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Anti-immigrant activists in Tijuana hijack Trump’s rhetoric


A few hundred self-avowed nationalists waving flags at a demonstration. A public official donning the signature red hat with white embroidered letters. An activist going on Fox News to warn of an "invasion."

This isn't Trump country. It's Tijuana, Mexico, where more than 6,000 asylum-seekers who have been traveling in a caravan from Central America for over a month are arriving as they prepare to formally request asylum at the border.

Tensions have been running high in the border town of about one million across from San Diego, Calif., since the arrival of the migrants, most of whom are fleeing broken governments rife with corruption and violence. Anti-immigrant activists in Tijuana have hijacked the rhetoric of President Donald Trump to agitate against the caravan members, who are staying in temporary refugee shelters set up by local authorities.

Trump for weeks cast the slow-moving caravan in the run-up to the midterms as a national security threat, warning without evidence that criminals and potential terrorists were in the mix. Two weeks after the midterms, the rhetoric seems to have stuck with a posse of tijuanenses who want the asylum-seekers out.

The local sentiment stands in stark contrast with the treatment the migrants received in southern Mexico, where towns doubled the size of their populations to give the Central Americans temporary refuge.


On Sunday, a group of demonstrators in the low hundreds gathered at a local park to protest the presence of the migrants with remixed Trump slogans like "Tijuana First" and "Mé-xi-co!" They had planned to march to one of the shelters where the migrants were resting, but federal police in anti-riot gear blocked access to it. That same morning, local residents woke up to a sign that migrants made and stretched between two palm trees that read, "Gracias Mexico por su ayuda y cariño" — thank you Mexico for your help and kindness.

Just a few days earlier, on Thursday, Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum had called into a television show and made his most jarring remark about the migrants yet: that "human rights are for the right humans." He was later seen wearing a red hat embroidered with the phrase "Make Tijuana Great Again."

"In this group of people there's a series of vicious people who are dedicated to other activities," Gastélum said, raising the possibility that many of the "undesirables," as he called them, are using drugs. "I have to say there are some good people, [but also] some awful people for our city."

Gastélum, who hailed Tijuana as a "city of migrants," also accused the caravaneros of being rowdy and unclean. But on Saturday, they decided to organize themselves in small cleaning squads to sweep the city's streets block by block.

Trump seized on Gastélum's remarks Monday and fired off a tweet agreeing with the mayor's claim that a lack of resources to take the migrants in was a reason they should go back.


"The Mayor of Tijuana, Mexico, just stated that 'the City is ill-prepared to handle this many migrants, the backlog could last 6 months,'” wrote Trump, in reference to the interview. "Likewise, the U.S. is ill-prepared for this invasion, and will not stand for it. They are causing crime and big problems in Mexico. Go home!"

Meanwhile, U.S. immigration authorities had temporarily closed the border to unravel more concertina wire in preparation for what Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen called a plan to rush the border from some of the asylum-seekers. It was unclear where the department received such a warning, and a Customs and Border Protection spokesman told POLITICO on Tuesday that "both CBP and Mexican officials received the information from multiple sources."

And then there's Paloma Zuniga, a dual Mexican-American citizen who has created a Facebook page called "Paloma for Trump" with a following of 32,000 users. She attended the march on Sunday, but before that, her string of Facebook posts railing against "fake news" and praising nationalism reveal a history of Trump devotion.

When reports came out of Border Patrol agents fortifying the border, Zuniga was elated on Facebook: "OMG MEXICO/US border POSSIBLY SHUT DOWN !!!!!"

By Monday evening, after the military commander in charge of the U.S. troops deployed to the border told POLITICO the mission would begin winding down, she had a spot on Fox News.


"We should take of our Mexican people before we take care of anybody else, which is a very similar sentiment as Americans are having right now," Zuniga told Laura Ingraham during her nightly show, "Ingraham Angle." “Tijuana people are terrified ... Tijuana will never be the same until these people leave."

The tensions appeared to have been sparked in part by the fact that for a brief period, the migrants who were arriving in Tijuana set up shop in the town's beach sector, displeasing locals and prompting a few residents to go to the area, where they began taunting the migrants. According to Mexican polling firms, over half of the population supports allowing the caravan to move freely through its territory, and another march in support of the asylum-seekers also took place on Sunday.

That public opinion of support has largely come to bear out in the government's response, even though local governments have variously rescinded offers of transportation made to the migrants and last week about 60 individuals traveling in a bus to Tijuana were taken from the bus into detention by immigration authorities.

But as the migrants waded through the small towns on their way northward, residents would often line the streets and toss bags of food at them. Local organizers say that while race and class divides may be driving some of the nativist sentiments — Latin America has had a deeply ingrained class hierarchy since colonial times — U.S. leaders are most at fault for stoking fears.

"Discrimination has always existed, [but] it becomes stronger not just through rhetoric, but through actions," said David Abud, a volunteer with Pueblos Sin Fronteras, which has accompanied the caravan since it left Honduras on Oct. 12. "They closed the port of entry and blamed it on the migrants ... that generates rage and animosity against them."


Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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