Inside a giant white tent set up in Tijuana’s Colonia Castillo, the lines of Central American job seekers have been growing longer by the day. Unable to cross to the United States, hundreds are making the decision to obtain immigration documents in Mexico and find work in Baja California.
Back home, they were painters, welders, vendors, waiters, teachers, farmers. Now they say they are willing to take any job offered as they flock to a job fair organized by Mexico’s federal government.
On Wednesday, the crowds spilled out onto a street near the U.S. border as the migrants arrived. The murmur of their voices rose through the courtyard, where they filled out forms, and deliberated whether to apply for refugee status or a temporary humanitarian visa.
José Tayun, 39, of Totonicapan, Guatemala, quickly found a job offer at a marble factory in Tijuana that paid about 1,450 pesos, about $72 per week, plus bonuses and 100 pesos weekly to pay for transportation.
In Guatemala, he worked as a welder and owned a small shop that sold basic goods. He fled local gang members who kept demanding more money, he said, adding “In Guatemala, if you don’t pay, you’re dead. While resigned to staying in Mexico for the time being, he worries about violence in Tijuana and has not given up hope of applying for asylum in the United States.
“The USA is my plan A,” Tayun said, as he carried documents to prove that he had sought help from police back home and they had done nothing to help him. France, Canada, and Spain are also options he is considering.
Tayun is among the thousands of Central Americans who traveled to Tijuana this month, creating an unprecedented crisis in the city. Most have been staying in a municipal sports stadium, where conditions each day grow increasingly precarious and crowded. Authorities said the capacity was for 3,000, but by Wednesday, the population had reached 6,151, according to numbers provided by the city. Another shelter is planned to open as early as Thursday.
The job fair opened Nov. 19 in response to the arrival of caravan members. Staffers said interest has spiked following last Sunday’s march to the border by some members of the caravan who rushed the border. It resulted in dozens of arrests, and the closure of cross-border traffic at San Ysidro in both directions for nearly five hours.
The mood among participants has seemed one of relief and resignation. “We have to take the option that Mexico is offering,” said Carlos Javier Ramos, 37, who left behind his wife and two daughters in Honduras. “I’m broke, I have to get something for my family,” he said.
The fair is a coordinated effort led by Mexico’s federal government in coordination with the private sector, with support from the state of Baja California. By close of business on Tuesday, 1,800 people had registered, with numbers growing by the day, according to Mexico’s National Employment Service.
“The aim is to offer an escape valve, a response to the large numbers of people who are arriving in Tijuana,” said Francisco Iribe Paniagua, Baja California’s labor secretary. He said that five dozen employers have stepped forward, most notably members of the city’s booming maquiladora industry, which is reporting between 7,000 and 10,000 vacancies.
The need for maquiladora employees has been so great that in recent months, the state government has been recruiting workers in southern Mexico, said Salvador Díaz, president of the Association of Industrialists of Otay Mesa.
“It’s a win-win,” said Díaz. The migrants “in the end can achieve their goal of staying in a country with better conditions, and the industry can acquire employees.”
But other sectors are also coming through with job offers, officials said, including restaurants, construction companies and growers in the agricultural valley of San Quintin, south of Ensenada.
The event brought a buzz of activity Wednesday to the Proyecto Salesiano, a center run by Catholic missionaries who have been offering their space. Lines formed everywhere: to sign forms, to investigate job possibilities, to apply for immigration status, to learn about Mexico’s refugee program.
“Are you looking for work?” read a giant sign in Spanish. “There are vacancies,” said another.
Mexico’s National Migration Institute announced that by Wednesday, 687 Central Americans had legalized their immigration status in Baja California and Mexico City, and could now legally work in Mexico.
The Central Americans, who have been in Mexico without immigration documents, are being offered two options.They can either apply for refugee status, or for a one-year humanitarian visa that can be renewed, said Héctor Alemán, an institute official who has been overseeing the operation.
The humanitarian visas are offered on the grounds that “they are persons in a situation of high vulnerability,” Aleman said. But before applying, they need to show that they have an offer of employment.
Many applicants said they remain intent on going to the United States — if not now, then down the road when circumstances change. “It’s the goal, but meanwhile, we have to eat, we can’t stay with our arms crossed,” said David Herrera Avila, 25, of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
After being laid off from his job at a company, he made some money teaching piano, he said. He loves jazz, and dreams of making it to New York City. But for now, while he considers his options he’ll remain in Mexico on a humanitarian visa, and work at a maquiladora that will pay him $70 a week.
For many, the job fair offers a new option in what has become an increasingly bleak situation for many members of the caravan who have been living with much uncertainty and in increasingly bleak conditions.
While the jobs are low-paying, they allow the Central Americans to legalize their status in Mexico and join the formal economy, which gives them access to a range of government services, including medical care.
“We are seeing this as a very good option,” said Edgar Corzo Sosa, a migrant advocate with Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights. “It’s something that’s well worth spreading.”
Still, “the clear thing is that many members of the caravan that are fleeing violence and persecution want the chance to apply for asylum in the United States,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.
But under President Donald Trump’s proposal to have asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their cases are processed in the U.S. courts, they would be living in Tijuana for some time.
“It’s positive that the Mexican government is working to expand options for members of the caravan,” Meyer said, “But there’s still the pressing issue of the Trump administration working to block asylum seekers from entering the country.”
Those who receive refugee status in Mexico would have little chance of being granted U.S. asylum, said Nicole Ramos, an attorney with the legal services organization Al Otro Lado who has counseled numerous Central Americans hoping to get asylum in the United States.
“Humanitarian visas are temporary so those are less problematic” for anyone aspiring to apply for asylum in the United States she said. “I think it would be helpful for them to work, and to not get picked up by Mexican immigration, so they have some kind of status.”
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