Border Patrol vans arrive to an area in the desert near Boulevard which has become a waiting location for migrants crossing into the United States, Sept. 17, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why This Matters

San Diego County continues to see impact from the collision of a new asylum rule, global migration patterns and the limited capacity of federal agencies to process migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Hundreds of migrants were stranded Sunday in the southeast San Diego County desert with few resources as they waited to be processed by federal immigration authorities.

The migrants crossed into the U.S. through a gap in the border barrier near Jacumba. An increase in migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border has caused backlogs in U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, processing, agency officials have said. 

Men, women and children from around the world – including Colombia, Peru, Turkey, Russia, China, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala and India – huddled under the brush for shade in the day and around campfires at night. They gathered in three areas in the Jacumba wilderness and near Boulevard.

A spokesperson for CBP did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. 

Migrants gather by fires while waiting to be processed by immigration authorities in the desert near Boulevard, Sept. 17, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

However, a Border Patrol agent on scene said the makeshift encampments formed in the area about a week ago because immigration processing centers lack the bed space for them. inewsource agreed not to name the agent, who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. Similar encampments formed in May right before the roll back of Title 42. 

The Jacumba migrant encampments appear to be just one symptom of the latest immigration processing backlog. 

According to media reports, officials are also once again detaining migrants between the two border walls while they wait to be processed. Groups of migrants who have been processed are in some cases being dropped off at transit centers around San Diego, sending aid organizations scrambling to help them. 

Last week, CBP closed the pedestrian crossing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to divert staffing toward processing migrants. 

The increase of arrivals in May which led to similar consequences in border cities including San Diego was tied to the end of Title 42. 

This time, though, the increase in migrant arrivals is driven by three distinct factors, according to Ariel Ruiz Soto, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration research group: 

First, an increase in migrants traveling north from South America through the Darién Gap with eyes set on the U.S. Increases in migrant travel through this perilous migration route bridging South and Central America usually predicts increased arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border weeks later. 

A mother and daughter from Brazil collect branches for a fire while waiting to be processed by immigration authorities in the desert near Boulevard, Sept. 17, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Second, an increase in internal displacement within Mexico that has driven families toward the southern border.

Finally, migrants who were waiting in Mexico since the end of Title 42 are now moving toward the border, Ruiz Soto said. When Title 42 rolled back and Biden’s new asylum policy began, some migrants waited to enter the U.S. until the outcomes of the new rules became clear. 

“Every time we see an increase in migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border that surpasses the capacity of Border patrol, we are bound to see, unfortunately, more of these types of outcomes for migrants and for the communities that are receiving them.” 

Under Biden’s new asylum rule, migrants who cross between legal ports of entry or who do not use pathways provided by the Biden administration are generally ineligible for asylum. There are some exceptions. 

The policy has faced legal challenges but remains in place for now

Ruiz Soto said the current increase in migrant arrivals could last through October. 

A group of migrants from Brazil prepares a fire while waiting to be processed by immigration authorities in the desert near Boulevard, Sept. 17, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

By Sunday afternoon, Border Patrol agents counted nearly 200 migrants waiting at one encampment that formed near a gap in the border wall. 

Two other sites in Jacumba ebbed between 120 and 300 migrants at times over the week, according to James Cordero of Border Kindness, a humanitarian aid group that has been providing supplies for stranded migrants. 

Jacqueline Arellano, another leader at Border Kindness, said her team has been working around the clock to bring food, water and shelter supplies to migrants in the desert. They’re providing at least two meals to migrants there per day. 

“The general feeling was confusion and growing desperation,” said Arrellano. “People had no orientation as to where they were or what to expect.” 

A family from Colombia rests in the shade of a tarp while waiting to be processed by Border Patrol in the desert near Boulevard, Sept. 17, 2023. They crossed into the United States the previous evening. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Many migrants who spoke to inewsource said they had arrived early Sunday morning or the night before. Two Border Patrol agents managing the encampment sent migrants for processing according to when they arrived, prioritizing families with children. Many seemed to be staying in the camp between 24 hours to several days. 

Some said they hadn’t eaten that day and were rationing water. Aid groups including Border Kindness had come by earlier in the day to hand out supplies. Border Patrol distributed water bottles and chips. 

In the afternoon heat, which hovered around the high 80’s, migrants laid out under makeshift shelters built from brush and tarps. Some groups were families who traveled together or others who met at the camp or along the way to the U.S. 

A family of 15 from Russia who did not want to be named said they fled due to racial discrimination that left them in “dire danger for our lives.” They are part of a Mongolic ethnic minority called Kalmyks. 

A woman from Peru said she fled due to violence and corruption in her hometown of Lima. While traveling through Mexico to the border, she said she was several times shaken down for money, threatened and violently assaulted. 

“The only thing we want is to be free of everything that is happening to us there,” she said in Spanish. 

In the early evening, as groups prepared fires to keep warm, dozens of families found out they would leave that night for processing. Several vans soon arrived to pick them up. Border Patrol agents also planned to process single adults who arrived the day before.

But numbers quickly rebounded after a group of 82 migrants walked in a single line into the encampment following a Border Patrol Jeep. 

Ruiz Soto said San Diego will likely continue to see episodes of increased migrant arrivals that result in difficult conditions for the migrants arriving and strain on U.S. communities. 

A group of 82 migrants arrive to a location near Boulevard where hundreds are waiting to be processed by immigration authorities Sept. 17, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

But those conditions are less a result of increased migrant arrivals and more “a reflection of longstanding underinvestment and insufficient changes in capacity (from) Border Patrol and from higher up,” he said, referring to the U.S. Congress and the Biden, Trump and Obama administrations.  

The bigger question is whether the Biden administration and Congress will do something to address capacity issues when they come up, Ruiz Soto said. 

Zoë Meyers contributed reporting. 

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...