Teens Fleeing Central American Gangs Are Stuck at the Border—and Fear for Their Lives

Inside a shelter for unaccompanied child migrants in one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities.

A young migrant from Honduras checks his phone as lies on his bed at the Casas YMCA migrant minors shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 10, 2018.Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

In the backyard of a youth shelter in a bustling area of Tijuana, Mexico, under a blue UNICEF tarp, two dozen teenagers took a break from the karaoke machine and stood up, one by one, to introduce themselves.

“I’m 16 and I’m from Honduras,” one boy said. “I’m 17 and I’m from Guatemala,” said another boy, who politely bowed his head as he spoke.

Some of the teens have been at this shelter, the Casa YMCA de Menores Migrantes (YMCA Home for Underage Migrants), for a couple of days, some more than three months. All of them came to the border hoping to seek asylum in the United States. They’re on their own, without a parent or guardian looking after them in a city that has seen a sharp spike in migrants since last fall.

Listen to Fernanda Echavarri describe what it’s like to be an asylum-seeking teenager stuck in one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities:

Many of them are fleeing violence in Central America and seeking asylum in the United States, but thanks to the Trump administration’s new, restrictive policies, thousands of migrant children are amassing in Tijuana—one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities and a place where organized crime has been known to prey on foreign teens.

The Casa YMCA has been around for almost 30 years, and Uriel González has been overseeing the shelter for most of that time. He says the much-publicized caravans of asylum-seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras created a chaotic situation citywide, and especially at his shelter, a 25-bed facility that suddenly needed to give more than 60 teenagers a place to stay.

“These kids traveled with the caravan because it gave them a sense of protection,” González told me—safety in numbers during a dangerous trek north. They were hoping to present themselves at legal ports of entry and ask US immigration officials for asylum. But due to the United States’ tougher asylum rules, that’s not happening, and it’s causing these kids to get stuck in this border city where they are vulnerable and at risk.

On a recent weekday afternoon at the shelter, some of the kids were playing soccer, others were messing around with the karaoke machine, and a few were hanging out in their bedroom. There were 26 kids there—mostly boys—and the supervisor said they were expecting five more that afternoon. A teenage girl said she had been at the shelter for only a couple of days but in Tijuana for more than a month.

She had traveled about 1,500 miles north to the border from her home in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which has one of the country’s highest levels of crime and violence. (Mother Jones is withholding her name and the names of all underage kids at the shelter for their safety.)

“I was on the streets, alone,” she said. “I had some money saved up so I stayed in a hotel a little bit, but that ran out.”

She didn’t know that unaccompanied minors were treated differently, that they couldn’t put their name on the waitlist that determines who gets a chance to apply for asylum every day. So she waited around with the larger group of adults, hoping to get a turn. After being on the streets for almost a month, she asked for help in a WhatsApp group message that many migrants in Tijuana used to communicate. She wrote that she was underage and needed a place to stay.

“A lot of men responded and I got scared; they were sending me private messages telling me they would give me money, telling me not to leave, that they would come pick me up, and I was really scared,” she said quietly, her eyes tearing up and clenching her hands tightly on her lap.

She says she barely had enough money to eat and was getting desperate when a group of women finally told her about the youth shelter.

In the past, when unaccompanied minors presented themselves at ports of entry or in remote areas of the border, US immigration officials would take them in and process their cases. Most of the time, at least. They would then end up in US custody: first in temporary detention facilities, then in long-term shelters or with sponsors.

Ever since November, that’s changed. A 17-year-old at the shelter said that last month when he approached “a US official” at the border, the official said, “I can’t help you,” and sent him away to talk to Mexican authorities. His account is consistent with months of reports of US officials turning away asylum-seekers at legal ports of entry, underage or not—reports that the Trump administration has denied.

In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told members of Congress that “[a]ll asylum-seekers have the opportunity to present their case. We’re not turning anybody around.” Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) was quick to jump on Nielsen, saying, “Let me tell you, Madam Secretary, either you’re lying to this committee or you don’t know what’s happening at the border. I have been there firsthand and I have seen it twice.”

Even before Remain in Mexico became the United States’ new border policy, US Customs and Border Protection had begun limiting the number of migrants who could meet with customs officers over the summer, citing a lack of resources and detention capacity. This so-called metering of migrants has caused some to wait months just to get a chance to present their case with a US immigration official at the border.

Mexican volunteers and asylum-seekers themselves started creating waitlists at different ports of entry along the border, although there are conflicting reports as to whether they were directed to do so by government officials from the United States or Mexico. The list works on a first-come, first-served basis: When migrants arrive in a city like Tijuana, they write down their name and wait to be called. The arrival of the migrant caravans starting in November presented an even bigger backlog at the border, and these waitlists became the only way to get a shot at applying for asylum. More than 5,000 names have been added to the list in Tijuana, and people have waited for months just to have their names called so they can present themselves at the port of entry.

According to Casa YMCA’s González, although there’s no official organization responsible for the list, everyone respects it. But according to Los Angeles-based legal aid organization Al Otro Lado, the list is kept by Grupos Beta, which is part of Mexico’s immigration service. So it’s unclear who officially runs the list. Regardless, the United States has said it has no oversight of this list, and immigrant rights groups have been critical of the system; Nicole Ramos, co-director of Al Otro Lado, told me that US border officials were “essentially delegating the processing of asylum-seekers to a foreign government with its own history of human rights violations.” 

The most worrisome issue with this waitlist, González says, is that it doesn’t include unaccompanied minors. US authorities will tell teens to get on the list, but when they try to put their name down, they’re told they can’t be added because they’re underage. It puts them in a situation where they can’t apply for asylum, they can’t present themselves at ports of entry, and they can’t get on the list.

“I hope that the kids are allowed to present themselves at the port of entry again,” Gonzalez said. “If not, there will be no other places for them to go and they’re going to end up in the streets.”

In Tijuana, that can be deadly. In the first 90 days of 2019, there were 300 murders in the city, as reported by the Sol de Tijuana newspaper. The Baja California State Commission on Human Rights has reported a spike in complaints since the arrival of the caravans. The combination of crime and hostility against migrants makes teenagers especially vulnerable.

“Sometimes when we’re walking to the store, people driving by yell at us to leave and go back to our country,” a teenage boy said at the shelter. Most kids there said they don’t really like to leave the shelter unless it’s in groups, and only to go to the corner store. They’ve become extra paranoid after an incident in December when three teenage boys living at the shelter went out together, were lured into a home by a woman who was working with organized criminals, and were kidnapped, according to reports by Mexican law enforcement, the shelter director, and the Baja California State Commission on Human Rights.

After the kidnappers realized the teens had no money, they tortured them. Two of them died, but the third was able to escape. He’s been placed in protective custody and is severely traumatized, said Melba Adriana Olvera Rodriguez with the human rights commission.

Some of the teens in the shelter today knew the boys who were killed. One of them told me that the night they found out, they all slept in the same room together, terrified.

“This incident is a clear indicator of the risks these youth are facing,” González said.

There is a sense of safety within the walls of the youth shelter, which is why most of the kids don’t leave. They have a routine, get three meals a day, and have a place to sleep, even though for some of the boys it’s small cots crammed together in a meeting room turned bedroom.

The teens seem to be able to let their guard at the shelter down despite their situation. They like to play soccer outside a lot. They also spend hours on the karaoke machine, although most of the time they just play music out of its large speaker.

As I wound down my time at the shelter, I talked to one Central American teen who told me that throughout his trip north he wrote down his thoughts and turned them into a song.

“I can sing it for you,” he said, standing up and grabbing the microphone.

He started rapping about how tough it was to leave home, the challenges he faced, and the good people who helped him along the way. Another boy had memorized the chorus, so he joined in. The girl from Michoacán looked up at the boys, tapped her foot to the beat, and smiled.

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