After heavy rains turned much of the main migrant encampment in Tijuana, Mexico, to mud and standing water, caravan members pack their belongings Thursday night before boarding buses to a new shelter. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Mexican authorities have begun moving Central American migrants from a crowded, increasingly unsanitary encampment to a government-run shelter farther from the U.S.-Mexico border, raising fears among members of a migrant caravan that their dreams of asylum in the United States will be dashed.

Buses arrived to take people to the new shelter starting Thursday evening as rain pelted the existing encampment in a sports complex, deepening the misery of more than 6,000 migrants stuck in limbo there amid trash and mud. By Friday afternoon, hundreds had been taken to the new shelter, a shuttered concert theater, El Barretal, about 11 miles from the border in the Torres de Matamoros section of Tijuana.

But many migrants, the bulk of them from Honduras, were staying put, suspicious of Mexican authorities’ intentions.

“People are distrustful that it’s an immigration trick, that it’s not what they say it is and that they will really be deported,” said Amelia Frank-Vitale, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan and an immigration expert who has traveled with migrant caravans for years. “It’s happened before in southern Mexico.”

In the meantime, many of the migrants are trying to get permits to stay and work legally in Mexico, she said. “They also have no idea where they are going — which makes them worried that they won’t be near banks, where families are sending them money, or stores where they can buy food, since the food here doesn’t always stretch,” she said. “Many of them have part-time jobs nearby that they’ve picked up. There are a lot of reasons people are hesitating.” 

Unsanitary conditions at the encampment have raised concerns among aid workers and humanitarian organizations that the migrants, packed into a space intended for half their number, are susceptible to outbreaks of disease. Already, many are suffering from lice infestations and respiratory infections, officials said.


Members of the migrant caravan in Tijuana prepare to board buses Thursday, en route to a new shelter in a vacant event space called El Barretal. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Mexican authorities touted the advantages of the new shelter, pointing out that the Mexican navy is on the scene to handle food distribution and that transportation to a job fair will be provided. They expressed hope that those who initially took the buses to the new site would report back to others and encourage them to come.

“It’s a much better place, and all of the help and government services will be there,” said Edgar Corzo Sosa, a spokesman for Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

On Friday, the scene at the new shelter was initially disorganized, though government workers and humanitarian aid groups started to appear later in the day. By later in the afternoon, a reporter saw three buses arrive within a short span, each loaded with people from the sports complex, then three more shortly afterward.

Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum said that officials were trying to move everyone Friday. One of his aides said that it would depend on whether the migrants cooperate.

“All migrants are welcome in Tijuana, but there needs to be order,” Gastélum said.

After a short tour through the theater turned shelter, Gastélum acknowledged that the conditions were still not ideal. There is no running water, and the open-air courtyard has no grass.

“It’s up to the federal government to construct a permanent migrant shelter in Tijuana,” he said. “The timing is opportune.”

Many who had arrived the night before woke to find no water or food available, with some wondering whether they made the right choice to leave the sports complex and its proximity to government services and the U.S. border.

“There’s no light, no water, no word from anyone about what will happen,” said Carlos Humberto Guerra, 70, a Honduran national who had a morning appointment with Mexican immigration authorities about his application to remain in the country as a refugee.

“I don’t even know what part of the city I’m in now,” he added. “I’m going to have to get a taxi but don’t have the money. If I don’t make it, my paperwork is worth nothing.”

Wilfredo Castro, 40, also from Honduras, lamented that he is now farther from the day-labor construction jobs he was able to find near the sports complex.

“We are so far from the city,” he said. “I don’t know where I’ll be able to find work now.”

But, while cramped, the sleeping quarters were beneath a tin roof that shielded the migrants from the morning rain. A row of portable toilets also stood nearby. By 11 a.m., government trucks arrived carrying food and other supplies.

Standing in a center courtyard, some of the migrants nonetheless debated whether they were better off.


Caravan members get settled aboard a bus taking them to a new shelter. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

“We have to appreciate the little they give us,” Wilson Mejia, 20, a Guatemalan national, said after another man complained that the new shelter was “the worst.”

“Over there, we were inundated by the rain,” Mejia said about the sports complex. “There was black [sewer] water running around the edges. We have to adjust to what little they give us. It’s not their obligation. We are not in our country.”

Cesar Palencia, head of the migrant affairs office dealing with the caravan, said the new shelter has four roofed areas and “all the government services.” The United Nations and other organizations will have a presence there, he said. Yet it has been difficult to get people to leave the sports complex voluntarily, he added.

“We haven’t had the response that we want,” he said. “We didn’t think that so few would accept the offer. This was never an adequate space for them. . . . The idea is that they will voluntarily leave between today and tomorrow.”

Palencia added: “I don’t know what will happen if they don’t leave. I think they’ll see that the new space is adequate and that here there won’t be a kitchen, there won’t be bathrooms. They’ll have to understand that it’s not adequate.”

As the clouds threatened more rain Friday, some of the migrants at El Barretal stood in clusters inside a main courtyard or out in the muddy walkways surrounding a former nightclub, plotting their next move.

David Pichinte, 40, said he intends to try to cross the border illegally, in hopes of reuniting with the wife and three children he left behind in Massachusetts after he was deported back to El Salvador in 2012.

“On the one hand, it’s better here because we’re shielded from the weather,” he said. “On the other hand, it makes the journey more difficult.”

Others began advising family and friends at the sports complex that it was safe to go to the new shelter.

Marlen Gallegos, 48, said she was initially worried by rumors floating around the sports complex that anyone who went to the new shelter would probably be held captive before eventually being deported.

When she learned that didn’t appear to be true, she called a friend at the first camp and urged her to take the next available bus.

“It’s as they said it would be,” said Gallegos, who is from Honduras and planned to wait on her application for U.S. asylum from the new camp. “I’ll look for some work around here in the meantime.”

Marco Pineda, 28, lined up with about 30 others before a commuter bus that had arrived to take them to apply for Mexican asylum.

He had recently decided to modify his original plan to find work in the United States. He now figured Mexico is a good place to earn a little more money.

“Things are going to work out,” said Pineda, who is from La Ceiba, Honduras. “Where I sleep doesn’t matter. I just want to be able to go home and come back here to work.”

Branigin reported from Washington.