
— Hernandez, David. “Open-Air Holding Areas at the Border Cleared as Processing of Migrants Ramps Up.” The San Diego Union Tribune, May 14, 2023. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/story/2023-05-14/open-air-holding-areas-at-the-border-cleared-as-processing-of-migrants-ramps-up.
— Karlamangla, Soumya. “Visiting the Migrant Camp at the San Diego-Tijuana Border.” The New York Times, May 15, 2023, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/15/us/migrants-title-42-san-diego-tijuana.html.
— Morrissey, Kate. “Border Patrol Leaves Migrants Stranded in San Diego as Shelters Reach Capacity.” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2023. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-09-16/border-patrol-leaves-migrants-stranded-in-san-diego-as-shelters-reach-capacity.
— Morrissey, Kate. “In Letter to Congressmembers, CBP Denies Holding Migrants in Custody between Border Fences in San Diego.” San Diego Union-Tribune, July 12, 2023. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/story/2023-07-12/letter-congressmembers-cbp-migrants-between-border-fences-san-diego.
— Morrissey, Kate. “Migrants Say Border Patrol Is Keeping Them between the Border Walls for Days without Food or Shelter.” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 13, 2023. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/story/2023-04-13/migrants-say-border-patrol-is-keeping-them-between-the-border-walls-for-days-without-food-or-shelter.
— Reyes, Khennia. “Cumplen migrantes tres días detenidos en el muro de Estados Unidos.” Noticias de Tijuana | EL IMPARCIAL, October 17, 2022. https://www.elimparcial.com/tijuana/tijuana/Cumplen-migrantes-tres-dias-detenidos-en-el-muro-de-Estados-Unidos-20221016-0023.html.
— Southern Border Communities Coalition. “BREAKING: Border Advocates File Complaint Alleging CBP Has Violated Custody Standards, Putting Lives at Risk in the California Corridor Between Border Walls,” May 13, 2023. https://www.southernborder.org/border_advocates_file_complaint_alleging_cbp_has_violated_custody_standards_putting_lives_at_risk_in_the_california_corridor_between_border_walls.
— Southern Border Communities Coalition. “BREAKING: Migrants in CBP Custody Speak About Their Conditions in Open-Air Detention Sites in California in a New Report by U.S. Immigration Policy Center,” May 15, 2023. https://www.southernborder.org/migrants_in_cbp_custody_speak_about_their_conditions_in_open_air_detention_sites_in_california_in_a_new_report_by_us_immigration_policy_center.