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Migrants struggle against the elements in San Diego's open-air desert camps

Melissa Gomez, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

JACUMBA HOT SPRINGS, Calif. — For the last three months, residents in this remote border community in southeastern San Diego County have seen their population nearly double, climbing from 600 to 1,200 as migrants from around the globe cross over from Mexico.

They cross into the punishing desert terrain at a point where the 30-foot steel border wall erected across the county in the Trump era abruptly ends, transitioning to erratic fencing and boulders riddled with gaps.

Once on American soil, the migrants subsist in makeshift open-air camps, where the number of tents are not nearly enough for the number of migrants. For warmth, they huddle around campfires fueled by brush and felled trees. When it's time to sleep, many are left to rely on plastic tarps and thin blankets to shelter them from the wind and nighttime lows that can fall below 40 degrees.

Jacumba Hot Springs is not an official U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention site. But the sheer number of migrants crossing the border day after day has made it an unofficial one. The Border Patrol has stationed field agents nearby to keep watch over the camp, and migrants say authorities have told them to wait there for transfer to an official processing facility. Border Patrol gives them wristbands printed with the day they arrived. Often, women and children get picked up quickly. But for many others, their time at the camps can stretch for days.

A senior official with Customs and Border Protection who spoke on background acknowledged the camp is serving as a sort of informal holding spot. Agency resources are spread thin, the official said, and Border Patrol isn't set up to handle the recent surge in migrants crossing the border in southeastern San Diego County.

The agency is compelling migrants to camp until the agency is able to transfer them to established detention centers, which are set up to provide food, shelter and medical care. During the waiting period, the migrants have no such provisions. The official said agents are providing the bare minimum, including water, and calling in medical providers if needed.


Local volunteers have stepped into that survival gap, providing critical services, including food, tents, clothing and aid.

Last weekend, the migrants camped near Jacumba Hot Springs had made their way from multiple countries, including China, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru. Many said they came fleeing violence or in search of a new life.

Volunteers say an average of 500 migrants are now living in three camps in the area on any given day. On Thanksgiving Day, they were overwhelmed by the number of people who remained at the camp by dinnertime and 50 migrants went without food.

"It really just became an avalanche," said resident Samuel Schultz, who is coordinating with advocacy organizations to get supplies to the camps.


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