In the 28 years I’ve been covering the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve met migrants in Tijuana who have crossed oceans and continents to get here. They’ve told me of walking through jungles, crossing streams and rivers, boarding crowded buses, flying across the globe with false passports — making their way by any means necessary. They undertake arduous journeys in search of safety, economic opportunity, to reunite with family members, or simply to build a better life.

That’s why the arrival of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing war in their country in recent weeks does not come as a surprise. As they’ve been quickly gaining admission to the United States, their treatment at the border has forced comparisons with that of Central Americans, Mexicans, Haitians and others hoping to petition for asylum but left to continue waiting. Still, their presence has opened a new chapter in Tijuana’s immigration history.

When I arrived in Tijuana nearly three decades ago, Chinese migrants had been crossing the Pacific Ocean by the hundreds in smugglers’ boats, sometimes disembarking in Baja California. They were fleeing poverty in Fujian province, and had one objective: to reach the United States. But in many cases, those caught were sent back to China.

Then in the early 2000s, large numbers of Iraqi Chaldeans began appearing in Tijuana. They were members of a Catholic minority who said they were fleeing persecution under dictator Saddam Hussein. They’d made it through the Middle East, Europe and finally Mexico, flying to Tijuana to petition for asylum from the United States. Most were paroled into the country while their cases were reviewed.

In 2016, thousands of Haitians arrived in Tijuana within a span of a few months. Many had been living in Brazil following their country’s 2010 earthquake. But when recession hit, they struggled economically and saw little future. So they left and made their way — often on bus and foot — through Latin America to the U.S. border. While many initially were allowed to enter the country, a shift in U.S. policy left thousands stranded in Mexico or deported to Haiti.

Ukrainian refugees turn a bus stop into a make-shift camp to wait their turn to claim asylum in the United States in Tijuana, Mexico on Monday, April 4, 2022. / Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for Planetcob
Ukrainian refugees turn a bus stop into a make-shift camp to wait their turn to claim asylum in the United States in Tijuana, Mexico on Monday, April 4, 2022. / Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for Planetcob

“The United States’ southern border isn’t just shared with Mexico — it’s shared with the world,” writes Jesse Hardman, a senior advisor at InterNews and founder of the El Migrante project, in an op-ed published this month in the Los Angeles Times. “If there’s trouble anywhere on the globe, residents from that region will soon be arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.”

The largest groups border wide continue to come from Mexico and Central America. But migrants from other countries have been arriving at the U.S. border in record numbers. To understand the phenomenon, I spoke with Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. She has looked closely at figures released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of “encounters” at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Fiscal Year 2021, CPB reported 378,000 encounters with nationalities other than Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran along the southern border — the highest on record. In the first five months of the current fiscal year, there have been nearly 306,000 such encounters. “So this year’s number is on pace to nearly double last year’s,” Bolter told me during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

Since January 2021, most of these have been from Latin American and Caribbean countries: Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Ecuadorans, Cubans and Brazilians are the five top nationalities, with Haitians coming in sixth, she said. In the first five months of 2022, for example, CBP reported 84,000 encounters with Venezuelans, Bolter said.

“There are specific factors that are influencing people in each country, and even within one country, different people are going to have different reasons for migrating,” she told me. “But I think there are some larger forces at play as well.”

One of those factors is the COVID pandemic, “and the related economic shutdowns throughout the region. Many of these countries are struggling economically,” she said. At the same time, the U.S. economy opened in 2021 and labor demand picked up, creating a powerful draw.

Another draw is the perception that President Joe Biden’s administration would “act more leniently toward migrants arriving at the border,” Bolter said.

Lenient Mexican visa restrictions for some nationalities — including Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Venezuelans, Colombians, Russians and Ukrainians—have driven the large numbers traveling through Mexico to the U.S. border, she said. “Mexico has since imposed requirements for Brazilians, Ecuadorians and Venezuelans and in the aftermath of that, we saw those three flows drop dramatically.”

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drives millions from their homes, thousands have been making their way to the U.S. border, most hoping to cross to the United States from Tijuana.

The San Diego Union-Tribune last week reported the case of a Ukrainian woman who was detained and sent to Louisiana when she tried to cross at Otay Mesa on March 3.

But the reception has since been far more welcoming. Hundreds of Ukrainians being housed in a makeshift shelter in Tijuana are soon taken to the U.S. border and allowed across.

Also Noteworthy

Border love story: A Russian groom and his Ukrainian bride were wed last week in a Tijuana City Hall marriage ceremony. They had planned to marry in Kyiv, but fled to the U.S. border after war broke out. On Friday, they crossed to the United States. (Telemundo20, Union-Tribune.)

Title 42: With the May 23 termination of Title 42, the controversial Trump-era pandemic health order, authorities are bracing for a spike in migrants seeking asylum at the southern border. (The Hill)

Migrant camp: Two months after the dismantlement of a camp of hundreds of asylum seekers in Tijuana just south of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, KPBS reports that “those migrants have been pushed out to dangerous neighborhoods in the outskirts of Tijuana.”

Sewage settlement: The International Boundary and Water Commission, the bi-national agency that treats sewage from Tijuana in a plant on the U.S. side of the border, has reached a settlement in three lawsuits brought by plaintiffs in California, including Imperial Beach, Surfrider Foundation, and San Diego’s Regional Quality Control Board. The IBWC agreed to a series of measures, such as helping Mexico redirect polluted water back into Tijuana’s wastewater system and provide more opportunities for interaction with the public. (Planetcob)

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