World News

Short of Their Destination, Caravan Migrants Wrestle With Next Steps

Posted November 21, 2018 7:34 p.m. EST

TIJUANA, Mexico — One job opening was in a garment factory, another was with a cleaning company. Still, María Norma López hesitated. When she left Honduras six weeks ago with a migrant caravan, she hoped to pass through Mexico, not to remain there.

“I want to go to the United States because I want to have a better life,” López, 39, said. “And in Mexico — I don’t know.”

In a first step toward fashioning a long-term solution for caravan members, officials in this city of humming export plants got down to business: They set up a job fair complete with a mobile migration office.

It was a practical response to the challenge of housing and feeding the migrants, an effort that is swamping Tijuana’s resources. But even as López and dozens of other migrants milled around the basement room filling out forms, it was clear much more was needed.

The city government has said it will take six months for all the migrants who decide to seek asylum in the United States to be called for a first interview with an asylum officer at the border. Having relied on collective action to reach the California border, the migrants must now navigate the next steps on their own.

Tijuana officials prepared Wednesday for the caravan to double to more than 6,000 people, as migrants who had been waiting in rudimentary shelters 2 1/2 hours to the east gradually found rides to Tijuana aboard buses and trailers.

The migrants, who have insisted on remaining together, are being dropped off at a rundown community sports center where officials set up a makeshift shelter last week. If the final population reaches 6,000 or so, as expected, the shelter will be packed with almost twice as many people as its estimated capacity.

The head of Tijuana’s social development agency, Mario Osuna, watched wearily Tuesday evening as hundreds of migrants, carrying rolled blankets and frayed backpacks, lined up to give their names and receive the orange bracelets that gave them access to the shelter.

“We’re waiting for them because they’re already on their way,” Osuna said of the migrants coming from the east. “But we can’t have people on top of one another.”

The new arrivals will raise tensions in Tijuana, where the United States — following President Donald Trump’s portrayal of the caravan as an “invasion” — has made a show of strengthening the border.

Concertina wire spiraled over the U.S. side of the border crossing leading from downtown Tijuana to San Ysidro, California. At the Otay Mesa crossing on the city’s east side, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers emerged in full anti-riot gear during the afternoon earlier this week to stand guard on either side of traffic inching over the border.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called the show of force a response to intelligence suggesting that a large number of migrants were going to rush the border, although Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a binational activist group accompanying the migrants, has said repeatedly that no such plan exists.

U.S. officials also said, without providing evidence, that they had identified 500 criminals in the caravan, but could not explain why the Mexican police had not arrested them.

For the migrants, who had willed themselves to believe that Trump could somehow be softened by their presence at the border, the message was clear.

“Once we got here, we realized that they weren’t going to let us cross,” Leticia Ramírez, 35, who said she worked on banana plantations in Honduras, complained as she walked out of the shelter one morning this week with two friends. She was on her way to look for “any job” in Tijuana.

“The president of the United States treats us like garbage, like some kind of animal,” Ramírez said, her arms wrapped around her sleeping bag.

U.S. lawyers have held workshops to explain to the migrants here the intricacies of applying for asylum in the United States — almost the only way most of them might qualify to enter legally.

Chelsea Strautman, a lawyer from Oregon, stood on an overturned bucket before a crowd clustered on the sports center’s baseball diamond on Tuesday night.

Approval rates for Central American applicants were grim, she told them; currently, less than 20 percent win their asylum cases. “They’ve put thousands of migrants in jails,” she said. “If you don’t qualify for asylum, you’re going to be detained for months and then deported.” Some migrants refused to give up hope. “We’re only a few steps away from seeing what God will say,” said Emerson Martínez Amador, 19, from Honduras, who arrived in Tijuana on Tuesday with the second half of the caravan.

“If it takes time to reach my destiny, I’ll wait,” he declared. “Even if it takes one month, or two. We’ve got to wait, you understand?”

The wait has just begun and Tijuana is feeling the strain. With Mexico’s new federal government preparing to take office Dec. 1, the city has received the barest minimum of help and cannot set up a new shelter, said César Palencia Chávez, who is in charge of migrants’ affairs for the city of Tijuana.

“We would all like for them to have a dignified space for the children, the women, the men, but the reality is that what has been humanely possible up to now is this,” he said, referring to the sports center. “There are no resources.”

And since the migrants won’t separate, he said, he cannot place some of them with the city’s network of largely church-run shelters.

Most of those shelters, he said, will take only women and children because publicity about the way the caravan pushed through Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala a month ago and the arrests of nearly 60 men in Tijuana during the past week — almost all for nonviolent misdemeanors — have begun to rattle citizens. At the sports center shelter, supplies were stretched even before the second half of the migrant caravan arrived, despite donations from volunteer and church groups, said Delia Ávila Suárez, who heads Tijuana’s family services agency. Toilet paper, diapers, sanitary pads and cough medicine often ran out before a new delivery arrived.

“In general, Tijuana is a land of immigrants,” to which the city has adapted, she said, “but we’ve never seen anything like this.”

In 2016 and 2017, thousands of Haitians arrived after traveling all the way from Brazil. At one point, the city placed 6,000 Haitians in 32 different shelters, Palencia said.

Since then, some 3,500 Haitians have settled in Tijuana, and migration officials have been quick to cite their integration as a model for the caravan.

But some wonder how long it will be before the patience of the caravan migrants runs out and they try to cross the border illegally.

“Many people have stayed here for half a year, and they adapt to life in the community, but then they’ve crossed over,” said José María García Lara, the founder of the shelter Juventud 2000. “They’ll end up going, because we’re on the border.”

Mexico provides a humanitarian visa that allows foreigners to work, as well as an opportunity to seek asylum in Mexico.

“We are going to be here for a good long time,” said Héctor Rodríguez, 40, who fled his job as a bus driver in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula because of extortion threats. Waiting for his turn to speak to a Mexican immigration official at the job fair, he said he planned to earn enough money to send for his wife and two children.

“This is a good option,” he said, rising from his chair. It was time to have his ID photo taken.