Mexican authorities are preparing to close the largest Central American migrant shelter, known as El Barretal, located on the eastern outskirts of Tijuana, the same day that hundreds of Honduran migrants began the long trek north to Mexico.
The closure signals a somewhat bittersweet end to the Caravana Migrante 2018 that became an international obsession. The closure is happening just as another caravan follows in its footsteps, with television footage on Monday showing several hundred people leaving the violent city of San Pedro Sula hours before their intended Tuesday departure, huddled together in the steady rain and waving Honduran flags hours. About 300 people, mainly women and children, clambered aboard 30 small buses, intent on reaching the Guatemalan border.
Another 300 or so began walking toward the border town of Agua Caliente late Monday. One passing man asked a journalist for his umbrella, saying he feared his daughter would get sick in the rain. More people continued to arrive at the bus station, making it likely the caravan’s numbers would grow.
Between 600 and 800 Hondurans have joined the caravan, according to an estimate provided by Miroslava Serpas, head of migrant affairs with the CIPRODEH human rights research center that is accompanying the group. It is likely the caravan will take weeks or even months to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.
In Mexico, life inside El Barretal for the 700 or so remaining Central American migrants who arrived in Tijuana in November as part of a caravan of about 6,000 has settled into comfortable daily and weekly rhythms. Kids go to school. Men wake before dawn and catch buses outside for work in construction or other odd jobs throughout Tijuana. Women wash and hang laundry by hand in sinks to the far right of the facility.
On Thursday, a bachata blasted from a stereo into the large open-air courtyard, the heartbeat of the sprawling event space and concert hall where more than 3,000 Central Americans once took shelter in pitched tents and on cots in recent months.
The large event space with a capacity for 7,000 was opened when the original shelter in Tijuana’s Zona Norte near the US-Mexico border became overcrowded and flooded in deplorable conditions.
Since those early, difficult days, many have moved on and found jobs and apartments in Tijuana. Only 700 or so remain inside and the number is decreasing every day, shelter volunteers said.
“The temporary shelter has worked and accomplished what we set out to do, and now we are winding down operations as these last remaining people find more permanent places,” said Leonardo Neri, a federal volunteer and shelter coordinator.
Volunteers said they expect to close the shelter on January 15, Tijuana time, the same day another large caravan is planning to set out from Honduras.
For President Donald Trump, the timing of the new caravan offered fresh ammunition in his fight with Congress over the $5.7 billion he wants for an enhanced border wall between Mexico and the United States. The dispute has led to a partial shutdown of the federal government.
As he did last fall, when another caravan made the same trek, Trump portrayed the migrants — who say they are trying to escape poverty and violence, and who in seeking asylum are exercising a legal right — in an ominous light.
“There is another major caravan forming right now in Honduras, and so far we’re trying to break it up, but so far it’s bigger than anything we’ve seen,” Trump said Thursday. “And a drone isn’t going to stop it and a sensor isn’t going to stop it, but you know what’s going to stop it in its tracks? A nice, powerful wall.”
Despite Trump’s assertions, nobody knows how many people will leave on Tuesday and how many more may join the walkers as they cross Guatemala, reach southern Mexico and make their way to the US border.
In Mexico, the new government, led by the leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which took office December 1, says it will deal with the migrants more humanely than the preceding administration. Officials say they want to avoid a repetition of the “horror” earlier migrants endured as they tried to avoid detection — and deportation — on the perilous trek across Mexico.
“Our vision is that migrants are not criminals, much less do they constitute a threat to the security of Mexico or the United States,” Mexico’s interior minister, Olga Sánchez Cordero, said last week in a speech to Mexican diplomats, promising an end to massive deportations.
More than 300,000 Central Americans entered Mexico last year, most of them illegally, and an estimated 80 per cent of them were bound for the US border, Sánchez Cordero said.
She said migrants in a new caravan who enter the country at official crossing points and register would be granted visas to stay and work in Mexico or permits to travel under the supervision of migration authorities toward the US border. But those who cross into Mexico illegally, she said, will be deported.