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Holidays at a Tijuana migrant shelter: Anxious children, determined moms

“A mother looks after the best interests of her children," said one woman, facing the possibility of spending Christmas at a crowded shelter.
Children play at a shelter in eastern Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 6, 2018.
Children play at a shelter in eastern Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 6, 2018.Guillermo Arias / AFP - Getty Images

TIJUANA, Mexico — At the family section of the Barretal migrant shelter on Tijuana’s eastern side, Iris Cano keeps her space tidy, piling donated clothes around the blanket she sleeps on with her 14-year-old son. The boy hasn't been eating for the past few days, Cano explained, and he was suffering from pain in his molars. She picked up vitamin pills from health workers on site in hopes of increasing his appetite.

It's not easy being in a shelter during the holidays. Her son was in pain, and he didn't want to be there.

The teen had a U.S. Navy flag draped over a newly acquired tent. He said he wants to "show the U.S. he loves our country," so his asylum application would be accepted.

Cano and her son are among the more than 3,000 migrants who are waiting in this facility in the hopes of being allowed to enter the US and seek asylum. They were part of the migrant caravan that trekked north from Central America in October; President Donald Trump repeatedly denounced the group's march north in the run-up to the midterms, and on Thursday he tweeted that the caravan "didn't get through."

The two sleep alongside hundreds of other families. Federal government officials provide food and toiletries for them and for those who sleep in the outdoor part of the shelter. But the lack of privacy can overwhelm children.

Members of the migrant caravan at the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 8, 2018.
Members of the migrant caravan at the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 8, 2018.Alonso Rochin / EPA

“All things considered," said Cano, "I’m here safe, with my son.”

MS-13 tried to recruit the child to join the gang in Atlántida and force Cano to sell drugs. A single mother, she says she was already paying them a “war tax” so they could live in their home. After armed men stormed their home and pistol-whipped her son, they hid in the hospital where he was treated for several days. With only the clothes on their backs, they parted for southern Mexico where they joined the migrant caravan in October.

The long wait

Existing practices, like metering, which is the government's practice of regulating how many people can enter the U.S. to seek asylum, have slowed down the asylum process for migrants in Tijuana. This takes place as asylum claims have more than doubled in 2018.

Tijuana’s government secretary, Leopoldo Guerrero, told NBC News that local officials have asked the U.S. government to make clear how long migrants will have to wait for asylum.

On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to make asylum-seekers hoping to enter the U.S. wait in Mexico until their claims are processed. The department's secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said asylum-seekers will have to wait in Mexico while they wait for an immigration court decision.

"Catch and release’ will be replaced with ‘catch and return,’” wrote Nielsen.

Cynthia Santiago, an immigration attorney based in Los Angeles, has visited the shelter three times to provide free legal advice to migrants. She says that these long wait times in Tijuana mark only the beginning of a longer process. An informal list tracks migrants’ place in line to apply for asylum once they are in border patrol custody. Asylum-seekers are facing a minimum wait of two months.

Image: El Barretal
A Christmas tree provides the only holiday cheer inside a hall where families sleep at the El Barretal migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico.Nidia Bautista

Meanwhile, at the facility, someone put up a Christmas tree.

Rosa Bonillo’s 10-year-old daughter asks her mother for Honduran tamales and her favorite, fried chicken and plantains. The girl wishes they could be back in Honduras for Christmas, where they used to like watching fireworks during the holiday festivities.

Instead, they're sleeping on a concrete floor inside a pink tent, hoping for the best. But like Cano, Bonillo said returning to Honduras is not an option. She's escaping death threats by a former MS-13 gang member and years of sexual violence by the father of her children.

Rosa Bonillo
Bonillo was forced out of her home in San Pedro Sula after a former boyfriend and MS-13 gang member threatened to kill her if she didn't give up her house.Nidia Bautista

“I don’t want to spend the holidays here. If possible, I’d like to be in the U.S., celebrating the holidays with my children,” Bonillo said. “A mother looks after the best interests of her children. This is me looking for a better future for them.”

Rosemary Pavón Martínez’s 4-year-old daughter was stricken with pneumonia during the caravan’s trip through southern Mexico. Now in Tijuana, the girl misses her two older sisters who stayed behind in San Pedro Sula because Martinez says it would have been impossible to look after all of them alone.

“I feel a little sad because today we spoke on the phone and they said, 'Mommy, this will be a Christmas without you,'" she said. "I tell them I have faith that I can send them some money.”

Martinez was hoping to find work in Tijuana so she could send money back to Honduras so her daughters could afford new clothes and shoes for the holidays, a custom many families try to uphold.

'I can't go back — you'll find me dead'

The long days at the Tijuana migrant shelter weigh on Cano, who has heard of other families crossing the border fence to turn themselves in for asylum. But she was caught crossing the border in 2014 and signed a deportation order. It is a federal felony to re-enter the country unlawfully.

Cano said she doesn’t regret embarking on the long trip to Tijuana, but is pained by the toll the wait is having on her son.

She said she wants to do things right, and hopes that waiting in Tijuana will improve their chances of getting asylum.

“That's why I've waited, so that everything goes well," she said. "So we can get asylum because in my country life is not valued.”

Cano said her son’s life depends on it.

“I have to put up with it, even if I do not want to, I have to wait.”

Similarly, Bonilla said she's ready to wait the process out.

“I can’t go back," she said. " If I do, you’ll find me dead.”