Yolanda Garcia handed out paper bowls to more than three dozen people crowded around huge pots of steaming chicken and rice stew. Heavy rains were falling in Tijuana, so Garcia and six other volunteers set up this ad-hoc kitchen under a plastic tent, steps away from an outdoor shelter that held more than 6,000 people—migrants and asylum seekers from Central America who have completed their 2,500-mile journey from Honduras here to the doorstep of the United States.
Garcia feels a connection to the plight of the migrants. She’s originally from the Mexican state of Guerrero, but was deported to Tijuana in 2012 after having lived for decades in Bakersfield, California. When the migrant caravan arrived on Tijuana’s beaches three weeks ago, she began preparing hot meals for them. She started cooking nine pots of stew last night, and has hardly slept a wink. To pay for this, she relies on the financial support of her husband and children who are still living on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Like Garcia, the majority of Tijuana’s population—about 52.4 percent—was not born in this sprawling border city of more than 1.5 million. “Tijuana has always been a city of migrants—more than 80 percent of current residents come from migrant families or are migrant themselves,” said Tijuana’s government secretary, Leopoldo Guerrero. “We are used to migration, but just not of this kind.”
The problem is that the sheer number of migrants—Guerrero gives their number at 6,192, which is about twice the city’s federal prison population—has overwhelmed local officials, who say that Mexico’s federal government has failed to support their efforts to provide services. Since the caravan departed from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on October 13, the migrants have received humanitarian aid from towns and cities along the route. But those resources have become scarce in Tijuana, and the tension is palpable. Officials are increasingly exasperated; so are the migrants waiting their turn to apply for asylum in the United States.
While volunteers like Garcia serve up warm food outside of the shelter, Mexican soldiers deployed by the federal government cook two meals a day, with provisions provided by the city. Long lines are common; many migrants say there isn’t enough food to go around. Inside the Benito Juarez sports complex, which initially housed migrants since their arrival, sanitary conditions were deplorable. Unlike Mexico City, which provided basic comforts like tents and blankets, in Tijuana many shelter residents slept on dirt and concrete floors for the first days.
By Thursday, the grounds of the sports complex had become large mud pools. Portable toilets overflowed, garbage heaps accumulated on the periphery of the shelter, and migrants had few options for bathing or other basic necessities. UNICEF said it was gravely concerned about the nutrition, education, and safety of the more than 1,000 migrant children living in the shelter.
Last week, city officials helped to transfer migrants to another facility, as fears grew that unsanitary conditions represented a growing public health threat. The new shelter, a former concert venue located 20 kilometers away in eastern Tijuana, is being run by the federal immigration agency, and it boasts better amenities, including toilets and showers.
One day before the city government began moving migrants to the new shelter, Mirna Contreras, 29, from Honduras, waited out the torrential rain inside her tent. Contreras has been here for two weeks; she says she sang in public to gather 400 pesos to purchase the tent. “I felt much better in Mexico City. I feel abandoned here,” she told CityLab. “This is the worst shelter I have been in.” Battling a chronic cough, Contreras said the dirty and dangerous conditions were particularly distressing because “hunger, necessity, and violence brought many of us here.”
For mothers like Riccy Bueno Aguilar, 18, it’s a daily struggle to keep their babies clean. City employees manage a small dispensary of diapers, feminine products, toilet paper and other toiletries, but supplies are rationed. “It is cold—I can’t bathe my son in the outdoor showers. So I depend on them for the diapers and wipes, but it’s not enough,” Aguilar said.
Tijuana government secretary Guerrero says that the city was in talks with the federal government in the weeks before the caravan’s arrival to prepare support for the migrants. But so far that help has been limited—some federal police, blankets, and mattresses, plus extra steel barricades now propped up on the U.S.-Mexican border and food rations that fed migrants for two days. “We’re faced with giving them shelter, food, clean rooms, drinking water, clothes, medicines, and this represents a huge expense. On average we’re spending 550,000 pesos per day on these costs,” Guerrero told CityLab.
At the end of the November, Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum declared the migrant situation a humanitarian crisis, in the hopes that the United Nations would step in to assist the city. Meanwhile, Guerrero says the city is asking the federal government to make clear how long migrants will have to wait for asylum and provide them with work permits.
Tijuana’s head of social development, Mario Osuna, oversees the migrant shelter, and he says the city was very clear with the federal government that it could not bear the long-term burden of running a facility of this size. But when asked about the squalid conditions of Benito Juarez complex, Osuna also deflected some of the blame on the migrants themselves. “The very behavior of people not to take care of their space in terms of cleanliness and hygiene generates infection and health problems, which makes our job more difficult,” he said.
Guerrero, too, suggested the plight of the refugees was partly of their own making, and expressed the hope that the poor conditions might be enough to encourage migrants to either settle in the city permanently, or leave Tijuana and return home. “I think that maybe with these conditions they are seeing, the weather and the long asylum process, they will come to a reasonable decision. Whether to stay and join the labor force or return to their countries.”
Many Tijuana residents have had mixed reactions regarding migrant presence in their city. In November, hundreds marched in protest of the migrant caravan, demanding they be detained or deported. As the crisis deepens, public support has declined further among Mexicans: A recent poll by a Mexican newspaper found that 7 in 10 Mexicans don’t support the caravan; more than half don’t want migrants to secure work visas.
For volunteers trying to help the migrants, the worsening situation has been hard to watch. “It’s hurtful to see people caught between two nations and the rhetoric on the U.S. side with the Trump administration,” said Diana Cervera, who lives in Tijuana’s beachfront neighborhood and works with groups in Tijuana and San Diego to bring donations and resources to migrants. Groups like the San Diego’s Border Angels have traveled to Tijuana to drop off donations. San Diego doctors have also volunteered to treat migrants in the shelter. “People stuck in this border zone have limited options for mobility.”
Complicating the situation further, the Trump administration has been making it as difficult as possible for asylum seekers to enter the U.S. and file asylum applications. Last month, Trump suspended asylum rights for immigrants who try to cross into the U.S. illegally, aimed at those from Central America who, he said “appear to have no lawful basis for admission into” the United States. A federal judge has temporarily blocked the new rules pending a challenge in court.
Meanwhile, the migrants wait, and grow anxious. This week, some tried to cross the border fence at the beach; others have gone on a hunger strike to pressure the U.S to speed up the asylum process. Though police have cleared the Benito Juarez shelter and chained its gates, a few hundred migrants remain, camped out on the surrounded streets.
Erika Johanna Garcia, 25, standing by the locked gates with her children, says she’s reluctant to go to the new government shelter, even though her family is now without regular food and she hasn’t been able to find work yet. Here, she can at least see the U.S. border fence, and she feels closer to her final destination.
“Imagine coming this far, only to double back,” she said. “Those that persevere triumph.”
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