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In Tijuana, expectant moms hope for U.S. asylum

As the days, weeks and months pass while these women wait, obtaining prenatal care is difficult.
Grevy Marisela Jimenez Martinez
Grevy Marisela Jimenez Martinez, 28, a migrant from Honduras, has been living at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, for the past four months. She is almost five months pregnant and is expecting twins. "I hope they are born in the United States. I want a better future for them," she says.Heidi de Marco / KHN

TIJUANA, Mexico — A growing number of expectant mothers are among the migrants coming in daily from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — even Haiti — to more than 30 already overflowing shelters in Tijuana, Mexico.

“More women are arriving pregnant or with babies,” said pastor Gustavo Banda of the Embajadores de Jesús (Ambassadors of Jesus) church, which operates a shelter in Cañón del Alacrán (Scorpion’s Canyon) on the outskirts of Tijuana. “We have a lot of Haitian women and some Central American.”

Some women also get pregnant while they wait.

These pregnant women are here because the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program requires some U.S.-bound asylum applicants to register at ports of entry and then return to Mexican border cities to wait as their claims are processed.

It’s a period of great anxiety, if only because many want their children born in the United States. The U.S. Constitution guarantees that every child born on American soil automatically becomes a U.S. citizen. Mexico also offers birthright citizenship, but it's not exactly the same: A child born in Mexico, regardless of their parents' nationalities, automatically becomes a Mexican citizen when they turn 18.

Daniela Pierre, who has been living in a Tijuana shelter for three months while the U.S. government considers her asylum application, waits as her husband takes their laundry to be washed. Pierre fled Haiti four years ago after the economy collapsed and ended up in Venezuela. But the political turmoil there forced her to keep moving, she says, and she spent four months traveling by bus and foot to the U.S. border. Heidi de Marco / KHN
Pierre watches as her 2-year-old son, Adrian, plays. "When you have kids, you have to look for a better future for them," she says. Pierre shares one of the tents in the background with her husband and two children. Sleeping on a hard floor with a few blankets is uncomfortable for her. "When you're an immigrant and you're not working, it makes it hard to buy things that you need," she says. She expects to wait at the shelter for at least two more months before she can appear before a U.S. immigration judge. "Our number is 2,716."Heidi de Marco / KHN

U.S. Customs and Border Protection keeps no record of how many pregnant women have applied for asylum, but Mexican shelters report the number is rising.

As the days, weeks and months pass while these women wait, obtaining prenatal care is difficult. They rely primarily on volunteer medical workers for their checkups, sonograms, ultrasounds and prenatal vitamins. Inconsistent prenatal care leaves them vulnerable to miscarriage and other complications.

Some shelters schedule visits from doctors and nurses, while others coordinate care with local clinics.

Grevy Marisela Jimenez Martinez and her husband fled Honduras because, she says, they couldn't find steady work and faced constant harassment from local gangs in their hometown of Tegucigalpa. Jimenez Martinez waited for three weeks in a line at the U.S. border with what felt like "thousands of people" in order to claim asylum, she says. Now she spends her days waiting for her number to be called so she can have her case heard by an American immigration court.Heidi de Marco / HKN

But the biggest health challenge these women face is finding a place to deliver their babies in Mexico if they’re still waiting for their asylum cases to be heard.

To give birth in a Mexican hospital, they must sign up for the Seguro Popular health insurance program — similar to Medicaid in the U.S. But to qualify for an in-hospital birth, they must have obtained an ultrasound, which has been a difficult requirement for most of these women to meet, said Phil Cañete, clinic coordinator for the nonprofit Refugee Health Alliance.

“Issues like language, transportation and knowledge of local resources create barriers for adequate prenatal care or proper delivery,” Cañete said.

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