Baltimore Sun

Tijuana shelters overwhelmed by U.S. immigration crackdown

Tents fill a shelter used mostly by Mexican and Central American migrants who are applying for asylum in the U.S., on the border in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, June 9, 2019.

With some shelters in Tijuana teetering on the brink of closure because of a lack of resources, Baja California officials are searching for a place to open a federally run facility to house about 3,000 migrants, according to state and municipal sources.

José Ma García Lara, the shelter director at Movimiento Juventud 2000, said many nonprofits are buckling after months of assisting "retornados" - asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, who are sent back to Mexico while they await an outcome in their U.S. immigration proceedings.


"We don't have any more space," said García. "We are almost all the way at capacity. For all the shelters in Tijuana, we're at about 80 to 90 percent capacity."

With many returned migrants waiting months for a court date, García said the problem is intensifying, as more and more people are returned each day to Tijuana, sometimes from Arizona and Texas.


Historically, asylum seekers were allowed to stay in the U.S. while their cases were decided by an immigration judge. With a backlog of more than 800,000 immigration cases, the Trump administration began in January turning migrants away with a "notice to appear" in immigration court. The migrants have been allowed to enter the U.S. for their hearings, but told they will have to live in Mexico while their case is decided.

If they lose their case, they are deported to the home country from which they fled usually because of violence and poverty.

The National Institute of Migration (INAMI) for Mexico released numbers last week stating that 6,217 Honduran, Guatemalan and El Salvadorean migrants have been returned to Tijuana through the Chaparral border port in Tijuana since July 7. During that same time, there have been 3,637 people returned through the Mexicali port, according to the latest numbers available.

That totals about 9,854 U.S. asylum seekers returned to the northern Mexican border state of Baja California through the U.S. policy called Migrant Protection Protocols program, known as "Remain in Mexico."

García said organizations are becoming increasingly concerned that mass deportations, threatened by the Trump administration, will further strain resources and put their vulnerable migrant populations at greater risk.

A dozen people arrived at the Movimento Juventud 2000 shelter in the Zone Norte neighborhood to seek shelter after arriving from south central México.

"This is a huge concern here in the Zona Norte (Northern Zone) and near the border," he said. "If you mix those people who have criminal records, and lack programs or jobs here in Tijuana, and try to shelter them with the migrants waiting to apply for asylum, we're going to have a very serious situation on our hands."

Director of Public Safety Marco Sotomayor said U.S. officials are planning to deport people with criminal backgrounds to Tijuana.

"We don't want them all deported here to the Tijuana border," said Sotomayor. "This is different from those who are deported just because they don't have documents. These are people who have committed crimes, in many cases, painful, serious crimes and who unfortunately, their (mode of operation) is the illegal commission of crimes."


Trump said Friday that massive nationwide deportation raids will begin this weekend targeting recently arrived immigrants. The agency said its focus was arresting people with final removal orders, but any undocumented immigrant in violation of U.S. immigration rules could be subject to arrest.

García said Mexican immigration officials are constantly bringing migrants to their shelters, but the Mexican federal government offers little or no resources to the nonprofits trying to care for them.

"For the organizations, right now, there are no resources and no federal money to help us receive these 'retornados.' There are so many people coming back every day and we're running out of room and resources to help support them," said García.

He said a federal delegate is going from shelter to shelter to collect information and assure directors that help is on the way in the form of a new, large migrant shelter with integrated programs and resources.

For Isaac Olvera, who runs the Salvation Army center for women and children in Colonia Libertad, that help may be arriving too late to keep the doors of his shelter open. Olvera said his shelter will have to close in about eight months due to a lack of state and federal funding to serve the enormous migrant population stranded in Tijuana.

The Salvation Army shelter for women opened in Colonia Libertad four years ago, aimed at serving Mexican nationals deported from the U.S. and repatriating in Mexico. In recent months, they have served thousands of families from 20 different nationalities, he said.


Olvera said they've struggled to not turn women and children away onto the streets in Tijuana, which can be dangerous for migrants traveling alone.

"What will a woman do with her two children in the street? It's not safe. That is inhumane to turn them away. We would hurt, but we really do not have the resources to support this project of refuge for migrant women and children," he said.

So far, details about the new shelter remain unclear.

"We're being told they are going to open a very big shelter here in Tijuana, and another one in Mexicali, but right now we don't know where or when. They are already planning something because this isn't working," said García.

A municipal Tijuana police officer who works as a liaison between migrant communities and the national immigration delegates said three sites are being considered for a new shelter. One is an empty commercial space in Otay near the U.S. Consulate; and another is a larger empty commercial space near the Institute Nacional Migración on Avenida de los Insurgentes near the Mezzanine.

A final third space being considered is "El Barretal," the former nightclub 11 miles from the border that served as a temporary migrant shelter run by the federal government in December, the Tijuana police officer confirmed.


At Movimiento Juventud 2000 on Tuesday, a Guatemalan migrant clutched her young son in her lap because of a lack of spare sitting space available at the crowded shelter located just yards from a U.S. border fence.

Milsa García, 33, said she arrived in Tijuana on July 2. She doesn't have her first immigration hearing until August 19.

García said she crossed the Rio Grande into Texas with her 6-year-old son on June 30. She said she spent several difficult days in custody in Texas, and then she was flown by plane to San Diego where she spent another two days in U.S. immigration custody before being returned to Tijuana.

"At least here, they treat us very well," she said referring to the Movimiento shelter.

A single mother fleeing domestic violence from the father of her four children, García began crying when she recalled the conditions in U.S. detention.

"We had to drink from the sink where we wash our hands above the toilet. There was no space and we got one meal a day and a little bit of juice and milk for the kids," she said.


"I just wanted to give my kids a better chance and get us out of the danger we were in," she said about leaving Guatemala. "I didn't imagine we would suffer so much."