A group of migrants from Colombia wait by make-shift shelters in the Jacumba wilderness, May 13, 2023. Hundreds have been waiting in the area for days to be processed by immigration authorities with little food or water. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A makeshift migrant encampment in the Jacumba wilderness is reported to be completely cleared out after an estimated 700 men, women and children gathered for days without food, water or shelter, according to humanitarian aid groups on the ground. 

But Border Patrol agents and private security guards are blocking access to the encampment site, and it’s unclear whether any migrants remain there or if more have arrived since the camp was reportedly cleared, according to Karla, an aid worker with Border Kindness who was in Jacumba Tuesday morning. inewsource agreed to identify Karla by first name only because she fears retaliation from immigration authorities. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple requests for comment by time of publication.  

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.

Between 300 to 400 migrants who remained at the remote site Monday afternoon were cleared out by that evening, according to Vino Pajanor, CEO of Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, which operates several migrant shelters in San Diego and Imperial counties. 

At least two additional smaller migrant encampments in the Jacumba area were also cleared. Nearby residents who organized supply drives for the migrants asked Catholic Charities to pick up the remaining supplies, Pajanor said.

Aid workers say they remain ready to respond if more migrants arrive in the area in need of support. 

After inewsource reported on the encampment Friday, immigration officials increased staffing at the encampment site and processing of the migrants there, according to Pajanor.  

In the wake of the long-anticipated end of Title 42, a COVID-19 pandemic-era policy that allowed immigration officials to swiftly turn back migrants seeking asylum at the border, authorities saw a processing backlog. Newly arrived migrants had to wait for days with little more than the clothes they arrived in. 

A man from Afghanistan cleans shoes outside of a shelter he is sharing with other migrants, May 13, 2023. Hundreds have been waiting in the area for days to be processed by immigration authorities with little food or water. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

It’s unclear what immigration consequences migrants at the Jacumba encampment could face with the end of Title 42.

One man who spoke to inewsource from the Jacumba encampment on Saturday said he and his family had been processed by immigration authorities and dropped off at a hotel to await transportation to their sponsors in Florida. 

But the Biden administration announced “tougher consequences” for migrants who enter the U.S. outside of the new legal pathways included in the president’s new asylum rules which began 9 p.m. Thursday. Those who enter the U.S. illegally could face a minimum five-year re-entry ban or criminal prosecution.

Migrants who enter the U.S. illegally after Thursday to seek asylum are generally assumed ineligible unless they are pre-approved by immigration authorities, have an appointment through CBP’s new scheduling app, or can prove that they sought asylum in another country on their way to the U.S. and were denied. That app, however, is reported to be riddled with issues as users say they have regularly encountered error messages and performance problems.

Experts predicted large increases in migrant arrivals at the border following the end of Title 42, but so far arrivals have been 50% lower than in the days leading up to the end of the policy, according to the Biden administration. 

What started on Tuesday as a group of migrants stranded in the Jacumba desert after crossing into the U.S. through a gap in the border fence swelled into a sprawling encampment by Friday. 

Hundreds of migrants — including babies, small children and at least one pregnant woman — built shelter from branches, shrubs and debris to escape the 90-degree heat during the day. They built fires at night to keep warm after temperatures dropped by 30 degrees or more. 

The migrants said they received little water or food from Border Patrol agents, who stationed several vehicles in the area and worked to manage emergencies and safety threats. 

Border Kindness’ humanitarian aid water drop program, co-led by James Cordero, made several supply drops to the encampment between Thursday and Monday. 

Saturday was particularly challenging, Cordero said.

Migrants wait in line to receive food, water and other supplies from local volunteers and aid groups in the Jacumba wilderness. Many have been waiting to be processed by immigration authorities for days with little food or water, May 13, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“There was a little bit of a frenzy because people were getting really overheated and we were trying to get them water quick enough,” he said. “There (were) people that were out in the hills that were passed out and unconscious.”

Cordero, who makes frequent trips to the remote desert, mountainous regions of San Diego and Imperial counties to leave supplies for migrants, said the Jacumba encampment was a health crisis mostly “averted.” 

Had the heat been higher this time of year like in previous years, he said, the effects could have been worse.  

“There could have been a lot more danger,” he said. “People cannot live in those types of environments outside for that many days.”

Several other aid groups — including Catholic Charities, Border Angels and Universidad Popular — donated supplies and medical services to the migrants at the encampment. Jacumba residents also organized supply drives near the Jacumba Hot Springs Hotel.  

As one aid group’s caravan arrived at the site Saturday, hundreds lined up in the heat. One woman from Colombia said she hadn’t eaten anything since the day before. Another woman fainted while in line. Aid workers brought her into the shade under a truck and Border Patrol agents drove her to an ambulance waiting down a paved road. 

As resources reached migrants, the mood in the encampment lightened from desperation to some relief. 

A group of migrants from Colombia wait by make-shift shelters in the Jacumba wilderness. Hundreds have been waiting in the area for days to be processed by immigration authorities with little food or water, May 13, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Balkan Abaci, a Turkish father who has been living in the U.S. on and off since 1997, cried as he hugged his 22-year-old daughter for the first time in a year.  

He had just reunited with her and his son, 18, at the encampment after they crossed into the U.S. through the Jacumba desert. When their phones died and Abaci lost contact with them, he flew from the East Coast to find them. Jacumba residents helped him locate his kids. 

The family “lost everything” in the earthquake in Turkey in February, Abaci said. He tried to apply for a visa for his children but was told the wait would be two years. There was nowhere in Turkey for his children to stay, so they decided to travel to the U.S. border to seek asylum here. 

“That’s why we choose this way, but there’s so many people,” he said. “And we are not gonna break any rules. They will wait. Whatever is the process (that needs) to be done, they will follow.”

Type of Content

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

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...

Zoë Meyers is a photo and video journalist at inewsource. Zoë loves working as a visual journalist because it gives her the privilege of witnessing moments in people's personal lives and in our community that can enhance our understanding of important stories. When she's not behind the camera, Zoë...