A border only becomes real when someone tries to cross it. On Sunday, November 25, a few hundred Central Americans marched in peaceful protest on the divide between the United States and Mexico, at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana. They were marching to demand recognition as asylum seekers at the mercy of Donald Trump’s crackdown on the number of people processed through the port, and to draw attention to the abysmal living conditions at the border, where a rundown sports complex served as a shelter for thousands. A few threw rocks; some tried to cross together en masse; some were diaper-clad and carried by their mothers. Border Patrol responded by firing canisters of tear gas at them.
Americans have been hearing about members of “the migrant caravan” since early October, when a group of around 160 Hondurans gathered in San Pedro Sula, one of the world’s most violent cities, to begin a nearly 3,000-mile journey to Tijuana on foot. Within several days, the caravan had swelled to 1,600 people; Vice President Mike Pence urged them to stay home, or turn back. They kept on, arriving at the border in numbers that eventually reached almost 6,000.
The violence of Homeland Security’s response when faced with uninvited guests exposed a great hypocrisy in America’s foundational myth, which is, of course, about the defiance of borders. It had occurred only a few days after Thanksgiving, a federal United States holiday that claims to celebrate how the migrants who would become the first Americans had been welcomed by the people whose land they had crossed into—without waiting in line, without filling out paperwork. The contrast laid bare just how arbitrary a border really is, that “the border” is a myth itself, in spite of the categories it creates: who is on what side, and what that determines they deserve.
The current bottleneck at the border in Tijuana (a city that is home to many migrants from past waves of asylum seekers, including thousands of Haitians displaced by hurricanes and earthquakes) is the result of the Trump administration’s limits on asylum applications at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Officials are only letting between 40 and 100 people cross daily; as recently as six months ago in some cases, migrants who made the same journey would not face a delay. Due to what the Trump administration calls “metering,” officials are now telling asylum applicants to wait for days and sometimes months. It was a process that began with the Obama administration in 2016 that Trump has turned into standard practice.
Images from the late November clash at the border in Tijuana went viral. Though they provoked outrage, the pictures are arbitrary in their own way, too. The abhorrent use of force that they depict is just one aspect of our nation’s immigration crisis, in which physical violence is merely the zenith in a long series of far more mundane mechanisms, bureaucratic and legal, that both exploit undocumented migration and exacerbate the conditions that cause it. Similarly, portrayals of “the migrant caravan” as a monolith, as solely criminal, or victimized, flatten the people inside it, their myriad desires and motivations, hopes and despairs.
The photographs that Susan Meiselas has taken of asylum seekers in Tijuana for Vogue capture an ecosystem rather than an imaginary line. With the help of journalist Sarah Kinosian, Meiselas began a week after Border Patrol deployed tear gas at the San Ysidro Port of Entry?and photographed the temporary inhabitants of the Benito Juarez Sports Complex—where migrants were first placed before a combination of flooding and overcrowding made it uninhabitable—and at the next shelter, some 12 miles away in a former?concert hall called El Barretal. Faced with deplorable conditions, and Tijuana’s already strained resources in question, thanks to a newly elected Mexican president, some asylum seekers gave up their dreams of making it to America, choosing instead to be deported back to the violence and lack of opportunity they had fled in their home countries; others began the process of resettling in Mexico. Some took their chances and crossed into California under the cover of darkness—in the spaces between pylons, over fences, and where the wall ends on the moonlit beach and the border blurs.
Still, some 3,000 people continue to wait. Tijuana’s networks of activist and humanitarian organizations have mobilized to help. But the members of the caravan face uncertain futures; will Trump’s mandate at the border change? How long can they stay in limbo? Do you keep waiting, or do you try to cross?
For almost everyone Meiselas documented, even the waiting is better than the violence, poverty, and chaos they left behind. A kernel of the American dream is enough. “I saw a documentary on Ohio once,” said Luis, a 42-year-old man who had left San Antonio de Cortész, in Honduras, and was packing up his belongings to leave one shelter for another. “It seemed nice.”