A group of Colombians wait in a holding area to be processed by the Border Patrol agents on Monday, May 15, 2023, in Jacumba, California.

A group of Colombians wait in a holding area to be processed by the Border Patrol agents on Monday, May 15, 2023, in Jacumba, California. (Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

JACUMBA HOT SPRINGS, Calif. — The bus appeared over the horizon, rolling slowly but steadily towards a group of 50 migrants waiting with Border Patrol agents in the hot desert sun in the small town of Jacumba Hot Springs.

Many of the migrants — roughly half of them women from Colombia traveling without family — cheered and clapped as they jumped to their feet, anxious to board what was basically a prison bus equipped with cages separating the passengers from the driver area and bars over the windows. It was about 5 p.m., and they'd been queueing all day for their chance to be processed at Border Patrol stations and to escape the open-air holding area where they'd already spent several days.

They were among the last to be processed of those who had crossed the border into San Diego County before a major rule change last week.

Border Patrol has used similar open-air holding areas in parts of the San Diego-Tijuana border for months. As crossings increased in the first part of May with the border policy change looming, the practice spread — even to Jacumba Hot Springs, 70 miles east of San Diego, where there are usually much fewer crossings, according to several residents.

Many believed that the rule change — an end to a policy known as Title 42 — would bring more migration, but so far the opposite has occurred.

Title 42 was a policy based on a public health order that allowed officials to block entry to asylum seekers and other migrants at ports of entry and expel them without considering their requests for protection if they crossed without permission. The policy was applied more strictly to certain nationalities, and those who weren't expelled were allowed into the United States to request protection through the asylum system, which often takes years to get through.

In California, Title 42 ended at 9 p.m. Thursday. In its wake, the Biden administration has put more restrictive measures in place intended to disqualify most border crossers from asylum and deport them well before they see an immigration judge.

Most migrants waiting in the holding areas over the past week who spoke to the Union-Tribune didn't know the specifics of what was changing at the border, but they generally had some sense that they needed to be across before May 12. Border Patrol in San Diego has used wristbands to try to keep track of what day migrants arrived to the holding areas.

Since Sunday, Border Patrol has made an effort to move everyone waiting in similar holding areas along the border throughout San Diego County to stations for processing. For the moment, it appears the areas are no longer in use.

On Tuesday, all that remained of a site near the South Bay Water Reclamation Plant that held families were bulldozers shoving boxes, blankets and tarps into a pile. Jackets and empty water bottles were scattered along the border wall. Still, many are worried that if crossings increase again, agents will resume using the tactic to keep migrants in custody.

Human rights observers have condemned conditions in the holding areas as not following Customs and Border Protection's rules for how the agency is supposed to treat people in its custody. The Southern Border Communities Coalition filed a complaint Monday with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties calling for an immediate halt to the practice of making migrants wait days exposed to the elements near the border wall.

"Those seeking safety at our border should be treated at all times with humanity, dignity, and respect. For months now, CBP has fallen short of this responsibility," the complaint says. "We recognize that the challenges facing CBP are many, but that should never be an excuse for violating the rights of migrants."

In Jacumba Hot Springs, temperatures soared during the day and dropped sharply at night, migrants said. They'd seen many rattlesnakes slithering through the holding area. And without the help of a group of locals who organized a countywide donation effort through social media, there would've likely been more medical emergencies related to the harsh climate and lack of supplies.

"We were able to hand out 1,000 meals per day over the last few days," said Melissa Strukel, who helped organize aid at the local hotel and former gas station. "Without the food and water people would've died for sure.

"This is happening on our street," she added. "This is in our front yard."

By Monday morning, one site in Jacumba Hot Springs seemed to be already empty. Tents, tarps and metallic blankets crinkled in the wind, the life that recently filled the space eerily absent.

One Kurdish family of seven who had fled discrimination in Turkey rested in a couple of the tents. They had arrived Sunday night, after everyone had been taken to the stations. Border Patrol told them it would take five to seven days for their turn.

A short way up Highway 80 at another site that had held a larger group, Border Patrol agents told all of the remaining migrants to prepare, that they would soon be leaving for processing. Buses made several trips throughout the morning, migrants said. But hours into the afternoon, many had given up waiting in the sun standing on the hot asphalt and retreated to tarps, umbrellas and anything else that could provide some shade.

A family from Colombia found a large tarp tied to posts to shield themselves from the sun. They said that they had crossed right around the time the policy ended. They worried they would be quickly deported to Mexico or to Colombia. Mexico has agreed to take deportees from certain countries so that the United States can deport them more quickly, but so far Colombia doesn't appear to be on the list. Still, rumors have circulated among the waiting migrants, elevating anxiety in the holding areas.

"We spent hours in the sun," said one man from Colombia who soon joined the family under the tarp. "It wasn't necessary."

He said he owned a supermarket back in Colombia but had to flee extortion on his business. He said groups will often kidnap children to force business owners to pay. He worried that criminal groups have recently gained more power in his country.

A group of several dozen women who were traveling by themselves stood in line in the sun for more than eight hours, determined to be ready.

"We were told [the buses] were coming for us, and if we misbehave, we'll wait two more days," said one woman who stood in the line.

Five people from China who had been waiting for six days hovered near the agents. They worried that they had been skipped for processing because they spoke neither English nor Spanish and didn't understand directions given by the agents when it was time to line up. (The Union-Tribune talked with them through a translation app.)

"We came first, but we are the last to go," one man from China said through a translation app. "There were more than 100 people with us [when we crossed the border], and now there are five of us left."

When agents finally got word that another bus was coming, they told the migrants to line up according to wrist band color, and several Spanish-speaking migrants tried to organize the group. Tensions high, many began to argue about who would go first. People who didn't speak Spanish were slower to understand what was happening.

Through the chaos, the five people from China, as well as one Brazilian woman and one Colombian woman who had similar wristbands, managed to alert agents that they'd been skipped earlier in the day. The Brazilian woman told the Union-Tribune she'd been separated from her husband that morning when agents put him on a bus but left her to wait.

She'd spent most of the day crying, she said, and hadn't eaten the food that the volunteers gave her.

Once agents had selected the 50 people who would be going, they walked them in smaller groups up the road to where they would have better reception to be able to begin the intake process on their phones.

On the way, one agent joked with a group of women from Colombia. You're all arriving single, he told them, but you'll find husbands here.

They laughed and cheered in response, saying they hoped to meet gringos.

He advised them to turn off their phones to save the batteries since they wouldn't be able to use them at the station.

"They're already dead," one of the women quipped back. The group laughed again.

Following the women, another agent brought a group of people from the Dominican Republic.

After all 50 migrants were lined up, an agent went down the line, explaining how to label their belongings and what could stay in their pockets when they went to the station. He took pictures of each person, their luggage tag and their ID. Then, he sent all of the information to the Brownfield station in San Diego, where the bus would take the group. He said the Boulevard station, which he works out of, has had mobile processing for a few months.

He instructed the group to remove their shoelaces, and any strings inside of hoodies — which is required of anyone going into immigration custody.

Then, they waited some more, until the bus finally came. After it left, the agents walked back toward the holding area, where more than 100 people still waited.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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