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Thousands Of Central American Migrants Stuck In Tijuana, Waiting To Seek Asylum


President Trump says there's a humanitarian and national security crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. This idea of a border emergency can be traced back to the reports that began a few months ago of a caravan of Central American migrants traveling up through Mexico to the U.S. Many of those migrants are now stuck in Tijuana, Mexico, just south of the border from San Diego. And that's where NPR's John Burnett joins us from now. Hi, John.


SHAPIRO: We've heard about thousands of migrants stuck in Tijuana. What are you seeing there?

BURNETT: Well, you know, this is ground zero of what the president considers the migrant crisis. I mean, you've got Central Americans who are waiting in all the major Mexican border cities, but Tijuana is where you really see them. You know, we started out with somewhere between, you know, 5,000, 6,000 migrants who'd come up in the caravan. The numbers are definitely down to perhaps 2,000, 3,000, even (inaudible) migrants now that are still here.

Some have gone back to Honduras. Some have been deported by Mexican authorities. Some have crossed into the U.S. to request asylum. And then others, you know, crossed the border illegally. They climbed the fence, and they were arrested. And then, still others went to other Mexican border cities where there's less of a wait to cross. So, you know, they have - the numbers are trickling down.

SHAPIRO: So the numbers are down, but still a lot of people for Tijuana to deal with. How is the city coping?

BURNETT: You know, it's just - it's sort of chaotic what we've seen today. There is more than a dozen shelters here. The big one, El Barretal, you know, it's the best organized. It's run by the federal government. And then you have all these others. We went to one that was run by the Ambassadors of Christ evangelical church, where you had people living in tents inside the church sanctuary. But outside was this squalid drainage ditch with hogs all rooting around and children around there playing.

And yet, people in Tijuana are trying to help the migrants. And so you have these shelters that have just kind of sprung up in houses and with different, you know, do-gooder groups and with churches. And, really, you just get this sense that they still don't know what to do with this crush of people who are here.

SHAPIRO: What about Americans? You're right over the border from San Diego. Do you see many U.S. people there trying to help out?

BURNETT: You do. There's lots of volunteers. They're over here. They're offering legal advice. They're bringing food. They're bringing medicine. Some are bringing, you know, knitting needles and yarn for them - you know, give them something to do while they're waiting. I mean, this morning they called number 1,627. That's how many migrant families have gotten into the U.S. to ask for asylum. And there are still many, many more waiting weeks.

SHAPIRO: What are you hearing from the migrants themselves you've spoken to?

BURNETT: Well, these are single men. These are families. They're grandmothers. And, you know, they've been here waiting for so long, some for six to eight weeks. And they seem to be, you know, very frustrated. Some are still waiting in line for their numbers to be called. And others are deciding to take jobs here in Tijuana. There is a labor shortage, and so some are working as masons. Others are going to work in these fabrication plants, the maquilas.

And then, still others have decided to brincar el muro, to jump the wall. And so they go to this area where they can crawl over one of the lower fences, where they're promptly arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol. But they know that that's a rash decision, that they're going to be detained if they do that. And so many want to wait, but they're really getting frustrated here because the times are so long.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Just in our last 30 seconds, President Trump last month announced a policy called Remain in Mexico, where asylum seekers would have to wait in Mexico for an immigration hearing in the U.S. Any sign of that taking shape?

BURNETT: You know, that policy has been suspended, Ari. I spoke to a senior government official familiar with border security plans. And because of the complexities of the diplomacy between Mexico and the U.S., they are not returning immigrants seeking asylum to Mexico to await their immigration cases. The ones who are going to the border largely are being allowed to ask for asylum and then being either detained or released with a notice to appear in immigration court.

SHAPIRO: All right. NPR's John Burnett in Tijuana, thanks so much.

BURNETT: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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