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Mexican Official Says Main Migrant Shelter In Tijuana Will Close

Migrants arrange cots on a floor at El Barretal, Dec. 4, 2018.

Photo by Jean Guerrero

Above: Migrants arrange cots on a floor at El Barretal, Dec. 4, 2018.

The coordinator of Tijuana's main migrant shelter for Central American migrants, known as Barretal, told KPBS the shelter will close in the coming weeks.

The plans are unfolding as more than 100 migrants face eviction from another migrant shelter, a warehouse called Contra Viento Y Marea, closer to the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

The main Barretal shelter, in the eastern Tijuana neighborhood of Mariano Matamoros, was set up to house migrants from the caravan in late November. It is being operated by the Mexican federal government in coordination with city and state authorities.

The number of migrants at Barretal has dwindled from about 3,000 at its most crowded, to about 700 this week. Hundreds have either returned to their home countries with the help of the International Organization for Migration, entered the U.S., or obtained temporary Mexican work visas.

"The objective of creating a temporary migrant shelter is working," said shelter coordinator Leonardo Neri, who explained that the new administration in Mexico wants migrants to integrate into Mexican society. "We're in a pre-closure phase."

But many of the migrants want asylum in the U.S., and they face weeks of waiting in Mexico before they can try to make their case to U.S. officials, due to backlogs at the ports of entry.

The closure plans could affect migrants like Karen Perez, who says she came here with her four children fleeing death threats in Nicaragua. She’s on a weeks-long wait list for asylum.

Perez said that if the shelter closes before she can speak to a U.S. immigration official about why she fears for her life, she’s going to try to get a work permit in Mexico to feed and house her kids while she’s waiting.

"If God gave me strength to come from Nicaragua, why shouldn't I be able to work to survive?" she said.

Some immigration attorneys say that securing temporary work visas in Mexico could hurt people’s chances of winning their asylum cases in the U.S. A judge could choose to interpret the temporary visas as permanent resettlement in a safe third country.

"The government will argue firm resettlement and part of that will be if they were able to work and access services and if they were offered status in the country," said immigration attorney Tammy Lin.

But migrants interviewed by KPBS said they are not receiving this information when they are being offered the temporary work visas by the Mexican government.

The U.S. does not currently have a safe third country agreement in place with Mexico, the way it does with Canada, and homicides in Tijuana are at an all-time high.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a work permit in Mexico does not preclude eligibility for asylum in the U.S. But combined with other factors, it could be relevant in determining if an applicant has resettled in another country.

USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said the agency "is committed to adjudicating all petitions fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under the law, and defending our system from those seeking to exploit it at the expense of law-abiding petitioners and the American people.”

Reported by Kris Arciaga

Mexican officials plan to close the main Tijuana shelter for the Central American migrant caravan in the coming weeks, saying it was never meant to be permanent.

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