MEXICALI, Mexico — Their dreams, as they marched north, were of America, with plentiful jobs, good schools and protections from violence and threats back home.
But the future, for the time being, has become this sprawling border city, where hourly wages hover near $2.50, educational opportunities are lacking, and extreme poverty makes muggings and kidnappings a constant threat.
Roughly 1,000 caravan participants have remained in Mexicali, concerned that drug cartel violence and living conditions in Tijuana, which was the final destination, would be unbearable.
Those fears were confirmed when U.S. Border Patrol agents fired tear gas at a group of migrants who tried to storm the border last weekend, the result of building tensions around what has become a months-long wait to apply for U.S. asylum.
“I’m just looking for an opportunity to work,” said Denis Paredes, 33, who arrived from Honduras this month. “Better to stay here for awhile, where it’s at least a little more calm.”
The possibility of a long-term influx has put pressure on the network of hostels that have long offered free refuge for migrants but now are charging modest rents to pay for food and other expenses.
At the same time, caravan participants have begun applying for a form of Mexican asylum that offers them permission to work — an outcome that incoming president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is likely to encourage as he seeks to increase economic development in the country.
This week, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance set up temporary offices in Mexicali and Tijuana geared toward the caravan migrants, who are being steered there by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
So far, nearly 100 people in Mexicali have signed up to seek asylum, while about 230 have applied in Tijuana, according to the UNHCR. The agency processed 14,600 applications nationwide last year, mostly from Central Americans, approving about 20 percent.
In Mexicali, the caravan migrants’ decision to stick it out a while longer in Mexico comes with a series of calculations. Some are biding their time, still hoping for a chance at U.S. asylum. Others calculate that U.S. border security measures will eventually loosen enough for them to cross illegally.
Still more are eager to earn some kind of salary after going several months without work while on the caravan trail, their expectations lifted by López Obrador’s promise to offer roughly 100,000 work permits to Central American migrants.
The economic pressure they face was obvious this week inside the Migrant Hotel, a hostel that is charging $1.50 a night to the Central Americans who have stayed far longer than expected.
Genaro Fernandez, 33, was near tears as he lay on a sleeping mat with other Honduran men Wednesday morning. They had intended to sign on with a day laborer crew at a barrel factory but didn’t wake up in time for the boss’s 4 a.m. pickup. Fernandez was counting on the $11 he would have earned for the day.
He joined the caravan after a failed hog farm venture in Santa Barbara, Honduras, left him holding a bank note of nearly $21,000. His wife, who stayed behind with their two young sons, recently reported that a bank officer had been leaving angry demands for payment.
“How am I going to pay when I’m broke?” Fernandez said. “We all want to work.”
At La Michoacana hostel, where an undulating quarter of the ceiling appeared ready to collapse, director Gonzalo Pacheco Aguilar advised migrants to find work and permanent homes in Mexicali. His example was a group of Haitian migrants who have settled into abandoned houses in the city. Many won federal protections after arriving as refugees two years ago.
“They have gotten factory jobs, and they have called for their families to join them,” Pacheco said Wednesday. He nodded in approval as Sofia Cardona, a UNHCR resettlement associate, explained to a small group of hostel guests the benefits of Mexico’s program for refugee aid.
The process is similar to the U.S. asylum system, although far less backlogged. Government case workers assess an applicant’s level of risk at home before initiating background checks and issuing a final decision.
Those who pass an initial assessment are granted temporary residency with permission to work, although they must remain in the state where their case is pending.
Sergio Tamai Jr. — whose father, Sergio Tamai Sr., created the Migrant Hotel — rallied a group of about 20 migrants to walk a mile from the hostel to the commission’s temporary office Wednesday.
“You’ve all walked more,” Tamai told the group before they set out.
When they arrived, several migrants seemed unsure of why they had gone. Gloria Hernandez, who with her daughter Jennifer, 17, joined the migrant caravan in El Salvador, first thought the Mexican government might help her win U.S. asylum.
“The truth is, I’m a little confused,” said Hernandez, 50, before heading in to discuss her general fear of violence in El Salvador during what amounted to an intake interview.
That night, David Mendoza, 31, stood in the room at the Migrant Hotel he was sharing with three other men. A 1980s rock song drifted up from the street below while some migrants video chatted with their loved ones. Others hugged their bed mats and slept in the lit, graffiti-adorned hallway.
From the balcony, the smell of a marijuana wafted in.
Mendoza had applied for the Mexican federal protections and was given a piece of paper with a government Web address where he could check on his status. He wasn’t optimistic.
“I always knew we would not be able to cross into the U.S.,” said Mendoza, who was born in El Salvador and joined the caravan in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
“I’m just going to stay right here,” he said.