Migrants in Tijuana still hope to enter US
Life in Tijuana’s largest migrant shelter has begun to take on the familiar rhythms and sounds of a Central American neighborhood: Early in the morning, adults get ready to go to work. Kids dress for school. Moms gather bundles of dirty clothes for the day’s wash. Vendors hawk coffee.
“We are getting used to this life,” said Norma Pérez, 40, who left Honduras in a migrant caravan bound for the U.S. about two months ago with her 5-year-old son.
For weeks, they walked from Central America up to the Mexican border with the United States, fleeing poverty and violence. All along the way, President Donald Trump described the migrants as a danger, as invaders trying to crash their way into the United States. But they didn’t stop their trek north.
When they arrived at the border, Tijuana was not ready for them. The conditions were deplorable, and the migrants were surprised they would not be able to apply for asylum right away. Twice, groups of migrants ap- proached the border fence and were repelled by Border Patrol agents using tear gas and pepper spray.
But now, life for many of the new arrivals has settled down.
Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has begun to create alternatives to immigration and has rolled out a plan to raise pay on the U.S.-Mexico border.
And the migrants themselves have begun to create a sense of community in the shelters here, like the city’s largest, known as El Barretal. They said they have no intention of turning back.
Trump “should personally go to Honduras so he can see with his own eyes that we simply can’t go back, that there are no jobs, no companies, nothing,” Pérez said.
So she is settling in at El Barretal, a concert venue turned into a shelter where tents are lined up in orderly rows on the clean concrete floor. For the thousands of migrants like her in El Barretal and 18 other Tijuana shelters, this is home – for now.
As she waits for her chance to apply for asylum in the U.S., Pérez has decided to apply for a temporary humanitarian visa in Mexico. That will let her find a job in Tijuana and support herself and her child, she said.
Rodolfo Figueroa, an official with the National Immigration Institute, a government agency, said most of the migrants who arrived in Tijuana with the caravan and who applied for humanitarian visas have been approved. In total, 2,200 visas have been awarded in little over a month, he said. About 1,300 migrants have either been deported or voluntarily returned to their home countries, he added.
At noon on most days, English classes start inside a small white tent with bright blue carpets covering the concrete floor. Puzzle pieces are on tables, along with drawings and crayons. Posters with names of colors hang on the walls.
Darwin Bardales, an 18-year-old Honduran, has been working as a volunteer in the shelter’s English school.
“It feels good to do something for the others, especially the kids,” he said. “We are all in the same vulnerable situation.”
The kids take classes in English and Spanish, learning to read, to color and to eat healthy foods. On Friday, the classes got a late start: The arrival of donated teddy bears and piñatas had the children’s full attention until a female voice boomed from the loudspeaker.
“Hello everybody, it’s your teacher!” the voice said. ”
Adult migrants scattered around the camp cheered in response.
Food is cooked and distributed both by private aid groups and by Mexican marines twice a day – rice, soup and sandwiches. It is a bare-bones existence, but friendships have developed and at least one wedding took place in a downtown shelter.
Their first few days in Tijuana in November were chaotic, and a bitter disappointment, migrants said. The Trump administration had limited asylum applicants that could be seen in a day, separated parents from their kids, sent troops to the frontier – and starting last month, shut down the federal government in a bid to get funding for a border wall.
Housed initially in an open-air sports complex, the migrants saw a torrential downpour turn the ground to mud around their makeshift tents. Children started to get sick and adults grew dispirited.
To many, those hardships felt temporary — and less threatening than the conditions they had left at home. Life at El Barretal is a definite step up from those first, soaking days.
Elisabeth Ponce, 38, came from Honduras and has a job inside the shelter, handing out toiletries, medicine and other basics.
She said she fled Honduras, like so many others, fearing for her life after being threatened by criminal gangs. Joining the caravan was a drastic decision: It meant leaving behind her four children and venturing outside her country for the first time, knowing she had no one to help her if she ever got to the United States.
She knows she may not get the asylum she is applying for, and that crossing illegally is dangerous. But she remains resolute.
Carlos, Janeth and their three kids, who came from Honduras, live at a migrant camp in Tijuana, Mexico. A crisis is emerging at migrant shelters as the Trump administration focuses, as one official put it, on “how can we deter, rather than how can we handle.”