Thousands of migrants are seeking to apply for asylum in the United States at the border town. As their fate remains uncertain, some say they are willing to settle down in Mexico, while others are determined to move on.
TIJUANA, Mexico – It has been a tough festive season for Jeri Rivera and 2019 looks bleak. Her gruelling overland trek from Honduras to Mexico in a caravan of migrants has butted up against the stark realities of the US border under the Trump administration.
Now, Rivera, 23, is holed up with other migrants in a disused nightclub on the outskirts of Tijuana, a bustling town on the US-Mexico border where new arrivals are being forced to decide whether to chance illegal crossings, apply for asylum — or something else.
“It’s really dangerous at the border, the men on the other side won’t let anybody cross. Of course, there are some people who try to get through, for better or for worse,” Rivera told TRT World. “But you have to think about your life and your family.”
US president Donald Trump railed against the groups of thousands of migrants, known as caravans, that left Central America and arrived in Tijuana in recent months. Calling them an “invasion”, he sent several thousand troops to “harden” the border.
On Friday, he threatened to wholesale shut the US-Mexico border unless Congress funds construction of a wall along the 3,150 km frontier. He has also tightened the rules for those seeking asylum in America.
“Trump won’t let us in. It’s as simple as that,” Rivera added.
The stakes are high for Rivera, who gestures towards the unborn child she carries. She left Honduras with her boyfriend Christian Gabriel, also 23, hoping to escape drug gangs, violence and joblessness and start new lives in the US.
But, like many of the central Americans who joined the caravans, walking and hitching rides when possible, the resistance they met at the US border was greater than many anticipated and forced them to rethink plans.
“It’s too dangerous to cross into the US and we’re not in a position to apply for asylum, so we have to change our plans. We’re going to stay and live here in Tijuana, hopefully I can get work in a restaurant,” Gabriel told TRT World.
“It won’t be easy, we’re already out of money.”
They are not in dire straits just yet. Mexican officials have shifted many migrants from an initial camp in the waterlogged Benito Juarez Sports Complex to El Barretal, a concert venue on Tijuana’s southeastern edge.
At El Barretal, migrants have erected tents across a two-level, open-air facility that is well supplied with water, portaloos, bathing facilities and gets regular deliveries of second-hand clothes and meals of rice, meat and fruit.
Entrepreneurs have opened stalls selling cigarettes, food and washing items. Two barbers have a steady stream of clients for shaves and cuts. One tent, labelled “abogados”, offers legal advice to more than 1,000 residents.
Medics are on-hand to assist migrants — many suffer from a raspy respiratory cough after spending nights on cold, dusty floors. Médecins Sans Frontières, the UN agency for children, Unicef, and other aid groups are helping.
Jonathan Pedneault, from the campaign group Human Rights Watch, said a “roof and a dry floor” at El Barretal offered “much better installations” for migrants. Residents pass the time playing cards in the shade as stereos echo tinny music across the compound.
Still, it is no long-term solution. While Rivera and Gabriel are laying down roots in Tijuana, other migrants complain that they did not travel some 5,000km to the US frontier only to abandon their dreams of reaching America.
In November, groups of frustrated migrants threw rocks and tried to rush the US fence. Border guards fired tear gas cans at the crowd in an incident that generated headlines around the world but has not been repeated.
Each day, many El Barretal residents make the 30-minute journey to the border hoping to jump fences and dodge the guards. They often fall directly into the hands of immigration authorities on the US side.
One young Honduran man told TRT World he planned to hop the fence over the coming days when the guards were preoccupied with counting down the final hours of 2018 and revelling at the start of the New Year.
Others have dug in at El Barretal and other temporary lodgings in Tijuana for the long process of seeking asylum from a reluctant US government.
Camp resident Sergio Sandino, 39, said he fled Nicaragua with a small group of compatriots who faced persecution and even death at the hands of police after they staged anti-government protest strikes in April.
“I never thought of migrating and would not have left a free Nicaragua, but Nicaragua is not free,” Sandino, whose name has been changed to protect his relatives, told TRT World. “We need political asylum in order to be safe from persecution.
“I would go to any state in the US. I want to work quietly and help my family.”
Under former US President Barack Obama a system dubbed “metering” began, which limits how many can request asylum each day in Tijuana. Lawyers say Trump is using the system more aggressively to stem the flow at the port of entry.
A spokesman for US Customs and Border Protection said the agency works with Mexican officials and aid groups to manage the flow, but rejected claims that migrants were being blocked from making asylum claims.
Looking after the large groups of Central Americans is a challenge for Mexico. New President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed to issue more work visas and improve conditions at El Barretal shelter.
The two administrations are working to overhaul US immigration rules, by which asylum seekers must stay in Mexico while their claims are decided — a process that can take years. In the past, asylum seekers could wait for court hearings while in the US.
“Aliens trying to game the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the US, where many skip their court dates,” said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Migrants put their names on a semi-formal asylum list, a black-and-white ledger controlled by volunteers. Those on the list are given a number and must wait months for an interview. The list contains thousands of names from around the world.
Sandino says he is number 1,800 on that list, and that he expected US officials to grant his asylum request within about two months upon learning of the state-sanctioned retribution he faces back in Nicaragua.
“We don’t want to enter the US illegally. We want a legal process,” Sandino told TRT World. “Trump is perfectly within his rights to take care of and protect his country. Every country has this right. We don’t want to invade the country. I understand Trump’s policy.”
Sandino’s fate is uncertain, but he will doubtless not be the last asylum seeker in Tijuana. In recent days, it emerged that another migrant caravan of some 15,000 people is set to depart from Honduras in mid-January.
On Friday, Trump, a Republican, bashed Democrats for “their pathetic immigration policies” which, he said, encouraged migrants to “make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally”. A secure border wall would solve the problem, he said via Twitter.