Mi­grants in Ti­juana still hope to en­ter US

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Insight - BY PAULINA VILLEGAS MARK ABRAMSON NYT


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.”

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