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Faced with months-long wait in Mexico, some caravan migrants decide to go home

Facing an uncertain future, migrants confront a series of choices – seek asylum in Mexico, return back home or cross the border illegally. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

TIJUANA, Mexico — Nelmy Ponce and her three children are tired of sleeping on the ground, rain or shine. They’ve had enough of the insults — passersby screaming “pigs!” at them — just because they’re foreigners.

When they first joined, the migrant caravan seemed like a way to escape the precariousness of living amid Honduran gangsters. Now she says it feels like its own kind of purgatory, with no chance to apply for asylum in the United States anytime soon.

“God is telling me to return home,” Ponce said.

And so Ponce, a 46-year-old taco vendor, and her three children on Wednesday sat in plastic chairs under a small tent advertising an option some of the most desperate here are now considering: “assisted voluntary return.”

For migrants who spent two months walking and hitchhiking through Central America and Mexico, it is a dramatic reversal, a sign of how poor the conditions are here, and how surprised some families are when they learn details about the lengthy U.S. asylum process.

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“They make the decision for a variety of reasons,” said Ivonne Aguirre, a program coordinator with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is assisting migrants with returning home. “Some have sick relatives, some miss their families, some are surprised by the conditions here, which are not what they imagined.”

Migrants continued to seek refuge at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, days after U.S. authorities fired tear gas at members of a Central American migrant caravan. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Natasha Pizzey-Siegert/The Washington Post)

There are still more than 6,000 migrants from the caravan at the sports complex in Tijuana, and most of them intend to wait weeks or months to apply for asylum in the United States. But the number making other decisions — to stay in Mexico or to return to Central America — is slowly growing.

Since the IOM program launched here about a week ago, 50 migrants from Central America have signed up to return to their native countries. In the next few days, the first group will be flown on commercial airlines to Tapachula, in southern Mexico, and then continue to their home countries, probably by bus.

Migrants also have the option to register through Mexico’s migration agency, which is arranging buses back to Central America, as well as flights on federal police aircraft. Cesar Palencia, head of the office of migrant affairs in Tijuana, said some 200 people have left the caravan through this channel.

Since Oct. 19, when the caravan first crossed into southern Mexico, 2,010 migrants have chosen “voluntary return” to their countries, according to a spokeswoman for Mexico’s National Migration Institute. The grueling conditions, walking a marathon’s distance or more each day in searing heat, discouraged many from continuing.

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As the caravan has inched across Mexico, the government has explored various ways to disperse the group. President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed a program called “Estas en tu casa” — or “You are at home” — offering migrants refuge in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, along with work permits and educational opportunities for children. Some 600 people from the caravan reportedly accepted the offer, but most chose to continue walking

The Mexican government has also offered temporary work permits for migrants who want to stay in Mexico. Nearly 700 Central Americans located in Baja California state and Mexico City have begun this process, according to a statement Wednesday from Mexico’s interior ministry.

The transition team for Mexico’s incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, says it can offer some 100,000 work permits to Central Americans to live in Mexico, including while their asylum claims get processed. Incoming officials have described a high demand for labor in factories in northern Mexico, as well as for new infrastructure projects such as the “Maya Train” in southern Mexico.

“We think that with this caravan, we could be able to assimilate some,” Olga Sanchez Cordero, Mexico’s incoming interior minister, said in an interview last week. “Others will maybe return to their countries. They’re going to get tired of being here.”

Ponce reached that point after nearly two months on the road and more than a week in Tijuana.

In the IOM tent, Ponce told Aguirre that she had received threats while operating a small taco stand in her hometown in Yoro, Honduras. She felt her family was at risk and dreamed of applying for asylum in the United States. In Tijuana, she learned it wouldn't be so easy.

“They told me that we would have to wait something like three months to begin the asylum process in the United States,” Ponce said after her interview with IOM. “We don’t want to wait here.”

“Tijuana isn’t a safe place. We’ve heard about the crime, about kidnappings,” she said.

So Ponce asked her children, who range from 12 to 16 years old, what they wanted to do. The vote was unanimous: They all wanted to return to Honduras, as long as they could find a safer place than their hometown.

Ponce told Aguirre she would be willing to move to a part of Honduras where her brother is living and where she expected it would be safer. Aguirre explained that it would take some time to arrange her travel through the Honduran consulate and that her name would be put on a waiting list for the flight.

Now, Hernandez had to weigh whether the arduous trip with the caravan had been worth it, as she prepared to return to her native country. She was defiant.

“It wasn’t easy, but it brought us closer together,” she said, looking at her children. “And it made me realize the value of my own home and my own bed.”

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Partlow reported from Mexico City.