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Location Of New Tijuana Shelter May Interfere With Asylum Process


In the Mexican border city of Tijuana, thousands of Central American migrants are still waiting to request asylum at the U.S. border. Federal officials bussed hundreds of them to a new shelter in the eastern part of the city after the facility where they had been staying was flooded. From member station KPBS, reporter Jean Guerrero has the story.

JEAN GUERRERO, BYLINE: The new shelter is an abandoned concert hall called Barretal. It has more than enough room for everyone. With a capacity for 7,500, it's not yet half full. Migrants say it's better than the old facility, spacious with closed areas that provide shelter from the rain. The crime-ridden neighborhood isn't the nicest in Tijuana, but neither was where the original facility was located in Tijuana's red light district. But that shelter was a few minutes walk from the port of entry, where people who want to request asylum in the U.S. must put their names on a waitlist and check in later to see if it's their turn. The new shelter is a 30-minute drive away. Manuel Antonio Lopez is a 54-year-old man from Honduras. He put his name on the asylum waitlist and was given a number on a scrap of notebook paper - 1,479.

MANUEL ANTONIO LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) I haven't gone back since I got here. I don't know the status of the list. If it's my turn yet, I don't know.

GUERRERO: He says he has no money to pay for bus tickets to get to the port. Shelter coordinators say they'll eventually create a system for letting people know when it's their turn to speak to U.S. officials and transferring them there. Meanwhile, at Barretal, Central Americans pitch tents in an open-air area outside. Inside, families arrange black mattresses on the floor. Many are confused about the asylum process. A Honduran woman spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears for her life. She says she fled her country with her two daughters after her husband, an electrician, was killed for refusing to pay money to the gangs. She says she's been checking her phone for news from a stranger who told her he'd put her name on the asylum waitlist for her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Someone put me down for asylum, but they didn't give me a number yet. They said they'd send it to me through my phone.

GUERRERO: She teared up in indignation when talking about the lack of privacy at the shelter. Journalists and others are allowed to come in unsupervised. She says cameras are everywhere when she tries to shower with her daughters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) There isn't any privacy. The cameras are always focusing on us, taking photos all the time. We are not actors. Why are the cameras following us?

GUERRERO: But she says she's going to try to have patience because going back to Honduras isn't an option for her.

Hundreds of people have refused to leave the old shelter near the port and set up camp outside on sidewalks. Hundreds of others, disillusioned with how hard it is to enter the U.S., have signed up to go back home with the help of authorities. Marlena Sorto is a 21-year-old Honduran woman who came here with her two children. She says she had no idea how the asylum process worked until she got here.

MARLENA SORTO: (Through interpreter) Supposedly, Trump was going to give us permission to enter. But now, I think, with all these rowdy people, we're not going to be able to enter.

GUERRERO: Last month, a march to the border spiraled out of control as some members of the caravan began throwing rocks at U.S. authorities. U.S. officials say it will take five to eight weeks to even start processing people from the caravan because of a pre-existing asylum backlog.

For NPR News, I'm Jean Guerrero in Tijuana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jean Guerrero