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In 2018, Thousands Of Migrants Traveled To The U.S. In Caravans, Escaping Violence, Poverty


While Congress wrestles over funding border security, the sections of wall that already stand along the U.S.-Mexico border stand in the way of migrants who travel in caravans from Central America hoping to enter the U.S.. Thousands of those migrants are still in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from San Diego. They're staying in shelters, waiting for a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been following the caravan for months, and she joins us now. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: Give us the latest. How many of these Central Americans are stuck at the border, and what are the conditions for them?

KAHN: Exact numbers are tough, you know, since the migrants can come and go as they please from these government and church shelters where they are. The largest shelter, which is run by the federal government right now, is in this concert venue that they sort of put a lot of people in. And there's about 2,500 people there. They're living in tents. They're under tarps, whatever they can.

Several hundred migrants have been deported back to Central America. And a lot of migrants also have taken the Mexican government on trips home so that they can go back to their countries. Some have been getting jobs and housing in Tijuana. Others, of course, are applying for asylum at the U.S. border. And then there are some trying to cross illegally into the U.S.

SHAPIRO: You've met with a lot of these people. You traveled with them in Honduras and Mexico, spent time with them in Tijuana. How has the reality of this experience compared to their expectations?

KAHN: It's an interesting question because I think when they first started out, the numbers were so large, and they were just in this sort of, you know, big group mentality. And they just felt like they could get across the border. I think people left with very little money, very little reality of what it is to ask for asylum at the border, how difficult it is to cross the border. And it wasn't until they actually got to the border and saw the wall and saw the guards and the Border Patrol there that the reality really struck.

And, you know, I would talk to people along the way, and they would just keep saying, once we get there in such large numbers, President Trump will find it in his heart to let us in. You know, it just - of course, that didn't materialize. And I just think, now that they've seen the reality of the border, there's a lot of despair in the shelters there and what's next for them.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, they want asylum in the United States. The government of Mexico has actually offered to give them asylum in Mexico. How many are taking them up on that offer?

KAHN: About 600 have applied for asylum or refugee status in Mexico. Thousands more have applied for jobs or work visas that Mexico is allowing them to have. Now, there's a new government now in Mexico as of December 1, and it's a leftist government. And they've made it very clear that they're going to do things differently. They're not going to criminalize migration. And they're going to provide a safe haven for migrants who need protection. That's just a tall order from Mexico, who has their own job creation and poverty, of course, you know.

And the new government has pledged to be austere. And so we'll see what happens. And, you know, the new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is also walking this fine line with President Trump, trying not to anger him while totally not capitulating to him. So that's all mixed in there.

SHAPIRO: And last week, the Trump administration announced a change in policy, saying that after people apply for asylum in the U.S., they're going to have to wait in Mexico to find out if their claims have been accepted. How is Mexico handling the strain of housing all of these desperate people?

KAHN: That's another great question because in a city like Tijuana, with hundreds of foreign-owned factories and maquiladoras, there seems to be this consensus that there are jobs and housing available for migrants who want to stay and work. But there's a lot of other small northern Mexican border towns that don't have an industrial base and have seen an increase in Central American migrants recently too. Today, President Lopez Obrador and his foreign minister said, we need more details and clarification from the U.S. on just what this new policy will mean.

So there's a lot of many unanswered questions here for these migrants - you know, how they're going to access U.S. courts, how they'll get legal representation from Mexico and lawyers and notifications. A lot is up in the air from Mexico, and thousands of migrants are waiting in limbo at the border.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on