The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A makeshift shower in a muddy courtyard. Donated meals too far apart.

Delmar Dales, right, a Honduran migrant who is seeking asylum in the United States, gives her daughter Marlen Pineda, 12, toothpaste. They are staying in El Barretal, a shuttered club being used as a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

TIJUANA, Mexico — Other men and women were bathing nearby, so Delmar Dales washed quickly inside a former nightclub that has become the newest shelter for hundreds of Central American caravan migrants waiting for their chance to seek a new life in the United States.

Standing in a muddy courtyard that doubled as an outdoor bathroom, Dales stuck a soapy hand beneath her clothes, looking quickly left and right, while her husband, Noel Pineda, kept guard.

“One has to preserve one’s looks,” Pineda, 32, said, as his wife, who is 34, began washing her hair.

Several thousand people are now sleeping in tents and bedrolls at the government-run shelter formerly known as El Barretal. It was set up over the weekend after a sports complex where migrants had been staying became overrun by trash and raw sewage during days of heavy rain. 

Many are waiting to hear about applications for asylum in the United States or Mexico. Others are biding their time before attempting to cross the border.

Their time in the shelter could extend for months under a tentative agreement between the Trump administration and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s new government that could keep Central Americans seeking U.S. asylum in Mexico while their applications are processed.

Obrador has said he’s willing to grant about 100,000 work permits to Central American migrants, several thousand of whom journeyed north by foot and vehicles as part of the caravans that have drawn the wrath of President Trump.

On Sunday, the migrants appeared to be settling in. Lines of freshly laundered clothes hung from El Barretal’s balconies and staircases, and people set up tents and living areas while trying to take care of basic needs.

A group of young men played soccer inside the theater’s concrete arena. Nearby, dozens lined up in front of the shelter’s few electrical outlets to charge their smartphones, their bodies moving slightly to the music playing over somebody’s scratchy speaker.

Daniel Villabranca, 19, could see it all from his makeshift barbershop on one of the club’s rooftops. Charging $2 per head, his impromptu business nets him about $25 per day, he said.

“People know to look for me now,” Villabranca said, using electric clippers a friend gave him to shear hair from the back of one customer’s head. A line of other men waited their turn.

Villabranca said he learned to cut hair while in detention in Maryland, about six months ago, before he was deported to Honduras. He’s now waiting to find out whether he can secure a work permit in Mexico.

“It’s not a lot of money, but it helps,” Villabranca said about cutting hair. “And it gives me something to do.”

Pineda and his family, including 12-year-old Marlen, have focused on day-to-day goals since arriving at the new shelter from the open-air Benito Juarez sports complex right next to the U.S. border, about 11 miles away.

Like others, they initially resisted the move, worrying that it would put them too far away from the U.S. crossing point and Mexican government services.

Marlen, who has asthma, had grown increasingly sick inside the sports complex — probably a result of a virus spreading among inhabitants and of sleeping with an old blanket that became soggy in the rain.

At El Barretal, her father staked out an alcove where an outdoor bar once stood, away from most of the others, and pitched the family’s small green tent. Soon after, a federal health-care worker was tending to Marlen’s cough.

“We’ll see if we have enough strength to stay here for a while, until they call our number for asylum,” Dales said.

The family fled Honduras after a crime syndicate in their hometown threatened to kill Pineda, a taxi driver, for refusing to drive its members on rounds to collect extortion money from neighborhood businesses. Pineda had unwittingly given one member a ride and gladly accepted a generous tip, not realizing that the gang members would interpret that as his wanting more of their business.

“When I understood what they wanted, I told them I couldn’t,” Pineda said. “They assaulted me.”

For now, in Tijuana, those worries are far behind. But the future remains unclear.

After cleaning their tent and lending a bottle of shampoo to the woman who with her two children is sharing their space, Pineda and his family headed off in search of breakfast.

The shelter provides two free daily meals to the estimated 6,000 migrants, part of services that the Mexican government says cost about $23,000 a day. Dales and Pineda and their daughter hadn’t eaten since about 4 p.m. the previous day.

But when they arrived at the meal donation spot, just outside the shelter grounds, no food was being handed out. The family had apparently arrived too late and would have to wait six more hours, when dinner would be served.

The three remained there nonetheless, along with about 100 other migrants. Nearby, an outdoor bazaar was in full swing, with vendors selling food and pottery.

“That’s how it is,” Pineda said, the smell of Chinese noodles wafting over from a stand 100 feet away. “We’ll just wait here.”

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