Federal officials are seeing a steep increase in families and unaccompanied minors seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, and shelters in Tijuana report they are housing record numbers of migrants waiting their turn.
The number of people who are part of a family unit seeking legal entry into the United States through the San Diego ports of entry in fiscal year 2018 through August was up 139% compared to the same period in 2017. The number was 12,340, up from 5,167.
Customs and Border Protection statistics show a 31% increase in unaccompanied children during the same period. The majority of unaccompanied children come from Guatemala, while the families are overwhelmingly coming from Mexico’s interior, the data show. Others come from Nigeria, Honduras and Pakistan.
Tijuana’s shelters say they are strained from the number of mothers with children seeking asylum in the U.S. through the San Ysidro Port of Entry after the U.S. ended a policy of family separations at the border. Thousands are hunkering down in Tijuana shelters or in tents on the streets.
Isaac Olvera runs the Salvation Army center for women and children in Colonia Libertad, where he says more than 2,000 people in Tijuana are waiting in limbo, a number he’s never seen before.
“Full. Full. Full,” Olvera said in Spanish. “The shelters for women and children are full. They are sick. They have nutritional problems. There isn’t enough food. This is causing a lot of problems.”
At a Salvation Army women’s shelter, Maria de Carmen Rojas Cruz, 21, has waited in Tijuana for 15 days with her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, after a journey by train and on foot from Michoacán, Mexico.
“I had to leave because there were ugly things happening there,” she said. Rojas said she fled because drug cartels were stealing children from their mothers.
“There was so much violence. I was so afraid I could not even be out in public with my kids because I feared they would be taken from me,” she said. “There was a very serious problem with children being stolen.”
Rojas hopes for a better life in Chicago.
“I’m all alone,” Rojas said. “It’s really difficult for me because I know that my aunt and uncle in Chicago can help me watch the kids while I find work, and they want to help me. But, practically, it’s so hard because of all that I have to do to get there.”
Her voice trails off as her son tugs at her, trying to get her attention for a vitamin pack, just delivered by volunteers.
The situation is straining resources for those who serve Tijuana’s homeless population and shelters for Mexican nationals who are deported from the United States back into their homeland.
At Padre Chava — another shelter in Tijuana — women from 19 countries sit around one table. Despite language barriers, their maternal glances and noises are understood as the laughter of their children making handstands reaches their table.
Many migrants come to Tijuana believing that asylum is a feasible way to cross the border into the U.S. when it's actually not, said several immigration authorities in Mexico and the U.S.
In fact, their chances of being granted U.S. asylum are not good, and they will likely be returned to the country from which they fled.
The U.S. denies entry or deports migrants from Mexico and Central America — particularly Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — at higher rates than other countries, such as India, China and countries in Africa. All have to meet a strict legal standard to claim asylum.
Typically, when non-Mexicans present themselves at U.S. ports of entry, they’ve already been issued a temporary visa from the Mexican government that allows them to travel through the country for two weeks.
Currently, the office responsible for those visas is severely backlogged itself after being destroyed in the 2017 earthquake in Mexico City. Even though the visa gives migrants only two weeks, many have been waiting in Tijuana shelters for more than 40 days with no plans to leave the country until their number is called by U.S. officials.
Mexico does not plan to deport migrants back to their home country as they wait in Tijuana. When their number is approaching, U.S. immigration authorities alert the shelters to send the migrants to the border, according to those working at the shelters.
“They’ve done a really good job of spreading them out all across the city this time so it doesn’t look so much like a crisis like it did in 2016,” says Alejandro Fonseca, a Salvation Army volunteer. “But this is a crisis, and here comes another wave,” he says, referring to a caravan of thousands of Honduran refugees reportedly making their way to Tijuana.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, asylum seekers submit to an initial screening by inspectors from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
If they clear that hurdle, they are turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to consider whether the individuals must be detained while their cases are reviewed by Department of Homeland Security and immigration courts.
Even for families who get over the first hurdle of an asylum application, which is a test of whether they have “credible fear” of living in their homeland, the legal process will be lengthy and difficult. People fleeing violent regions threatened by drug cartels don’t necessarily qualify, according to immigration authorities. The asylum law requires extensive paper documentation and firsthand testimony showing “well-founded fear of persecution” because of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group.
Thousands who are unsuccessful face removal from the U.S.
For people staying in Tijuana’s shelters this week, waiting their turn to be processed, like Rojas, the outlook is bleak.
“It’s so difficult, but all I can do is wait,” she said.
Olvera worries for the moment that Tijuana’s shelters can no longer accommodate any more women with children.