Mixed reception leaves Central Americans uncertain in Tijuana

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Mixed reception leaves Central Americans uncertain in Tijuana

Tijuana, Mexico – Tensions soared on Sunday in Tijuana when a small but vocal group of local residents began marching towards the sports complex serving as a shelter for thousands of Central Americans, to protest their presence in the city.

After rallying for two hours at the base of a monument, waving Mexican flags and chanting “Get out!”, about 200 Mexicans marched through Tijuana to the shelter. Riot police prevented them from approaching the entrance.

“I think that this time, the situation got out of hand,” said Keyla Zamarron, a local psychologist who attended a simultaneous demonstration against discrimination.

Zamarron told Al Jazeera she decided to take to the streets to show her support for the Central Americans after she saw how Tijuana residents verbally and physically confronted migrants and refugees during the week. Regardless of what anyone thinks about migration, children should not be subjected to further trauma, she said.

“When I saw so much aggression, so much violence, I felt a lot of sadness,” said Zamarron, holding her handwritten sign with the message, “Childhood Has No Borders.”

Thousands arrived in Tijuana

More than 2,500 migrants and refugees, most of them from Honduras and El Salvador, have arrived in Tijuana following a month-long journey. Thousands more are on their way, fleeing violence and poverty.

The mayor of Tijuana expects some 10,000 people to arrive in the border city and that their stay may last months. The city needs financial and other assistance from the federal government to continue to shelter the migrants and refugees, he said.

Migrants and refugees receive food in a shelter in Tijuana [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters] 

US President Donald Trump referenced the Tijuana mayor’s comments in a tweet on Sunday. He also once again falsely referred to Central Americans arriving at the border to legally seek asylum as an “invasion”.

“Likewise, the U.S. is ill-prepared for this invasion, and will not stand for it. They are causing crime and big problems in Mexico. Go home!” Trump tweeted Sunday, without offering evidence for his assertions.

Over the past month, Trump has enacted extreme measures in response to the asylum seekers. He deployed thousands of active duty troops to the border, placed restrictions on asylum claims in contravention to law, and announced plans for tent camps to indefinitely detain asylum seekers while their claims are processed. 

“Illegal Immigrants trying to come into the U.S.A., often proudly flying the flag of their nation as they ask for U.S. Asylum, will be detained or turned away,” Trump later wrote in another tweet Sunday.

Back in Mexico, Miguel Angel Garcia attended the protest against the Central Americans with his six-year-old daughter. He came on his own and could not attest to other people’s motivations or messages, but he said he was protesting the government, not the migrants and refugees.

“We are against the federal government for permitting their entry without registering them,” Garcia said. “The government has failed us as Mexicans.”

Garcia has lived in Tijuana for 40 years but, like so many residents, he is a migrant himself. Garcia is originally from Guerrero and his wife is from Chihuahua, he said. He has relatives living in the US, including a sister-in-law who applied for asylum.

Garcia first explained that his issue was with the undocumented status of the Central Americans, but later also stated that they use drugs, drink and urinate in public.

Concern and uncertainty

For those who have recently arrived in Tijuana, there’s a sense of uncertainty over the mixed reception. 

Jiezel Rivera, a 31-year-old father from Villanueva, one of the most violent urban areas of Honduras, was not sure exactly what to expect in Mexico. But for him and thousands of others fleeing Honduras in the first wave of the exodus, the reception in northern Mexico has been an abrupt shift from the overwhelming support and solidarity in the country’s southern states and capital.

Rivera can see the US border from the shelter, and their welcome in Tijuana has included thrown rocks and insults, but he and his friends are still not sure crossing is their best option.

“We feel confused,” he told Al Jazeera.

One of Rivera’s cousins was murdered a year ago. Rivera does not know the full story, but he got word that some gang members suspected his involvement in the killing.

“I was scared to go out on the street with my kids,” Rivera, whose children are aged 9 and 10, said.

When he saw on the news that hundreds of Hondurans were gathering in nearby San Pedro Sula to flee the country and head to the United States as a group, he saw it as a way to protect both himself and his children.

Fears of deportation

More than 4,500km later, Rivera is unsure of what to do next. Like many of the thousands of Central American migrants and refugees now in northern Mexico, he is full of questions and hesitations.

Trump’s restrictions on asylum and the inherent limitations of political asylum claims are cause for concern for Rivera and others, as is the long wait in a city where residents are protesting their presence.

Many may have to wait weeks before being able to apply for asylum [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

People who plan to seek asylum in the US must sign up on a waiting list in a plaza close to the pedestrian border crossing between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California.

The wait can be weeks or even months, depending on how many asylum claims per day US officials decide to process or how much of a bottleneck they create to attempt to dissuade asylum seekers. Al Jazeera has spoken with asylum seekers who have already been waiting three and four weeks. 

The priority for Rivera and many others is to avoid deportation to Honduras where reentry could present a life or death situation for those fleeing violence or political persecution.

At least one Honduran from the mass exodus killed himself while awaiting deportation following his reported arrest in central Mexico.

Darwin Donaldo, whose last name has not been released by authorities, hanged himself with his t-shirt at in an immigrant detention centre in southern Mexico on Saturday, local media reported.

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