California has long been a beacon for immigrants from Central America. In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands found refuge here from the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere. Others gained Temporary Protected Status in the United States after earthquakes and hurricanes ravaged their countries. Now, many of the migrants in the large caravan that recently reached Tijuana are hoping to reunite with family members in Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area.
When the first busloads arrived in Tijuana, some of the road-weary travelers found their way to the Pacific Ocean. Children and adults alike played in the surf. California was visible through the steel bars of the border fence — the sand and salt water identical on both sides.
"If God's willing, I'll get to California," Carlos Celaya, a 17-year-old from Honduras, said. "It's beautiful there."
Beylin Rios and her husband, Rolando Arce, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, jumped in the ocean with their clothes on. One of the few things Rios carried on her journey was a necklace with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, to protect her. Rios said if she can get to California, she'll take any kind of job, including washing dishes in a restaurant. "It's honest work," she said.
At a Catholic service center for migrants, a number of men from the caravan received haircuts from beauty school students who volunteered their time. Several of the men said they wanted to appear respectable to people in Tijuana and to the officials at the San Diego border crossing, where they must make their case for asylum.
Many of the migrants were mothers and fathers traveling with their children. The legacy of civil wars, weak economies and ineffective judicial institutions has fueled an exploding gang problem in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Parents say they're desperate to get their children and teenagers away from the violence.
One woman had traveled 2,700 miles from El Salvador with her 15-year-old grandson. Having gotten him safely to the border, she was headed home to her other grandchildren, but she hoped the boy would make it to his mother near Richmond, California.
The first step for the migrants is to see a Customs and Border Protection officer at the San Ysidro port of entry, and hopefully get an interview with an asylum officer. But before the caravan arrived there were already several thousand migrants waiting their turn in Tijuana and U.S. border officials usually screen fewer than 100 asylum seekers a day.
Some migrants have organized a system. Each day new arrivals can add their names to a hand-written waiting list in a notebook, which is managed by several migrant and stored at night by Mexican immigration officials in their office. Migrants wait on a plaza until their number is called by the notebook keepers, then Mexican officials escort them to the U.S. port of entry. A man from Cameroon said he had been waiting for six weeks.
Henry Josue Rodriguez Palacio, 8, leaned against his mother, Zenia Palacio, as they waited to hear their position on the list. The mother and son had come from Honduras and hoped to be called to cross to the U.S. that day.
Jorge Alberto Campos left El Salvador six months earlier with his son, George Alberto Campos, 4. He said he wanted to get back to Bakersfield, where he had grown up and his sister still lived.