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  • "Cuando llegaron los Haitianos":Black and Central American Migration, Respectability, and the Asylum Crisis in Tijuana, México
  • Darío Valles

"Mira que bien se han integrado los Haitianos!"—"Look how well Haitians have integrated!"—commented Pablo, the rideshare driver, presumably about the middle-aged woman who traversed our path as she walked on the street in the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood. I wondered why Pablo assumed this woman was Haitian, let alone an immigrant in Mexico. During the course of research in the area, I soon realized how "Haitiano"1 had begun to serve as a blanket term for Blackness in Tijuana that would be implicitly and explicitly contrasted to Central American migrants, who were deemed unworthy of refuge or resettlement in an era of increasing transnational legal exclusion of racialized migrants.

I rode with Pablo in the middle of the afternoon as I headed to the Tijuana's bustling zona centro, where I was volunteering for a cross-border grassroots organization that renders direct legal services for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. As an anthropologist whose research focuses on Central America and Mexican migration, I began engaged research on comparing migrant experiences of racialization at an asylum legal clinic called Al Otro Lado (AOL) in summer 2019. In what follows, I provide initial reflections on how hyper-restrictive U.S. immigration policies contribute to transnational, shifting racial formations and respectability politics at the U.S-Mexico border. Interactions with Tijuanenses, such as my aforementioned exchange with Pablo, along with work directly with Haitian, Central American, and African migrants, offers a lens through which to assess how heightening U.S. and European legal exclusion intersects with efforts to deny certain migrants political agency and a place in the shifting urban landscape along the border. These explorations provide the basis [End Page 288] for future analysis of how heightened border militarization is reshaping and reinforcing regional settler-colonial and anti-Black hierarchies and political economies.

remaining in insecurity

In December 2018, the Trump administration began to return asylum-seekers who entered through ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border to Mexico to wait for the duration of their immigration proceedings. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or what is informally known as Remain in Mexico, targets non-Mexicans seeking asylum unless they express a credible fear of returning to the transit country during initial interviews with immigration officials. This has been coupled with an Asylum Ban 2.0 in July 2019 that now prevents anyone who traversed by land or sea through a deemed safe third country from applying for asylum in the U.S. (Boghani, 2019). Non-Mexican migrants found to have a credible fear of being returned to Mexico are stripped of belongings and most clothing, and then detained either in cages or what organizers and migrants called hierleras (holding cells kept below room temperature). The Remain in Mexico policy is an unprecedented deterrent de jure for asylum seekers that, along with zero tolerance family separation and detentions, has forced many to remain stranded in border cities such as Tijuana and Cuidad Juárez, along Mexico's northern frontier.

The primary target of the MPP policy has been Central American migrants, and as of September 2019, some 40,333 migrants have already been sent to Mexico (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Yet the MPP policy also intersects with protracted political, economic, and ecological crises in Haiti as well as tightening xenophobic regimes in Europe that have forced African migrants to consider longer and no less dangerous land routes across Latin America to the U.S. via Mexico. Already reeling from economic downturns and drug-related violence and insecurity, but under the threat of tariffs, Mexico's government has quelled its public critique of the MPP as migrant populations build up in its border cities (Blitzer, 2019).2

The MPP policy has resulted in the need to export U.S. immigration legal services to migrant destination border cities through transnational non-profits such as AOL. My Spanish and French language background meant that, as a volunteer translator for this organization, I have had the unexpected privilege of interacting with many recent Black migrants as well as Central...


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