Plans to open a federal shelter for migrants in Mexicali have stalled after neighbors vehemently protested and successfully convinced Baja California’s new governor to shelve it.
According to human rights workers on both sides of the border, the change calls into question what Mexico is actually doing to protect asylum seekers returned to border regions under a program called the Migrant Protection Protocols.
Baja California Gov. Jaime Bonilla said last week that the federal shelter might not open at all because residents are opposed to it and because “it might not be needed.”
Human rights advocates say a lack of public support and no government oversight of private shelters in Mexicali has caused dangerous living conditions for asylum seekers that allows shelters to exploit the vulnerable people they are meant to protect.
The majority of residents in the neighborhood in central Mexicali where the federal shelter was slated to open said they are adamantly opposed to it. A few people who work or go to the gym near the location said they supported the idea.
Margarita Rubio, 53, has lived in the Conjunto Urbano Universitario neighborhood in Mexicali for 20 years. Her home on Avenida Bachilleres is one street north of the planned shelter site, which is a shuttered grocery store.
“We already have enough problems with the high crime that is here. We don’t need other types of problems that will come with this magnitude of people,” said Rubio, adding that her specific neighborhood is very quiet and tranquil, but she said the region, in general, is struggling.
Rubio said she understands the majority are fleeing violence in their home countries, but pointed out that Mexico has many migrants who come north to Baja California for the same reasons.
“The majority are looking for better lives. It is understandable. In fact, even from here, from the same country, Mexico, they also come here,” she said.
Carlos Alberto Flores, 25, who goes to the Ultra Fitness Gym on Calle Heroico Colegio Militar next door to the site for the planned shelter said he thinks the neighbors are overreacting.
“I think everyone deserves an opportunity, especially when they arrive in a new place. The majority come here to work,” said Flores, who said, unlike many of his neighbors, he didn’t believe the migrants would cause problems.
“If they cause problems, then they can just take the individuals who do out of here,” said Flores.
In October, nearly 200 people protested outside the now empty building, a former Soriana grocery store that is now shuttered.
At the protest, children and adults waved yellow “No Albergue” (“No Shelter”) signs, chanting “No to the shelter” and “We don’t want it,” according to neighbors who attended and posted videos to Facebook and the Desert Sun.
The shelter was planned as a response to shifts in U.S. immigration policy under the Trump administration, specifically for migrants who have been returned to Mexicali under the United States’ “Remain in Mexico” program, also known as Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.
Under the program, migrants are sent back to Mexico to await the outcomes of their U.S. asylum cases.
Human rights workers and attorneys dispute the U.S. government’s name for the program because they say it gives the false impression that migrants are being protected in Mexico. Instead, some call it the “Migrant Persecution Protocols.”
Margaret Cargioli, a managing attorney for the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, is among those who believe the government’s name for the program is misleading.
“Under the Remain in Mexico program, which is also referred to as the Migrant Persecution Protocol, I have met many honest and genuinely afraid men, women and children,” Cargioli said earlier this month at a news conference about MPP.
“While in Mexico, they’re living in shelters in deplorable conditions. Many don’t have the right to work. They have no access to social services. Children have problems to attend school, for example,” added Cargioli.
This year, the Trump administration began returning asylum seekers to Mexico, rolling out the program in Tijuana and then expanding it along the southwestern border. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the policy change was aimed at deterring migrants from seeking U.S. asylum and weeding out those who did not have valid asylum claims. They said the program has been successful.
Monika Langarica, an immigrant rights staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, spoke recently about it at a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the U.S. government for not allowing asylum seekers adequate access to legal counsel.
“MPP or Remain in Mexico exposes vulnerable migrants to danger and horrible conditions in a country that is not their own. In Mexico, many of the fears that drove people like our plaintiffs to flee their countries and their homes with their children — those fears, including rape, extortion, kidnapping — come to life once more,” said Langarica.
Since MPP began, Human Rights First, an international human rights organization, has documented at least 110 publicly reported cases of rape, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, assault and other violent crimes against asylum seekers returned to Mexico under MPP or Remain in Mexico.
While campaigning for office, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed he would not do the United States’ ”dirty work” by stopping Central American migrants intent on crossing Mexico to reach the United States. Instead, he promised to support migrants in Mexico with refuge, jobs and respect for their human rights.
The first few months of his presidency seemed to reflect that goal with humanitarian visas issued to migrants, a program that connected them with jobs and a federal shelter for migrants set up on the eastern outskirts of Tijuana, which has since been closed.
Then, President Trump threatened in May to impose punishing and escalating tariffs on Mexico if the country did not drastically reduce the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
López Obrador appeared to reverse course.
He deployed military troops throughout the country aimed at stopping migrants at Mexico’s southern border and stopped issuing visas that allowed migrants to cross Mexico without fear of deportation.
Like López Obrador, Bonilla has also promised to protect migrants.
“I come from a family of migrants,” the governor said at his inauguration speech earlier this month in Tijuana.
He did not respond to follow-up questions about why the shelter in Mexicali might not be needed.
Human rights advocates say there is a need for a publicly run shelter in Mexicali.
Kennji Kizuka, a senior policy analyst of refugee protection for Human Rights First, said he visited Mexicali several months ago, during the summer when many migrants were suffering in the sweltering heat of the Sonoran Desert. The city is across the border from Calexico.
Kizuka said there were “really awful conditions” such as migrants who told them their “kids were fainting from heat and from a lack of food and water.”
“When we visited, the only shelters we saw were in really desperate conditions,” said Kizuka.
“The U.S. government has repeatedly represented that Mexico had agreed to protect the humanitarian rights of the people returned under this program,” but that has not been the case, he said, because shelter, food, education and healthcare have not been provided in Mexico.
“We know the U.S. provided some funds to Mexico to provide shelter, but it’s questionable how those funds have been used,” said Kizuka.
As soon as the site for the Mexicali shelter was proposed last fall, neighbors began a campaign to oppose it, circulating a petition that has now gathered hundreds of signatures. They use Facebook to spread word about upcoming protests.
Lerma Ojeda, 62, has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. For the last five years, she has owned a small business there, the Leda’s Envolturas y Regalos gift shop, across the street from the planned shelter.
“The clients are not going to want to come here,” said Ojeda about why she opposes the shelter. “Right now, my clients are coming here and asking me, ‘Lerma, are you going to close?’ and I have to tell them I don’t know.”
Resident Maria Esther Flores Guevara said there were too many schools and young children in the area to add a public shelter.
“It’s not racism,” said Guevara. “It would be much better for everyone if they chose the correct place and it should be away from a zone where there are so many vulnerable people and it won’t expose the children if something should happen.”
Rubio and many other neighbors said they support the idea of a shelter, but they just want the government to find another place for it.
“We want them to find a good place for them and relocate them to a place where they do not affect the population,” she said.
Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.