Migrants at Mexico border face an uncertain future on their own

After being relocated to a new shelter, some have opted to go home while others may stay in Mexico or wait for asylum in the US

Migrants wait for a chance to request US asylum, alongside the border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico. Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Authorities in Tijuana have started to relocate more than 6,000 Central Americans to a new shelter, after the rundown sports centre where they have been camped out for more than two weeks descended into squalor.

Torrential rains this week have compounded the migrants’ misery, flooding the crowded sports complex where they sleep shoulder-to-shoulder in tents and shelters made from cardboard, garbage bags and blankets.

Gustavo Alocer, a representative from Mexico’s human rights commission, described the situation as a humanitarian crisis, while UNICEF has said that it is “deeply concerned” for the well-being of more than 1,000 children who arrived in the string of migrant caravans.

Meanwhile, the collective momentum which brought the migrants safely through Mexico has dissipated, as caravan members face the dawning realisation that they may be stuck here for months – and that they will make their next steps alone.

“Some of the people have opted to go back home, but many are in the process of applying for visas to stay in Mexico or are planning to wait for asylum in the United States – and they need to be cared for,” said Alocer.

Around 350 migrants have opted to be deported back to their home countries. But most are planning to stay in Mexico while they plot their next steps.

Many of the migrants admit frankly that, when they set out, they had no real strategy beyond reaching the US border.

“I didn’t really have much of a plan when I left Honduras: everyone said that we would be able to cross the border – I thought it would be easier,” said 29-year-old Yocelyn Alvarado as she picked up her 3-year-old son Fernando to stop him wondering into vast puddle of stinking floodwater and sodden trash.

A Honduran boy plays next to the flooded area at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico.
A Honduran boy plays next to the flooded area at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. Photograph: Ramón Espinosa/AP

They were among the last to arrive at the centre, and the only spot they could find was next to a stinking row of portable toilets.

“My son is always sick here,” said Alvarado. “if he’s not vomiting, he has diarrhea and a persistent cough. I want to wait for asylum, but now I’m thinking I’ll arrange my paperwork to stay in Mexico and get a job.”

Many of the migrants headed North to escape gang violence or political intimidation in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and had hoped to apply for asylum in the US.

But US border authorities limit asylum applications at the San Ysidro border crossing to between 40 and 100 per day, and thousands of people are trapped in the bottleneck.

Even before the caravans arrived, an unofficial waiting list managed by migrants themselves had about 3,000 names, and the waiting time to start an asylum application was about a month.

Now, the list has ballooned to over 5,000 and the waiting time has doubled

Not all the migrants plan to apply for asylum – either because they cannot prove that their lives are in danger or because they are fleeing economic hardship rather than violence. Many of those are now weighing staying in Tijuana, turning back home, or crossing the US border illegally.

Outside the shelter, Carlos Alfaro, a 33-year-old construction worker said his neighbourhood in San Salvador, was on the front line between territory claimed by rival gangs.

A group of migrants climb the fence separating Mexico from the United States.
A group of migrants climb the fence separating Mexico from the United States. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

“You can’t cross the street because if you move from one gang’s territory to the other, they’ll kill you. Because I live on the line, they both want to kill me,” he said.

But he had no way to prove his story, and knew that he had little hope of claiming asylum. “I guess I’ll stay in Tijuana and find a job. Then we’ll see – at this point I’d rather be in jail in the US than in my country.”

Some migrants – unwilling to wait two months to start an asylum application or unable to pay a $3000-$10,000 smuggler’s fee price, have simply been trying to cross into the US on their own.

Several groups have trekked down to Tijuana beach, hoping to find a way to slip through holes in the border fence, or clamber over the extra layers of concertina wire the Trump administration has added in recent weeks.

Relocating the migrants to the new shelter, has made such efforts more difficult. Situated in one of Tijuana’s most dangerous neighborhoods, the building – a disused concert venue – is more than 15 miles from the US border.

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