Migrants help to distribute water and sandwiches brought by volunteers to migrants who are waiting to be processed by immigration authorities near Boulevard, Oct. 2, 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.

The migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border into the southeast San Diego desert have now totaled thousands – stressing the resources of aid workers who are asking when help is on the way. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, has accelerated efforts to process the migrants and overcome the backlogs they reported over two weeks ago, especially focusing on women and children. But many are still waiting for days, some said three to five, without shelter, facing dropping seasonal temperatures in the night.

Unable to leave the makeshift encampment, migrants have faced uncertainty as to the duration of their detainment, as well as limited access to food and water primarily provided by volunteers based out of San Diego and Jacumba.

With dwindling resources, volunteers are struggling to sustain aid as numbers remain in the hundreds. 

Volunteers say help is “massively needed,” on the scale of “a Red Cross response” that could pour resources into the region.  

But officials have not asked the Red Cross for help, a spokesperson said, and the Border Patrol refused to answer questions about why there hasn’t been a more robust humanitarian response.

Meanwhile, hundreds of migrants are still coming by the day. 

John Shulz, a resident whose family runs the Jacumba Desert View Tower, said they were hopeful when they noticed a slight decrease in newcomers to the encampment. Out of concern for the migrants, his family mobilized to bring sandwiches and water, handing out supplies out of the back of their truck.

They were witnessing around 300 camped each night, but after a short decrease, according to Schulz, over the weekend the number rose to around 700.

“We can’t maintain this,” Schulz said.

San Diego County declared a humanitarian crisis last week with the intent of funneling more resources to migrants at the border. According to Michael Workman, the county’s communications director, officials from the county visited the Jacumba site but have focused their efforts on sending staff to facilities near where processed migrants in need of aid are being dropped off.

According to the county, the Jacumba site is in federal hands, it’s not an approved area for crossing and its remote setting makes access difficult.

Workman said those are some of the reasons why a majority of the county’s efforts have been focused on more populated areas.

A couple from Colombia looks out over an area near Boulevard where hundreds of migrants are waiting to be processed by immigration authorities, Oct. 2, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“It’s been a heavy workload,” Workman said, “and it doesn’t seem to be lightening.”

The Biden administration’s asylum policy generally makes migrants who cross between legal ports of entry ineligible for asylum. Migrants instead must use one of several narrow legal pathways outlined by the policy, such as securing an appointment with immigration officials through the CBP One application, and in most cases must do so from another country.

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

According to James Cordero of Border Kindness, some migrants have been arriving in critical condition, miles away from medical aid. Over the weekend Cordero helped several migrants through severe health emergencies. 

He is not a medical professional.

“He started foaming at the mouth,” Cordero said about a migrant whose body had seized. “I was trying to pry his mouth open … so that he would have a way to release any fluids in his mouth and not choke on anything.”

Cordero described other injuries as well: a man who was seriously hurt when he fell from a boulder onto his back, another whose appendix may have burst.

A migrant from Egypt sits in the shade of an umbrella while experiencing leg pain and physical exhaustion in an area near Boulevard on Sept. 26, 2023. He was later driven by Border Patrol agents to receive medical care. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

When asked why Red Cross or other humanitarian organizations had not been called in to lend a hand, a CBP spokesperson declined to answer the question, instead saying, “We are safely and efficiently vetting and processing migrants to place them in immigration enforcement proceedings consistent with our laws and operational planning efforts. Those without a legal basis to stay will be processed for removal.” 

Volunteers say agents gave conflicting responses to requests for medical care.

Cordero said he asked CBP agents on site for help calling emergency medical services. One agent told him CBP wasn’t permitted to do so. But on another occasion, a different agent called services before Cordero asked. 

Earlier in the week an inewsource reporter asked an agent what could be done to help a man who could no longer walk. The agent said the migrants could call 911, but the group didn’t have phone service. Later in the afternoon agents drove the man out of the area to receive care.

“If they cannot leave,” Cordero said, “the responsibility falls on the law enforcement agency to provide.”

According to CBP, Border Patrol agents call emergency medical services when “required or requested,” and all agents are certified first responders. 

The men, women and children who continue to arrive in Jacumba are from around the world. On Monday inewsource met migrants from Jordan, Syria, Palestine, India, Vietnam, China, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico among others. Many were fleeing their home country after having received threats of violence, murder or political persecution.

Dozens of migrants who have recently entered the United States arrive to an area near Boulevard where they will wait until they are processed by immigration authorities, Sept. 26, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Christian, from Colombia, and his friends who didn’t want to be named for safety concerns, said they were confused as to why there was not more significant organized aid at the encampment. The group told inewsource that when Venezuelan migrants were coming to Colombia, the Red Cross waged a large campaign to provide aid.

“Having at least a roof over your head is important,” his friend said. He said the cold was unbearable.

In a statement the American Red Cross wrote that “every human deserves to be safe and healthy – regardless of citizenship status.” They also said they work closely with county emergency management officials and monitor requests for needed services.

A couple from Brazil said they left their hometown after consequences for not supporting the ruling local government. They said officials were blocking their relatives from getting crucial health procedures as retribution. For safety reasons, they fled without informing their family with the hope of providing for their relatives once settled in the U.S.

Hermán, from Colombia, and his acquaintances showed inewsource a photo of a document that called on them to join the ranks of a paramilitary group. They said they knew if they didn’t join it would cost them their lives.

Hermán also asked inewsource reporters where they were, and how far away from the nearest city. Their crossing with the coyotes had them completely disoriented, and communication with agents was scant.

Migrants enter a United States Border Patrol van which will transport them to an immigration processing center near Boulevard, Sept. 26, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

As the night set in and temperatures dropped, sharp smoke began to rise from the resinous shrubs migrants harvested and burned to stay warm. 

The stubs of bushes riddle the hillside as evidence of the hundreds who have tried to keep warm while awaiting their turn to ride in a van to a CBP processing center to learn of their future.

That same smoke gave Cordero a painful cough after having spent 11 days out providing aid in Jacumba with his wife Jacqueline, and sometimes with their two-year-old daughter.

Some migrants burned those same branches in their makeshift huts, huddling for warmth.

“We need a Red Cross response because so many people are coming in every day,” Cordero said.

Correction: Oct. 7, 2023. This story has been updated to reflect that a migrant in distress, not CBP, lacked cell service to call 911. We regret the error.

Zoë Meyers and Sofía Mejías-Pascoe contributed reporting. 

Type of Content

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

Philip Salata joined us in September 2023 as an investigative reporter and multimedia journalist focused on the environment and energy in San Diego and Imperial counties. His position is supported by the California Local News Fellowship, a new statewide initiative spearheaded by UC Berkeley aimed at...