John King had lived in Santa Cruz, California, for 20 years when her below-market-rate lease ended during the Covid-19 pandemic and her landlord took the home off the rental market. Between the effects of tech-related gentrification, the pandemic, and the CZU Lightning Complex fires, King couldn’t find housing. Eventually, two friends in the beach town of Ensenada, Baja California, suggested that she come to stay with them. They helped her find and rent a small guesthouse decorated with Italian tile. “I never anticipated being as happy as I am here,” she said.
Not long after, Elizabeth Bonilla, originally from the state of Sonsonate, El Salvador, also arrived in Ensenada. Bonilla had to grow up fast: She took over her family’s household duties when she was 8, after her mother was diagnosed with a life-threatening kidney illness at a time when heat- and pesticide-related chronic kidney disease was reaching epidemic proportions in low-lying parts of El Salvador. By the time she turned 14, she moved to a small city nearby to begin working. Then, after gangs killed two of her cousins, she fled her home country. Bonilla spent six years in Tapachula, Chiapas, the largest city on Mexico’s southern border, and obtained Mexican residency. She moved to Ensenada after an acquaintance found her a job, leaving her two children and her mother behind in Chiapas. “My whole life has been a long battle for survival,” she wrote to me in Spanish over Facebook Messenger, where we first connected.
King and Bonilla’s experiences speak to two different migrations converging in Baja California, Mexico: US citizens seeking coastal housing at a fraction of US prices, and refugees fleeing Mexico, Central America, and beyond. Climate is a factor in both. Though it’s most visible after natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, climate migration encompasses a wide spectrum of experiences — from displacement to wanting a better life, to seeking a place with a preferable climate or more amenities. In every case, however, economic inequality, sometimes exacerbated by climate change, helps shape the migrant’s path.
Of Mexico’s 32 states, Baja California—the state that spans the northern half of the peninsula of the same name—has the fourth-highest immigration rate, according to the country’s 2020 census. Over 85 percent of its documented immigrants are from the United States, according to an interview with Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography that appeared in the newspaper El Vigía. Most live just a short drive from the border, in coastal communities like Ensenada and Rosarito.
Even so, greater Tijuana’s reputation as a city of migrants didn’t come from southward migration from the US, but rather from internal migration from Mexico. Still, that migration has long connections to dynamics in the US; the city began to grow rapidly during the 1920s and ’30s due to Prohibition-era tourism and deportations of Mexican workers from the US. It continued when US assembly plants began opening in the 1970s and accelerated after NAFTA went into effect in 1994.
In recent years, changing US border policies have left thousands of migrants from Central America and beyond stranded indefinitely here. The “Migrant Protection Protocols,” for example, require some asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for hearings, while Title 42, which recently sunset, allowed border officials to deny most asylum claims. Some of those migrants shelter in camps; others stay with acquaintances or find temporary housing on their own. Many, like the generations who preceded them, stay and build a new life.
Increasingly, climate change is a factor in these converging migration flows. King left California for a variety of reasons—economic, political, and climatic. “It was economic, and there were the CZU (Lightning Complex) fires…and then there was a homicide right down the street from me,” she explained in a WhatsApp voice call. Gun violence also made her feel increasingly unsafe in the US: “You could go to school and die, or you could go to Walmart and die.”
Ensenada’s familiar coastal climate appealed to King. “I feel like I found the Mexican Santa Cruz,” she said. “It’s a humble little town on the water; it’s not the desert, it has a mild climate, very temperate.” Climate migration is often a form of amenity migration for US citizens like King, with beach access and pleasant weather figuring alongside housing costs. When King was priced out of California, Baja California offered something similar—more affordably.
Though Bonilla calls herself “a fanatic for the sea,” she’s only been able to visit the beach twice since moving to Ensenada. We spoke over the phone during one of her 36-hour shifts as a security guard at a shipping container yard. “The long hours don’t leave you almost any time to do anything else, and what they pay is barely enough for the high rents.”