San Diego Is Once Again a Top Migrant Entry Point

San Diego Is Once Again a Top Migrant Entry Point

From sunrise to sunset, the U.S. Border Patrol buses arrived every hour at a sunbaked parking lot in San Diego.

Dozens of migrants stepped outside each time, many seeming to be confused about what was happening at this trolley hub on a recent weekend. There were no local officials to answer questions. No services. And few ways to reach their next destination in the United States.

For the first time in 25 years, the San Diego region has become a top destination for migrants along the southern United States border, surpassing the number of illegal crossings at areas in Arizona and Texas for several weeks this year, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It has been a surprising turn for a border spot that was the focal point of the bitter national debate over immigration decades ago, before falling out of the spotlight as migrant flows shifted eastward.

The recent surge in San Diego has been overwhelming enough that a government-funded welcome center exhausted its budget and had to close in February. Since then, the United States Border Patrol has bused migrants to a trolley center and sent them on their way.

Many have been turned away from crowded migrant shelters nearby. Dozens have ended up at the San Diego International Airport, where they have camped out at baggage claim for days at a time as they waited for flights to other destinations.

Nonprofit organizations have tried to fill the void by providing aid and transportation advice to migrants. But volunteers described a predicament for which government officials were unprepared — and that nonprofits cannot adequately manage themselves.

“The situation is becoming more and more unrealistic,” said Catalina Torres, 27, a volunteer for Al Otro Lado, a local nonprofit that has tried to help migrants at the drop-off spot in San Diego. “I don’t know how they expect us to keep doing this.”

In April, 37,370 people crossed illegally in the San Diego sector and surrendered to the Border Patrol to claim asylum. The highest total that month in Texas was 30,393 at the El Paso sector. The Border Patrol divides the nation into 20 sectors by geography, and nine of them are on the border with Mexico.

Facing intense political pressure to slow the surge in migration this election year, President Biden is expected to sign an executive order on Tuesday that will allow federal officials to block migrants and reject asylum protections once a certain number of illegal crossings occur. The order is expected to face legal challenges, but it has the potential to stem the tide in San Diego and elsewhere if it is carried out as envisioned.

Several factors have led to the growth in immigrant traffic in San Diego, immigration experts said. Among them: Smuggling networks have moved west as the areas in Mexico south of Arizona and Texas have become increasingly dangerous because of organized crime.

At the same time, Tijuana — the largest city on the northern Mexican border, just across from San Diego — has drawn an increasing number of migrants from around the world by bus or commercial air travel. In Mexico, a crackdown on immigrants from Central America has slowed migration into Texas, but it has had less of an effect on people reaching Tijuana, especially those arriving from overseas.

In the past, a vast majority of the people who crossed the southern border were from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. In April, however, people who immigrated to San Diego came from 98 different countries — including large groups from China, Brazil and India — in a surge in people fleeing conflict, climate change, authoritarianism and post-pandemic economic hardship.

“The nationalities are like nothing we’ve ever seen in any sector anywhere before,” said Adam Isacson, a program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy organization.

Efforts by Gov. Greg Abbott, Republican of Texas, to restrict immigration may also be having an impact, discouraging migrants from crossing there. Among those efforts is a new state law that allows state and local law enforcement officers to apprehend and expel undocumented immigrants. While the law has been temporarily blocked, experts said that it might already have had a chilling effect. Republicans in Arizona are on the verge of asking voters to approve a similar law.

California was at the center of immigration fights three decades ago, which may be hard to fathom now, given the state’s heavy Democratic tilt.

Hundreds of activists would gather at night along the border to park their cars and shine their headlights south toward Mexico to protest against illegal immigration. In 1994, an ominous political ad backed by Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican running for re-election at the time, showed black-and-white footage of migrants dashing between vehicles at a border checkpoint as a narrator said, “They keep coming.”

That year, voters passed Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving various state services. They also gave Mr. Wilson a second term after he tied his lot to the ballot initiative.

California political experts often say that the 1994 campaign year was a chief factor in driving Latino voters away from the Republican Party and that it laid the groundwork for today’s Democratic control of the state government. Over the past decade, the state has declared itself a sanctuary state and offered state-funded health care to undocumented immigrants, a full rejection of the 1990s policies.

California’s political climate may be yet another reason migrants are heading to San Diego.

More immigrants than ever before are using social media apps like TikTok, Facebook or WhatsApp, experts said, where they can share the experiences they have had entering the country. That’s what led Leidy Restrepo, 38, and her partner, Paula Arevalo, 31, to a shelter in San Diego.

They said they left their hometown, Ibagué, Colombia, after enduring years of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. harassment. Ms. Restrepo said that after she was assaulted by a group of men, she and Ms. Arevalo booked a vacation package to Tabasco, Mexico, and eventually flew to Tijuana, where they paid $1,500 each to smugglers to cross the border.

They were in touch with other L.G.B.T.Q. immigrants on their journey north and chose to cross the border in California, Ms. Restrepo said, “because the myth is that in San Diego immigration welcomes you with better treatment.”

Migration patterns along the southern border have become harder to predict in recent years and can change rapidly. Border crossings at the Tucson sector in Arizona had been in decline, but recently saw an uptick that surpassed the number of crossings in San Diego.

During the last federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, about 230,000 people crossed illegally into the United States near San Diego and surrendered to officers to claim asylum. In the first seven months of the current fiscal year, agents have already encountered more than 220,000 people. San Diego is on pace this year to surpass any annual total since the late 1990s.

The agency is moving personnel and other resources to “the most active and arduous areas along our borders where migrants are callously placed by for-profit smuggling organizations, often without proper preparation,” Erin Waters, an agency spokeswoman, said. She said the average number of migrant encounters in San Diego had dropped in early May as a result, but added that more federal funding was needed.

Until February, a migrant center operated on $6 million from San Diego County to help new arrivals. But the site closed after exhausting its funding. Last year, the state provided $150 million to faith-based groups to help migrants, but that funding may be cut starting in July because the state has a $28 billion deficit.

“This issue transcends the San Diego border,” Nora Vargas, chairwoman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, said in a statement. She said that federal immigration reform was necessary and that the county was “committed to ensuring a humane and welcoming entry for all those seeking asylum in our community.”

Families with young children are still being connected with service providers or shelters. But individual migrants are being released on the street, perhaps the most visible sign that San Diego is struggling to respond to the influx.

“This is something that every border city wants to avoid,” Mr. Isacson said, adding that most of the immigrants didn’t plan on staying in San Diego. “They have destinations in the U.S. interior, but they can’t get there without at least some assistance.”

Ms. Torres, the nonprofit volunteer, says she fills out family reunification forms on her phone, confronts taxi drivers who try to fleece migrants and de-escalates tense situations with “anti-immigrant agitators” who have harassed migrants and aid workers.

She was one of only two people who helped at the trolley hub on a recent morning. With hundreds of people arriving each day, she said, she doesn’t take breaks and avoids drinking liquids to reduce trips to the bathroom.

“We’re like an impromptu welcome center,” she said. “But it’s just us, broken, in the wild, wild West, on the street, with our dying phones and our dehydrated bodies.”

For months, a mutual aid group called We All We Got San Diego has been helping migrants stranded at the airport and distributing meals and toiletries there. But as the number of immigrants soared, the group ran out of funds and is now relying solely on donations.

“I cannot fathom how you could have 800 to a thousand people being released a day and have absolutely no county or government involvement, no federal, no city, no nothing,” Krystle Johnson, a volunteer at the organization, said.

She was particularly critical of Washington leaders for failing to address the border problem. A bipartisan enforcement bill has been rejected twice by Senate Republicans at the urging of former President Donald J. Trump.

In San Diego, “the biggest conversation is like, Who should take care of it?” Ms. Johnson said. “And right now it’s nobody because everybody is arguing amongst themselves.”

Miriam Jordan contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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