22 de fevereiro de 2019
They had fled violence and poverty in Honduras, traveling through Mexico in a caravan, hoping to seek asylum in the United States.
Most of the group they had traveled with decided to go to the Texas border, but Velasquez Castro and her family followed in the footsteps of larger caravans that came before.
They ended up in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego.
Now, she’s filled with remorse.
“We had traveled with two friends, but they went through Piedras Negras and they’re already across the border,” she said.
Velasquez Castro described her experience with a tone of despair, as children played soccer in the small courtyard of the Madre Assunta migrant shelter, where she’s staying with her daughter.
“Many people had told us to go through there (Texas), but they would also say things that would scare us, that it was too dangerous, that they could kidnap you,” she said. “So we decided to come here instead, where it seems like its tougher to cross.”
Asylum-seeking families such as Velazquez Castro’s continue arriving in Tijuana steadily and on a daily basis. But their hopes for a speedy entry into the U.S. are dashed quickly.
When they arrive, there already are about 2,600 people in line, meaning they are looking at a two-month wait in Tijuana before even talking to U.S. immigration officials.
And now, there’s another complicating factor.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began sending back certain Central American families to Tijuana to await in Mexico the outcome of their asylum claims. Previously, U.S. authorities would release them into the custody of relatives already in the United States.
It’s part of what DHS calls the Migrant Protection Protocols, but is informally known as “Remain in Mexico,” a new policy aimed at limiting the number of migrants let into the United States with pending asylum cases.
The policy has come under renewed criticism and scrutiny, and is even now the subject of a lawsuit that argues it is contrary to U.S. and international law.
Migrant groups say they are ‘saturated’
For migrant rights groups and shelters in Tijuana, there’s growing concern that the number of newly arrived families, combined with the families that the United States is sending back, will reach a critical point.
Once here, migrant families — those arriving and those sent back — have few places to go.
“We are full. We are saturated,” Mary Galvan said. She runs Madre Assunta, one of three shelters for women and minors in Tijuana.
“There’s more people arriving, there’s more people who need the shelters, and it’s not possible for us to do the job that belongs to the United States,” she said. “If (families) are asking them for asylum, they should have those people in the United States, not send them back to Mexico.”
Galvan’s shelter received some of the first families sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols. But because of space limitations, they get the same treatment as Mexican deportees, she said. That means they are only allowed to stay for a few days, in order to make room for others.
Madre Assunta, located on a hill overlooking Tijuana’s upscale Zona Rio district, has a capacity for 45 women and children. There are currently about 150 staying there, according to Galvan.
And another 20 people show up each day looking for shelter, she added.
“How will I say, ‘Yes, I’m prepared to receive those sent back to await the processing of their asylum claims?'” Galvan asked. “I will give them shelter within my means, if I have space, they will be welcome. If not, I can’t take them in.”
The vast majority of families staying there are in Velazquez Castro’s situation. The new U.S. policy is adding to the distress many of them already faced upon leaving their homes and traveling through Mexico.
“They’re waiting on something uncertain,” Galvan said. “They don’t know what they’re going to find when they ask for asylum, so this has them in a very strong, emotional state of shock.”
Tijuana shelters are at or over capacity
Despite its extensive network of migrant shelters, in addition to the three solely for women and minors, only a couple more in Tijuana are designated for mixed-gender families.
And those are at or over capacity as well, according to Esmeralda Siu, the coordinator for the Coalición Pro Defensa del Migrante, a network of shelters located along Baja California state’s border with California.
The remaining dozen or so permanent shelters in the city are designated just for men, remnants of when most migrants and deportees they received were single, adult men, mostly from Mexico.
Those spaces also are full, making it difficult for single adults returned to Mexico. To date, they’ve made up the bulk of individuals sent back to Tijuana under the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
The latest figures from Mexico’s immigration agency show that at least three-quarters of the Central American migrants sent back so far have been single adults. Nearly all of them had been waiting for months in Tijuana to claim asylum at the San Ysidro crossing.
“What we’re seeing is that they can accommodate themselves fairly quickly because they already knew the city and they already had ties, friend, connections, where they rented. That’s an advantage,” Siu said. “But what happens when we have many more cases? That’s going be a challenge for everyone.”
Even though the asylum-seekers returned to Mexico had already spent some time in Tijuana, it doesn’t take away from their vulnerability, advocates added.
The city had a massive surge in homicides last year, with 2,518 documented deaths, making it one of the deadliest cities in Mexico, according to government statistics.
Questions about Mexico’s role linger
There are still many questions about the Mexican government’s involvement and response, or lack thereof, to the U.S. shift in policy.
Mexico’s National Migration Institute contends that the U.S. acted unilaterally when it implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols and that it’s simply responding in accordance to humanitarian principles within Mexico’s own migration policy.
But that explanation rings as hollow and untrue to the migrant groups on the ground who said they’ve witnessed the active participation of Mexican officials in the program.
They accuse the federal government of not preparing a suitable response plan.
Earlier this month, 20 migrant shelters and churches along the Baja California border sent a letter to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the Mexican Congress urging them to intervene immediately.
Their main request is for the creation of a formal government plan to address the various migrant flows along the border, as well as more money for migrant aid groups and programs in the region.
Migrant groups want Mexico, U.S. to be transparent
Siu, whose group signed the letter, said the one thing she would like to see above all is greater transparency and clarity coming from the government about the Migrant Protection Protocols.
“You find out everything by other means,” she said.
To date, they haven’t received any response from the Mexican government. The Arizona Republic‘s repeated calls to Mexico’s immigration agency delegate in Tijuana, who has overseen the shift in policy, went unanswered.
Beyond the response in Mexico, many questions about how the Migrant Protection Protocols will be implemented in the United States remain unanswered.
The policy went into effect as a pilot program in San Ysidro in late January, but the first Central American migrants sent back to Tijuana won’t have their hearing in U.S. immigration court for another few weeks, starting in March.
On Feb. 7, Angel Vasquez was one of several men sent back to Tijuana at the Chaparral pedestrian border crossing. While he was disappointed to be sent back to Mexico, he said it was better than being held in detention.
“They just told me ‘come back to your appointment in about 42 days,’ that’s more than a month away,” Vasquez said.
According to the Department of Homeland Security’s “Guiding Principles” for the program, once asylum seekers such as Vasquez show up to San Ysidro for their hearing, they will be allowed into the border crossing and transported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to and from the courthouse.
Obstacles to legal help a big concern
Other details are still not known. For example, it’s not clear yet when, and if, Vasquez and other asylum-seekers will have access to an attorney during their time in Mexico leading up to, or even on the day of, their court hearing.
The potential obstacles to due process are among the biggest concerns for migrant aid groups such as Al Otro Lado, a legal aid group that has been assessing asylum-seekers in Tijuana.
“How are people going to communicate with attorneys in the United States? It can be costly to make international calls,” said Nicole Ramos, director of the group’s Border Rights Project.
“They don’t have money for foods. How do we expect them to have money to communicate with their attorney, or to receive sensitive documents to sign? That is also a huge problem,” she added.
Legal experts say it can take time to fully prep asylum seekers for their hearings and interviews. Ramos said that doing that from another country will make that process even more challenging.
‘Return’ policy challenged in court
To date, all the Homeland Security Department has said about this issue is that they’d give migrants sent back to Mexico a list of free or low-cost legal service providers in the area and that migrants are responsible for making their own arrangements.
The obstacle to legal representation for their asylum claims is a central claim in a lawsuit that several civil-liberties groups filed last week against the policy and the U.S. government in federal court in San Francisco.
The plaintiffs in the suit are 11 asylum-seekers returned to Tijuana who claim they fear for their life in Mexico and six legal aid groups providing services to asylum-seekers in California, including Al Otro Lado.
According to the court records, the lawsuit argues that the Migrant Protection Protocols violate humanitarian protections enshrined in U.S. immigration law by placing people seeking refuge in the country in unsafe conditions for undetermined amounts of time.
“Under the new policy, immigration authorities are forcing asylum seekers at the southern border of the United States to return to Mexico — to regions experiencing record levels of violence — where they must remain for the duration of their asylum proceedings. By placing them in such danger, and under conditions that make it difficult if not impossible for them to prepare their cases, Defendants are depriving them of a meaningful opportunity to seek asylum,” the court filing reads.
The lawsuit asks a judge to rule the practice illegal and to halt its implementation border-wide. It also asks Homeland Security to allow the 11 migrants named in the lawsuit back into the United States to continue their asylum claims from there.
“The Migrant Protection Protocols is just an extension of trying to chip away at the right to seek asylum and to prevent people from accessing the asylum process,” Ramos said.
Customs and Border Protection, which is overseeing the implementation of the program in San Diego, was unable to respond because of the lawsuit filed against the policy.
Policy remains while court action awaited
In the meantime, U.S. immigration officials are continuing to send back asylum-seekers into Tijuana.
In some shelters, such as the Salvation Army’s, they’re already making preparations to try to accommodate larger numbers of migrants arriving at the border in hopes of seeking asylum, and possibly even those sent back to wait in Mexico.
“We’re expecting more caravans possibly arriving here,” Major Sarai Martinez said.
She heads a men’s shelter in Tijuana with capacity for 120 migrants. Plans are now underway to expand the facility and add space for 16 more people.
She recognized that might not be enough.
“As private institutions, we provide services to the people who need it,” Martinez said. “But at some point, if there’s more people sent back to continue from here their asylum process, I think the Mexican federal government has to step in and help them.”
Some migrants may not wait around in Tijuana long enough to get that help to arrive.
Jose Moya Castro is Maria Velasquez Castro’s husband. The family’s arrival in Tijuana just days prior was anything but welcoming.
“The first day was horrible, because after we got off the bus, it was raining even before we got here, and since it was nighttime everything was closed,” he said. “And hotels were too expensive, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so we had to sleep on the street.”
After several days staying in separate shelters, Moya Castro stayed at an all men’s shelter and his wife and daughter were next door at Madre Assunta, the family was considering other options.
Instead of writing their names down in the months-long list to claim asylum, Moya Castro said they’re thinking of trying their luck at another border city.
And, if that doesn’t pan out, they are considering crossing the border illegally.
Vasquez, who felt discouraged after being sent back to Mexico following five months of traveling through the country and waiting in line in Tijuana, said he’s unsure if he’ll return for his court hearing in March.
“I’ll have to think about whether to come back or not,” Vasquez said.