SAN DIEGO — Despite the deployment of almost 6,000 active-duty troops to the border with Mexico to stop the migrant caravan, the hundreds of Central Americans who've already arrived in Tijuana have been hard pressed to spot them.
The closest that the caravan has come to a soldier are the usually two to four members of the US Army installing razor wire on the border fence that ends at the Pacific Ocean.
It doesn’t help that the majority of the active-duty troops were not sent to the border between California and Mexico, where the caravan is heading. About 2,800 soldiers are in Texas, 1,500 are in Arizona, and another 1,300 are in California. Since the soldiers are barred from enforcing immigration law and aren't allowed to detain or arrest anybody at the border, the likelihood of them interacting with migrants is very low.
That's true even now, as word seeps out that the Pentagon has decided to move troops from Arizona and Texas to California. What exactly the movement means is uncertain, and the official word Tuesday from Northern Command, which oversees troops in the United States, offered little clarification.
"We are continually assessing our resources and refining requirements in close coordination with DHS," Northern Command said in a statement, referring to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration issues. "We may shift some forces to other areas of the border to engineering support missions in California and other areas. No specific timeline for redeployment has been determined. We will provide more details as they become available."
Even with a shift in deployments to California, the contact between soldiers and migrants is likely to be incidental, such as this exchange between a member of the caravan and a soldier through the border fence at Playas de Tijuana, a Mexican neighborhood that abuts the US at San Diego County's Imperial Beach.
The migrant asked a soldier through the fence if he, too, was Latino.
“I’m Persian,” the soldier said in Spanish.
“But you speak Spanish,” the man said back in apparent disbelief.
The soldier smirked and said he spoke multiple languages. The veracity of that claim couldn't be determined.
Tracking down soldiers has been hard even if you aren’t a Central American migrant. They’re out of sight and nowhere near where they might confront a group that President Donald Trump has characterized as an invading army that threatens US sovereignty.
Jimmy Martinez, an 18-year-old migrant who traveled in the caravan with his twin brother, was leaning on the border fence and staring at an Army soldier decked out in camouflage and holding an assault rifle on the other side. For days, members of the caravan have watched soldiers standing around while construction crews topped the border fence with concertina wire.
Martinez said a different soldier, with a “badass” helmet, had given his friend $5 through the fence the day before.
“Some people are scared of the soldiers, but I’m not scared,” Martinez said.
Martinez, who left an orphanage in El Salvador for Guatemala when he was 14 to work in construction, heard about the caravan on TV and figured it was his best shot at a better life. When he left El Salvador, he was already being pressured to join a local gang, an offer his father had refused in 2001, resulting in his father's death before Martinez had marked his first birthday.
Even though Martinez said entering the US is his best shot at a life free from violence fueled by gangs and poverty, he had some sympathy for the soldier.
“It’s OK that they’re defending the country, but I think the United States should also help us and think of others,” Martinez said.
US officials haven't said what they expect from members of the caravan as their numbers in Tijuana grow. On Monday, the military and the Department of Homeland Security shut down all traffic lanes for the 26 vehicle inspection booths at the San Ysidro border crossing, the busiest land port of entry in the Western Hemisphere, allegedly in response to worries that caravan members planned to storm the location.
There was no word on where the reports had come from, though it has been obvious that the military must have in mind a scene similar to the one that unfolded weeks ago when the caravan, which then numbered about 3,000 people, burst through a gate on a bridge linking Guatemala with Mexico and rushed toward Mexico. Mexican border officers quickly repulsed the gatecrashers with tear gas and chained the gate closed. Eventually, most of the people on the bridge lowered themselves to the Río Suchiate, which separates Guatemala and Mexico, and rode rafts into Mexico, without challenge from authorities.
There is no indication that the same would happen at the US–Mexico border, since many migrants say they want to enter the US legally.
A Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 7 spokesperson said the razor wire that soldiers and construction crews were stringing along the border fence was meant to “deter people from climbing over it.” The barriers that had been placed near the San Ysidro crossing, the spokesperson said, were being installed in case border authorities needed them for crowd control outside the port of entry.
But the likelihood of a mad dash by asylum seekers to storm the border crossing seems remote. In the spring, when another migrant caravan arrived in Tijuana, its members went to the same beach and celebrated, with some climbing to the top of the fence. That scene is unlikely now that the razor wire is up, but even then, with no razor wire, none of the caravan celebrants attempted to enter the US across the fence.
Instead, hundreds camped outside the San Ysidro pedestrian walkway waiting for a chance to apply for asylum. US authorities strictly controlled who could approach the port of entry, saying they didn’t have room to process them, and the group didn’t try to storm the border.
Asylum seekers at the San Ysidro pedestrian walkway won't see much of the concertina wire, the stringing of which has been the troops' most visible responsibility. What razor wire they see will be on top of walls close to the metal door where they can present themselves to border agents. Those walls had wire months ago — though in recent days, two soldiers on a mechanical lift were seen adding a double layer of razor wire.
Where the members of the caravan would see the work of the troops is at the car crossing at San Ysidro — if any of them cross by auto. The US has shut down three lanes of the crossing with concrete barriers and placed razor wire at one corner.
Troops are not the only border presence ready for the caravan. US Customs and Border Protection sent a “large number” of specially trained officers from Texas for ports of entry in Arizona and California in anticipation of the caravan.
Asked about the additional officers being moved to California, a Border Patrol agent stationed at the San Diego–Tijuana border said the US has to protect itself and take whatever precautions it deems necessary. Most Border Patrol agents declined to be interviewed even on background because they aren't authorized to speak to reporters.
Last Friday, about 30 Border Patrol agents from Texas pulled up in four vans to Friendship Park on the US side of the border, a binational park at the Tijuana–San Diego border where people from both countries can face each other across a fence. Some agents took selfies using the waves of the ocean and clear blue sky as a backdrop. An agent leading the group said he didn’t know if any of them would be stationed here.
If the agents were preparing for a battle, it was not immediately clear from their answers. Being moved from Texas to the border here is "part of the job,” said one agent.
“It is what it is,” said another, shaking his head.