Migrant caravan in Tijuana hunkers down for the long haul

Standing before dozens of his fellow Central American migrants, Walter Coello raised a megaphone to his lips and made an urgent plea.

“I need four valiant women and four valiant men to help me,” the 41-year-old Honduran told the crowd. He wanted to form a committee of volunteers to organize cleaning and security duties, and to fact-check rumors that were sowing fear and confusion.

“No one has information here. The days are passing us by and we aren’t doing anything, compañeros.”

It was a sunny December afternoon, nearly two weeks after 2,500 migrants had moved into their latest home, El Barretal, an abandoned concert venue turned government shelter 30 minutes from the U.S. border, and a month since thousands of members of a roving caravan began streaming into this stressed border city.

Some are determined to cross into the United States as soon as possible. The Mexican government says it has helped an additional 1,100 migrants return to their home countries. Others have taken jobs in local factories, or are trying to scrape together a few pesos by selling food or clearing rubble at construction sites while biding their time.

For those who remain, their chances of legally entering the U.S. diminished this week after the Trump administration and Mexico’s government announced Thursday that immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. will be forced to wait in Mexico while their cases are reviewed — a process that can often take well over a year.

So as authorities in both countries continue to debate policy with no long-term solution in sight, many migrants are hunkering down for months, or possibly years, in a purgatory of makeshift accommodations and spotty services.

Walter Coello wants to form a committee to set up cleaning and security duties and help resolve day-to-day issues for members of the migrant caravan. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Members of the migrant caravan wade through donated clothing and shoes at an abandoned concert venue-turned-government shelter 30-minutes from the U.S. border. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Left, Walter Coello wants to form a committee to set up cleaning and security duties and help resolve day-to-day issues for members of the migrant caravan. Right, people sort through donated clothing and shoes at the El Barretal shelter. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Coello, who said he’d organized committees of migrants along the entire caravan route, has focused on helping resolve the day-to-day issues that arise when hundreds of men, women and children are packed into close quarters with old pipes and little privacy or security. Toilets are clogged. Showers are inoperable. Belongings disappear from tents when people leave to hunt for work.

Anxiety and misinformation spread quickly here. Some residents say that government workers have pilfered donations and that certain people get priority access to the handouts. Others buzz about false reports that the United States is letting migrants in to work temporarily. Coello said it’s hard to keep people informed without reliable internet access or regular updates from officials.

What’s more, he said, the humanitarian arm of Mexico’s immigration services agency hasn’t distributed donations of clothes, shoes, tents and blankets because officials wanted to ensure that the items would go to those in need and not be resold. Going forward, he believes, the migrants must fend more for themselves.

“We can’t just pass the time eating,” said Coello, who plans to stay in Mexico with a humanitarian visa and find work as a mechanic to support his wife and two daughters back home. He said he’d been deported three times from the U.S., most recently in November 2017 after being stopped at an immigration checkpoint in California, where he was working the grape harvest near Bakersfield.

“If we want to achieve something we’re going to do it peacefully, just like the Haitians did,” he said, referring to a 2016 influx of more than 3,000 Haitian refugees who settled in Tijuana after failing to enter the United States. “The struggle is ours together.”

El Barretal
Members of the migrant caravan have set up camp at El Barretal, an abandoned concert venue turned government shelter 30 minutes from the U.S. border. Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

For all its challenges, El Barretal is a step up from the migrants’ previous abode, the Benito Juárez Sports Center, which was shut down early this month because of what local authorities euphemistically called “bad sanitary conditions.”

El Barretal consists of a patchwork of individual and family tents — many covered by large white plastic canopies — and a separate indoor area housing families with young children.

Francisco Rueda Gómez, general secretary for the state of Baja California, told local news outlets that the immigration agency has leased the space at 100,000 pesos a month for seven months. The Mexican military operates multiple mobile kitchens there, and nearly 500 police maintain security, Rueda Gómez said.

The Red Cross operates another tent offering electrical outlets so people can charge their phones or borrow one to make a free call. Children and teens can hang out under supervision in a gated “kids corner.” Volunteers offer additional hot meals, some dishing up food out of the trunks of their cars.

Residents have added their own touches. White sheets serving as privacy dividers push political messages. One depicts a U.S. flag and the words “American dream.” Another, painted with a Canadian flag, implores, “I am still waiting for your response” and “Let your dreams be bigger than your fears.”

Government officials said that Barretal will cost 100,000 pesos a month to rent. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A young girl looks out a window from Barretal, an abandoned concert venue-turned-government shelter. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Samir Cruz, 17, center, of Honduras, and Anthony Herrera, 14, right, of Honduras, play soccer, along with members of the migrant caravan who have set up camp at Barretal. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Isaac Dueñas, 2, left, and brother Carlitos Dueñas, 4, of Honduras, play with one another at Barretal. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Clockwise from top left; Government officials said the El Barretal shelter will cost 100,000 pesos a month to rent; a young girl looks out a window at the shelter; brothers Isaac, 2, left, and Carlitos Dueñas, 4, play; Samir Cruz, center, and Anthony Herrera, 14, right, of Honduras play soccer. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Hanging from a grated window, long strips of colored paper proclaim upbeat slogans in Spanish:

“Today is a new day.”

“God is with you.”

“In the end, you’ll realize that all your efforts were worth it.”

Gerson Madrid Moreno is among those whose labors have paid off. The 22-year-old from Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, waited three weeks to get a work permit before landing a job in the meat section at Casa Ley, a supermarket within walking distance of the shelter. Madrid Moreno likes Tijuana and plans to stay. People have treated him well, and he already has a girlfriend.

“Truthfully, what we all want is to get to the United States,” he said. “But now having found work, I feel more hopeful and encouraged.”

Other migrants have concluded that although Mexico isn’t the promised land, it’s their best bet for now.

At a job fair run by the Mexican government, a line with dozens of migrants snaked outside Proyecto Salesiano, a center run by Catholic missionaries. Trade groups have said several thousand jobs are available, though wages tend to be low.

Gerson Madrid Moreno, 22, of Honduras, who received a Mexican humanitarian visa, found work at Casa Ley supermarket near El Barretal. Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

Once inside, applicants learned that they could receive work permits by applying for a one-year humanitarian visa or asylum. A few companies, including a call center and a meat-processing plant, set up booths to field potential employees.

Federal officials said 3,700 people have applied for work permits and more than 900 have been distributed — the vast majority to migrants from the “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

SuKarne, a local pork processing plant, had 33 openings at a starting salary of 1,600 pesos (about $80) per week. As of last week, 11 migrants had accepted jobs, though most were still waiting for their work permits to arrive.

A few yards from the SuKarne booth, Madeline Rivera sat down to rest her achy body after fixing a clerical error with her 5-year-old daughter Gissell’s humanitarian visa paperwork.

During a health checkup at the Benito Juárez shelter two weeks earlier, the Honduran mother found out she was nearly three months pregnant. She’d planned to find work in a clothing factory, but now that the abdominal cramps have started, she isn’t so sure.

Rivera was No. 1,421 in line to present her asylum case before U.S. authorities. Her ex-boyfriend, a gang member, had beaten her when she was pregnant with their first child, a girl now 10 years old who remains in Honduras. Rivera said he’d threatened to kill her after she told him she didn’t want to get back together.

But, like many other migrants hoping for asylum, she didn’t have evidence for her claims. She said she’d saved threatening messages on her old phone, but it had fallen into a bucket of water on the journey to Tijuana and was ruined.

“If they don’t let me in, I’ll stay here in Tijuana,” she said. “I won’t return to Honduras.”

Rivera was one of the few lucky migrants with somewhere to stay other than the shelter. Her best friend, Mari, was already living in Tijuana when Rivera arrived with the caravan.

But Rivera’s welcome wasn’t entirely warm. After a neighbor complained to the owner of the apartment complex where Mari had lived for three years, the owner told Mari, “If you have people living there who came with the caravan, it’s best that you leave,” Rivera said. They had to find a new place by the following week.

Others fear that prejudice and resentment against them is breaking out into violence. Earlier this week, Mexican police said two people threw a canister of tear gas into the family section of El Barretal. Police also arrested two men and a woman on suspicion of killing two Honduran teenagers last weekend. Authorities said the teens, whose bodies were dumped in a Tijuana alley, weren’t targeted for being caravan members.

Though most were glad to leave the Benito Juárez sports complex, more than 300 remained for three weeks camped outside the shuttered facility with a backdrop of the U.S. border. Those who’d stayed said El Barretal was too far away. Tijuana police forced them to vacate Thursday morning, informing them they were committing several infractions by living in the public right of way.

Migrants in Tijuana
Pablo Maroquin of El Salvador approaches a car looking for day labor near the Benito Juarez Sports Center, formerly used as a migrant shelter, in Tijuana. Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

On a street corner one block from the complex, migrants had gathered early every morning to wait for work. Some days, vans pulled up at 8 a.m. and again at 9 a.m. seeking a handful of laborers to clear rubble at construction sites. Other days the vans never showed up, and the dejected migrants drifted back to their tents to figure out another way to pass the hours.

One recent morning before the area was vacated, residents slowly emerged from clumps of ragged tents to brush their teeth and search for breakfast. Reggaeton blasted from loudspeakers. Children wiped the sleep from their eyes. Three men carrying brooms walked through the camp with a megaphone, barking, “Let’s start cleaning!”

On the corner of 5 de Mayo Avenue and Sánchez Ayala Street, Alberto Osorio, 25, and his family sold hot coffee, instant soup, sweetbreads and other Salvadoran foods from their stand underneath a thin white tarp. The clan had scraped together $60 to buy a portable stove and propane tank to start their small business.

Back home in Zacatecoluca, an hour south of the capital of San Salvador, Osorio’s mother ran a pupusa stand to support her husband and two children. But it wasn’t enough to pay the rising extortion fees of local gangs. “You don’t sleep and you don’t live in peace,” Osorio said. “It was like living a nightmare.”

The family learned of the caravan through Facebook and TV. They heard it would get them to Los Angeles. The way Osorio sees it, the caravan got them close enough.

The Trump administration has made a practice of limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the U.S. each day at ports of entry. Osorio’s family is No. 1,653 in line to apply for asylum. Each number represents 10 people.

“We want to be there,” he said, smiling and nodding north.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Twitter: @andreamcastillo