Tijuana officials cut off food, water and bathroom services to thousands of Central American migrants at the Benito Juárez sports complex Friday, prompting a mass exodus to another shelter 11 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Conditions at the sports complex deteriorated to the point that it is no longer safe for the migrant caravan, officials said.
“We can’t let these people stay here because this is a big health problem and we have to clear the area,” said Mario Osuna Jimenez, Tijuana’s social development director.
Migrants aren’t being forcibly removed, but city officials said they are doing everything they can to convince them to leave voluntarily. That includes suspending essential services.
“There will be no more food here, we will no longer allow people to distribute donations here,” Jimenez said. “The migrants must understand that we are helping them by having another shelter that is better suited to meet their needs.”
The vacant event space known as El Barretal is in the outskirts of Tijuana. It features five separate enclosed spaces, multiple bathrooms, and capacity for 7,000.
Federal officials began busing migrants from Benito Juárez to El Barretal Thursday evening. Many migrants were skeptical of the move because it was too far away from the border and because of general uncertainty about the conditions.
To ease concerns, officials took photos of El Barretal and asked migrants who moved the night before to share testimonials with people in Benito Juárez.
Not everyone was convinced.
“I’d rather sleep in the street, said Jorge Quintania, 30, of Guatemala. “I don’t want to go backwards.”
Quintania said he traveled hundreds of miles in one direction and did not want to turn around. Even if it was just 11 miles.
Migrants who refused to board the buses Thursday night changed their mind after the city suspended services Friday.
“Why stay here and suffer without food or water?” asked Karla Amayo Rios, 38, of Honduras.
Rios joined the caravan after seeing a news segment about it back home. She wants to work in the United States and send money back to pay for her 16-year-old daughter’s education.
Tuition costs $120 a month but she earns only $98 a month as a farm worker.
Rios, who has her daughter’s name Kimberly tattoed on her neck with a heart over the “i,” got on an El Barretal-bound bus about 10:30 a.m.
Migrants in the bus jokingly shouted, “onwards to San Diego,” as they left Benito Juárez. Five minutes into their 30-minute trip, the passengers sat in silence.
The route took migrants from Tijuana’s Zona Norte, a densely populated neighborhood near the Red Light District, to the Mariano Matamoros neighborhood, a suburban area with a tough reputation.
As the bus turned into El Barretal, Rios noted how nice the set up was.
“This is better,” she said.
One of the most common criticisms among migrants is that El Barretal is too far away from the border. Officials said that had nothing to do with the decision to open a shelter there.
“How close or far it is from the border is not important because the migrants have to complete the migratory process with federal immigration authorities and those authorities will be there to help them,” Jimenez said.
Federal authorities chose the location, Jimenez said,because there isn’t any other spot in Tijuana with El Barretal’s capacity to shelter the migrants under roofs.
With the city’s help, federal authorities will manage the shelter in the short term. The Colegio de Trabajadores Sociales, a nonprofit, will take over eventually, he said.
The shelter opened two days before President-elect Andrês Manuel López Obrador begins his term.
Earlier this week, the mayor of Tijuana accused the current administration of ignoring the migrant crisis. On Friday, officials said the transition of power may have helped their cause.
“I think with the imminent departure of the current administration and the start of the new one, I think helped us get commitment to securing this space,” Jimenez said.
Julio Gonzalez, 28, of Honduras was among the first people to move into El Barretal Thursday.
He set up his bedding inside of what used to be a dance studio right next to a floor-to-ceiling mirror. The walls of the studio are decorated with silhouettes of dancers and the words, “Dance,” and “Zumba.”
“I slept like a king,” Gonzalez said.
The night before, he spent the night in a puddle of mud in Benito Juárez. Gonzalez encouraged other migrants to join him, even it if is far away.
“They shouldn’t be afraid to come here, this is a good place,” he said.
As more people showed up throughout the day, they slowly established themselves in the new shelter. Children played soccer on the concrete with trash cans as goal posts while adults erected tents throughout the complex. Outside, the pastor of a local church delivered a sermon as cars full of donations dropped off food and drinks to long lines of hungry migrants.
But Friday was also a day of tragedy at the shelter as an alleged drunk driver killed a Salvadoran migrant and injured two others who had just relocated there, according to Mexican news reports.
Witnesses told Tijuana police the driver hit a pothole, lost control and then rammed his vehicle into a concrete post, trapping the man who died between his truck and the post, according to Agencia Fronteriza de Noticias.
Red Cross paramedics rushed an injured woman to the nearby General Hospital where she is being treated for a head injury, according to news reports.
The extent of the third person’s injuries were not released. All three were members of the migrant caravan. The driver was detained at the scene on suspicion of drunk driving.
One of those reluctant to come to the new shelter was Karen Paz, 34. She has a 9-year-old daughter and feared moving her to an unknown place.
But after they arrived and set up their tent, Paz declared it an upgrade. The two of them walked around the neighborhood and bought fruit and grilled chicken after setting up their tent.
Although the place was safer, Paz was still concerned about its distance from the border. She recently signed her name on a growing list of asylum seekers waiting to plead their case in the United States. Every morning, organizers read the numbers from the list outside the San Ysirdo Port of Entry.
Paz is number 1,589. Friday morning, the list was at 1,182. Each number represents 10 people and there are more than 5,000 asylum seekers on the list.
Paz was worried about how she was going to get from El Barretal to the border in order to hear if her name had been called.
“I don’t want to miss it,” she said.
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