TIJUANA, Mexico—José Aguilar could taste the teargas tossed at the migrants as they marched to the border on Sunday.
Aguilar, 20, doesn’t seem deterred, however—not by the border patrol, not by the teargas, and not by President Donald Trump's repeated declarations that the caravan of Central American migrants would never enter the U.S.
Aguilar even acknowledges he is likely to march to the border again, hoping to capture the ear of the border patrol agents on the other side and press his case that he only wants to work in America. And he figures he has another force working in his favor, too: faith.
“I have faith in God we’ll get to the United States,” said Aguilar, who carries a Bible and a change of clothes in his backpack. “With the faith we have, [Trump] have a hard heart, but if God touches it, he’ll change and let us in.”
More than 7,000 migrants have congregated in Tijuana, hoping and praying for a miracle and passage into the United States. They quixotically set out in caravans from Central America, fleeing poverty and violence, and improbably crossed closed borders into Guatemala and Mexico, winding their way north to Tijuana.
But crossing the U.S. border appears impossible—at least for those without strong asylum cases to present. Even for those wanting to claim asylum, there’s a line of 5,000 people in Tijuana waiting their turn to present their cases to U.S. officials.
The migrants also confront cramped and uncomfortable conditions in the camp set up for them in a baseball stadium tantalizingly close to the border, which they can see every time they use the portable toilets or showers.
Migrants on Wednesday were spotted building shelters from tarps and garbage bags, beating sticks into the dirt infield with homemade hammers. Many were fighting coughs and colds, a constant challenge for the caravan travelers.
Some migrants confess their desperation at being unable to go further. Some have applied for asylum in Mexico. Many have put their name on the waiting list for the United States, which is accepting fewer than 100 claims daily. A few have given up and requested trips home from Mexican immigration officials. Many more, though, prefer to wait, hoping that the border will open—or some way into the United States will appear.
“We’ve endured hunger, pain, We’ll endure this,” said Porfirio Mendoza, a farm hand from Honduras.
Mendoza participated in Sunday's march, which he said was only seeking answers from U.S. officials. He figured the migrants would march again so “U.S. officials know we only want to work,” he said. “We’ll stay until we receive a response.”
Some migrants had formed theories about who would enter the United States and who wouldn’t, prompting them to stick it out in Tijuana rather than return home.
“I would imagine [Trump] will allow women and children to enter,” said Freddy Zúñiga.
Zúñiga, 30, was with his partner and two infant children, trying to return to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lived 14 years before being deported.
The experience of the road—with the caravan outlasting border officials in Guatemala and Mexico—led some to expect similar experiences at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We thought it would be like those other countries,” said José Rodolfo Ferrera, 35, a construction worker from western Honduras.
Ferrera figured the border would open at some point. And if it didn’t, he planned to find a place “where there are fewer people” guarding the border.
Advocates for migrants transiting Mexico say faith is a constant among those they serve. It sustains the migrants as they push north, but it also leads to false expectations: that anything is possible so long as there’s faith.
For many migrants “everything is left in the hands of a supreme being,” said Alberto Xicotencatl, director of the migrant shelter in Saltillo, 190 miles from the Texas border at Laredo. “They say they arrive in the north thanks to God. But when they fall under the Bestia train or get detained or get deported, it's because they doubted… and didn’t have faith.”
Father Alejandro Solalinde, Mexico’s best-known migrant defender, accompanied a caravan of Central Americans to Mexico City recently but refused to take them further north, warning them the road was rife with risks like kidnapping and that times had changed at the U.S. border.
The group leader, an evangelical, told him, “We’re in God’s hands,” and God would “touch the heart of Donald Trump,” Solalinde said. Some members of the group have subsequently disappeared.
Staff at the shelters serving the constant flow of migrants arriving in Tijuana and being deported to the city say they’ve tried to counsel the caravan travelers on the realities of the U.S.-Mexico border, without success.
“People are coming here uninformed. The vast majority of them didn’t know what they were going to confront,” said Gilberto Martínez Amaya, director of the Scalabrini migrant shelter in Tijuana. “We have tried to inform them, but they don’t want to listen. They keep clinging to the same attitudes.”
Convincing caravan travelers to abandon the baseball stadium for a shelter has also proved difficult, even though the Scalabrini shelter has a booth offering information easily accessible to migrants.
“Even though conditions are deplorable, they prefer to be together,” he said. “Those staying in the stadium still want to get to the United States.”
What comes next remains uncertain. Mexico inaugurates a new president on Dec. 1.
The Washington Post reported talks are underway between U.S. officials and members of the incoming administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador on a program known as “Remain in Mexico,” which would require asylum-seekers to stay south of the border as their cases move through U.S. courts.
Divisions have opened among the caravan travelers, too, over tactics.
“The people in the protest were conflictive.… They’re trying to use people as shields” so they can cross the border, said Carlos Aparicio, 22, a computer technician from El Salvador, who fled extortion claims.
Aparicio said he would wait for his number to be called and make an asylum claim. He also hoped there wouldn’t be further border protests.
“There’s a chance this will hurt our applications,” he said.