Migrants gather to receive donated food and water in the Jacumba Wilderness, May 12, 2023. Hundreds have been in the area for days with little food and water and no shelter while waiting to be processed by Customs and Border Patrol. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Cities like San Diego and El Paso have been under close watch as Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that turned away millions of migrants, ended Thursday. But in a less visible part of San Diego County, the change has brought about a humanitarian crisis.

As many as 700 migrants are seeking shelter in a remote stretch of desert near Jacumba Hot Springs in East County, about half a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, where the border wall stops and mountains begin.

Why This Matters

Communities across the U.S.-Mexico border, including in San Diego County, are bracing to see whether the recent end of a pandemic-era migrant expulsion law leads to a surge in immigration, impacting local resources.

On Friday, men, women and children — some sick, most without food and water — waited to be processed by immigration authorities. They came from countries in Central and South America, and other parts of the world. Many reported being there for two or three days.

One Turkish migrant who is seeking asylum told inewsource that his 5-year-old son became sick from the chilly overnight temperatures. He needs food for his son, who hadn’t eaten more than a cracker since Thursday morning.

“He wants to clean his nose but we haven’t got anything. I took my t-shirt and cut it and cleaned him. It’s very hard,” he said.

To escape the desert sun, they’ve strung together sticks, shrubs and other debris to create shelter in the rocky hills. Piles of ash across the encampment mark where migrants huddled over fires to keep warm as temperatures, in the 80s by day, plummeted into the 50s overnight.

A group of migrants from Brazil rest under the shade of a makeshift shelter in the Jacumba Wilderness on May 12, 2023. Hundreds have been in the area for days with little food and water and no shelter while waiting to be processed by Customs and Border Patrol. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Border Patrol agents at the Jacumba encampment appeared to be focused on managing the situation. They issued wristbands to newcomers and responded to emergencies as they arose. There was no physical perimeter keeping migrants in the area.

The wristbands indicated the migrant’s arrival date, which would be used to prioritize those who had been there longest for immigration processing at another location. But it was unclear when migrants would be able to leave.

One family said they have been waiting in the desert for three days. One woman walked across the border, navigating the rough terrain, while five months pregnant. Her partner said he asked Border Patrol to call an ambulance after she started experiencing contractions, but one never came.

As of Friday evening, a spokesperson with U.S. Customs and Border Protection had not responded to questions about the situation in Jacumba, which has developed with Thursday’s end of Title 42.

The policy was first implemented by the Trump administration at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent spread of the virus and allowed immigration officials to expel migrants from the United States border without assessing their claim to asylum. It’s been used to expel migrants more than 2.4 million times. 

Critics say the policy has driven repeated crossing attempts, as well as deaths among those who try to climb the border wall, cross through the open desert along the border or sail up the coast in their attempt to enter the U.S.

Immigration experts predicted a surge of attempts to cross the border after the policy expired Thursday night. But federal authorities said they had not seen any major increases in immigration at ports of entry as a result.

Two friends, both 22, from Colombia wait to be processed by Customs and Border Patrol in the Jacumba Wilderness on May 12, 2023. Hundreds of migrants were waiting in the area on Friday, many had had little food or water for days. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

At the Jacumba encampment, migrants frequently asked agents for food and water, or when they would be leaving to another location. But Border Patrol agents mostly lacked the resources migrants needed, one agent who was not authorized to speak to the media told inewsource.

Agents responded to some emergencies midday Friday. A handful of them tried unsuccessfully to remove a rattlesnake from one family’s makeshift shelter. 

Others helped a woman who fainted in the heat, bringing her into an air-conditioned patrol SUV. Several other agents and local authorities put out a fire migrants started that got too large.  

Few aid groups had made it to the site by Friday afternoon. Border Angels, a nonprofit humanitarian group based in San Diego, dropped off water that day, and more groups, including Universidad Popular and Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, said they were on the way by late Friday afternoon. The remote location is accessible only by dirt road, and mainly by vehicles with four-wheel drive, which has strained access to resources.

U.S. Border Patrol agents move a woman into an air conditioned truck after she fainted in the Jacumba Wilderness on May 12, 2023. Hundreds have been in the area for days with little food and water and no shelter while waiting to be processed by Customs and Border Patrol. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Meanwhile in San Diego, shelters for migrants processed by immigration authorities had not yet reached capacity, according to Vino Pajanor, the director of Catholic Charities Diocese, which runs the shelters.

“We are managing right now, but that could change very quickly,” Pajanor said, who was on the way to deliver supplies to the Jacumba encampment. 

Currently, most migrants stay in shelters for only one day before they are transported to their sponsors, friends or family who receive them, across the U.S., Pajanor said. 

A spokesperson for San Diego County said officials are working closely with the state and federal governments, as well as local agencies, to help provide humanitarian support to asylum seekers. That includes coordinating with various aid groups to connect people to services they need after they are released from federal custody.

A group of men from Peru wait to be processed by Customs and Border Patrol in the Jacumba Wilderness on May 12, 2023. Hundreds have been in the area for days with little food and water and no shelter. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

County medical authorities are also working with state and federal officials to monitor capacity for health screenings and emergency response.

It’s unclear how long people will have to wait at the encampment before processing. Migrants held by immigration authorities at other locations on the border have waited up to a week in some cases.

“This is inhumane,” one migrant woman said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

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Sofía Mejías-PascoeINVESTIGATIVE REPORTER – BORDER AND IMMIGRATION

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...

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Cody DulaneyInvestigative Reporter – Social Impact and Government Accountability

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official,...