TECATE, Mexico — The streets were silent, save for the jingle from a truck selling gas tanks to residents and a pair of men singing Mexican ballads, when Sergio Pineda left Casa del Migrante for the day.
Pineda ran to catch up with the dozen men who had just left the migrant shelter in this small border city best known for the beer that proudly carries its name.
“I’ll be back this evening!” Pineda yelled back to Carlos Valenzuela, the shelter worker who was closing the gate behind him.
It had been seven weeks since the 35-year-old had left Honduras, and his feet ached from the journey through Mexico. He lost track of his brother in the caravan of Central American migrants heading north with dreams of being let in the United States.
Pineda had left Honduras to find better work and so he could send money for the care of another brother, who suffered from terminal cancer.
But for all of the fatigue and uncertainty, Pineda was grateful to miss the drama that, about 25 miles away in Tijuana, had left so many fellow migrants crushed and ready to return to Central America — and all the problems that had driven them this far.
Pineda, hollow-cheeked and tired, saw what happened in the much larger city as a kind of omen.
In their journey, thousands of Central Americans have amassed in Tijuana determined to seek asylum, seeing the San Ysidro Port of Entry just on the other side as the key to America. The large number of migrants has turned Tijuana into a theater with an audience of millions.
President Donald Trump has condemned the caravan as part of an invasion force; many residents in Tijuana have vigorously protested against the Central Americans, wanting them out of their city while wielding rhetoric eerily similar to the American president’s.
It all came to a head last month when some migrants rushed the border fence, leading to a clash in which Border Patrol officers fired tear gas into Mexico, sending men, women and children scrambling. The busy port of entry into the U.S. was temporarily closed.
In Tecate, squeezed between much larger Tijuana and Mexicali, some migrants have found a respite from the high anxiety that has consumed the famous — and for some, infamous — caravan. Here, the people seem relatively friendly and the job opportunities plentiful.
“I’m going to look for my brother in Tijuana, but I’m coming back here. There are a lot of work options and the people are kind here,” Pineda said. “The little time we’ve been here, they’ve helped us a lot. And honestly, we notice that.”
Casa del Migrante is a serendipitous discovery for most migrants, who have their eyes set on eventually making it to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Separated from the main caravan of travelers, migrants are brought here by human rights organizations patrolling the migrants’ path.
The shelter has received about 300 migrants. They are screened, searched for weapons and drugs, and registered before being given a bed and a warm plate of food, said Octavio Quevedo, the shelter’s board president.
Typically, the shelter cares for Mexican nationals or other immigrants deported from the U.S. But over the years it has sheltered Brazilian, Japanese and Chinese immigrants. In late November, 160 migrants from the Central American exodus arrived in two days, the largest volume the shelter has handled, Quevedo said.
The migrants who didn’t get a bed were offered a comfortable cushion on the floor of the shelter’s halls.
It’s a stark contrast to the more frenetic experience in Tijuana, where thousands are taking shelter in a crowded, dusty sports complex with tents and makeshift homes made of cardboard boxes, towels and plastic trash bags.
Pineda said he was disappointed when he heard about the clash at the border at Tijuana last month. All those people causing a fuss, he said, throwing everything they’ve worked for away only to get deported. He wouldn’t let himself make the same mistake.
“Things don’t have to be like that,” he said, shaking his head again. “You don’t accomplish anything with brute force.”
The people in Tecate are friendly and gracious, said Valenzuela, a Mexican man who ended up here after losing his home and now works at the shelter. There are many who come by the shelter offering work, he said.
In the office of Tecate’s main Catholic church, the receptionist keeps plastic bags full of canned and dry food for migrants. Attendees of Sunday Mass leave food at the church for them. Father Francisco Landa of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church said he leaves debates on the issue of immigration to the politicians.
“Anyone is welcome here,” he said. “We don’t make any distinctions. We are all brothers.”
That does not mean everyone in the city was well inclined toward the migrants.
Along Tecate’s border with the U.S., some vendors were disdainful. They said the Central Americans threatened to take jobs from local residents and were entitled. Among the odder, but surprisingly pervasive, complaints against the Central Americans was that the migrants look down their nose at refried beans and other Mexican fare.
“They want everything on a silver platter,” said Guadalupe Torres, who owns a convenience store. “They should send them back to their countries in little groups so it’s easier.”
From her shop, Torres could see two U.S. Marines install barbed wire on top of a metal border fence across the street.
Nicole Ramos, an attorney with Al Otro Lado, which helps protect asylum-seekers’ rights, said the reason more migrants don’t head for the calmer Tecate port of entry is simple: “Tecate refuses to process people.”
Since she began working with asylum-seekers in 2015, she has heard of only one migrant who was processed by U.S. officials at the port of entry, she said. The migrants she works with over the years have told her that they’re turned away.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials did not respond to questions about the number of asylum applicants at the Tecate port of entry. Officials said the agency is at capacity for processing asylum applications “at all points of our immigration system.”
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At Casa del Migrante, Marvin Aguilar of El Salvador said he fled his home because his work was dangerous there. As a bus driver, he often traveled through crime-ridden neighborhoods controlled by gangs.
He wanted to make it to the U.S. even though migrants trying to come for economic reasons do not qualify for asylum. But after hearing about the tear gas incident in Tijuana, he’s decided to stay in Tecate and try to find a job.
Shortly after the migrants left the shelter on this Monday morning, a man came by in a car belonging to a construction company.
“We need two men,” the driver told Valenzuela.
“What kind of men do you need? What kind of work?” he asked.
“Strong men. Cement work, construction.”
Come back in the early morning, Valenzuela replied. The Central American men will still be around by then.
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