TIJUANA, MEXICO – The giggles of children at play are about the only pleasant thing about a dark, crowded and stifling warehouse in Mexico that is home to some 150 migrants waiting for the United States to process their asylum claims.
Some of the adults sweep the floor or help out in a makeshift kitchen. But most just sit and stare off into space as they kill time, day after day, waiting in Tijuana to see if the U.S. will take them in.
Most are Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries and hoping to win refugee status in the United States.
But now, under a deal effectively forced upon Mexico by President Donald Trump to spare it from punishing tariffs, migrants who cross into the U.S. illegally are not allowed to wait north of the border while their applications are processed. They are sent back to Mexico.
“And that means shelters in border regions are full,” said Jose Maria Garcia, who runs a migrant shelter called Juventud 2000, just a stone’s throw from the border.
“People come from all over, and those who manage to get in (to the U.S.) are returned to Mexico. And that is causing us overcrowding,” said Garcia.
Life for asylum seekers is full of anxiety — and further complicated by the Trump administration’s drive to crack down on undocumented foreigners.
The latest thrust came Monday with news from the Justice Department that any migrant who enters the United States from the southern border and has not asked for asylum in any of the countries they cross to get there would be ineligible for asylum in the U.S.
The Madre Asunta Institute, another shelter a few miles away from Juventud 2000, has surpassed its capacity several times since a huge exodus of U.S.-bound Central Americans began in 2015 and 2016.
It was originally designed for 44 people but now houses 130. The managers do whatever they can to avoid turning people away.
“We squeeze them in somehow,” said a smiling Sister Salome Limas, who has worked there for six years.
These managers fear things will get much worse if Trump goes through with threats to carry out mass deportations of undocumented foreigners in America or return huge numbers of people living in migrant care facilities.
“We could not handle such an amount” of people, said Garcia.
Things are different on the other side of the border.
The new accord obliging migrants to wait in Mexico has reduced the flow of people seeking shelter in the San Diego area.
Shelters there used to be full and now they are emptying out, said Hugo Castro of a nongovernmental organization called Border Angels.
“They sweep them out to Mexico like garbage,” said Castro, who expressed fear that the situation will grow worse in Tijuana and other border towns in Mexico.
Sister Salome is super-involved in her work, supervising efforts to turn a play room into sleeping quarters by night while tousling the hair of a little boy who walks by her and checking on lunch for the day — pasta and salad.
In another room, volunteers from the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF distribute paper and colored markers to kids.
A 7-year-old boy named Brian carefully draws a house that looks like the shelter he is living in.
But he explains it is actually his house in Honduras — to which he may never return.
In the courtyard of the Madra Asunte shelter, women hang freshly washed clothes on a wooden bannister — the clothes were donated, because they got here with only what they were wearing.
Such is the case of a woman who asked to be identified as Maria and says that in her native Honduras, she witnessed a massacre by the ultra violent street gang MS-13 in a marketplace.
She worked as a cleaning lady in the market, and upon hearing gunshots, she hid. But gang members found her and threatened to kill her and rape her teenage daughters.
With help from a sister, she fled.
Three months later, she ended up in Tijuana.
“I never considered going to the United States before, but if I return home, they will kill me,” said Maria, who speaks with a soft voice.
In the meantime, she waits her turn to speak to immigration authorities.
“I am going to ask for a chance. If they give it to me, I will be very grateful. If not, Mexico is very big and beautiful,” said Maria.