Emerging Inequalities? Race and visibility in the reception of migrants in Tijuana


By: Joseph Wiltberger/ Text in collaboration between the Observatory of Migration Policy of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte and nexos.


For a long time Tijuana has been a city of migrants. As a border city, it has traditionally been known as a major transit migration site for those heading to the United States; it is also a place where migrants, mostly from other parts of Mexico, come to find job opportunities. Recently, however, Tijuana is undergoing a transformation.


This city is increasingly becoming a destination for international migrants, many of whom are seeking humanitarian aid after being turned away at the US-Mexico border under new border and asylum restrictions.


As Tijuana’s immigrant populations internationalize, the city’s racial and demographic makeup is evolving and diversifying. As new groups of immigrants arrive in Tijuana, we ask ourselves, what racialized narratives and beliefs support the different perceptions about the new and diverse immigrant populations and their unequal incorporation into the socioeconomic dynamics of the city?


Research on this question is needed to contribute to the understanding of the current migration context in Tijuana and to interventions aimed at promoting the inclusion of new migrant communities. As a starting point, we chose two recent waves of migrants for preliminary comparative analysis: Haitians who began arriving in Tijuana in the thousands after being unable to receive temporary protected status in the United States after the 2010 earthquake; and Central Americans, particularly those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, whose population began to grow substantially after a migrant caravan originating in Honduras, with around 7,000 members, arrived in Tijuana in late 2018. Many of the Newly arrived Central Americans have fled violent situations in their home countries and applied for asylum in the United States, but were forced to remain in Mexico under new border restrictions, including the Migrant Protection Protocols and Title 42. Recent migrants from Haiti also face new border deterrence and asylum measures in the United States.


These migrant groups quickly became, in different ways, highly visible subjects of public attention in Tijuana. It is worth asking about the role that this visibility has played in its reception. The 2018 caravan put Central Americans at the center of public attention, and they have remained a visible migrant population in the city through their occupation of public space. 


The informal border camp across from the El Chaparral port of entry, once inhabited by more than 2,000 mostly Central American migrants, became a continuous focus of public attention and social concern for nearly a year until it was evicted by the force in February 2022.


While the spatial occupations of Central Americans make them a more visible migrant population, from caravan to camp, Haitians stand out conspicuously in Tijuana because of their racial characteristics. As Creole-speaking black migrants, they are easily noticed in Tijuana, at work and in particular neighborhoods, even downtown. Unlike Haitians, some Central Americans without noticeable racial differences may make efforts to “camouflage” themselves by adjusting to Mexican linguistic and cultural characteristics to try to mitigate discriminatory mistreatment.


These different forms of visibility, combined with racialized assumptions and beliefs stemming from longer histories, may inform different shared perceptions of these two migrant populations in Tijuana.


As the story of the recent wave of Central American migrants has conjured up images of large crowds, reports from the most influential media outlets reveal that this population has been described as an aggressive and troublesome “horde”. The recent wave of Haitian migrants, by contrast, seems to have been received more sympathetically in Tijuana. Visibly noticeable when working in both informal and formal labor sectors, Haitian migrants have most readily been described as a “success story” and a “model” for other newly arrived immigrants to follow.


How these different narratives and beliefs take hold is questionable, but they are likely to be influenced by perceptions of current realities and historical experiences.


For example, the longer history of discrimination against Central American migrants in transit in Mexico, the expectation that they should remain transit migrants, or the presumption that they do not wish to integrate in Tijuana, may be contributing to xenophobic responses upon arrival in this city. 


The more sympathetic reception of Haitians may be related to a less recognized history of transitory migration in Mexico, the perception that their migration is relatively new and driven by Haiti’s extreme poverty and recent disasters, and the idea that they may be more interested in long-term integration in Mexico. However, the migratory situation near the border is constantly changing, which should lead us to question such assumptions about the future intentions of migrants and move forward with systematic research to generate knowledge of their realities.


What also remains to be seen, and systematically investigated, are the extent and ways in which such perceptions and narratives may be shaping diverse migrant populations’ experiences of social inclusion, discrimination, and incorporation in different ways. What barriers do international migrant populations face in securing employment, housing, health care, education, and other basic needs in Tijuana? Do these barriers affect different migrant populations unequally, and if so, to what extent are these differences informed by different xenophobic responses and narratives, and emerging patterns of discrimination?


We have much to learn from the rapidly changing context of international immigration in Tijuana, emerging perceptions about new immigrant groups, and the formation of new social and racial inequalities. Other communities along the northern border and in other parts of Mexico are experiencing similar migration trends amid shifting enforcement on the US-Mexico border.


Although much attention has been paid to research on immigration to the United States and the myriad ways in which racist discrimination and xenophobia have constituted enduring forms of social exclusion for immigrant populations in the United States, more research is needed on the emerging contexts of south-south migration, particularly as traditional migrant and refugee receiving countries, including the United States and European countries, have recently closed borders and implemented new restrictions on asylum and immigration.


Analysis of emerging experiences of discrimination and inequality among international migrant populations in Tijuana can inform local politics and social organization. It can also offer us a case study to theorize and better understand similar emerging dynamics in other parts of Mexico, Latin America, and the world.

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