CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Temperatures have dropped below freezing here this weekend, but not everyone is sleeping indoors.

Hundreds of Mexican migrants seeking to claim asylum in the United States camp out in makeshift tent cities near international crossings in this border city. Now, as the weather turns colder, local government officials are pleading with them to head to shelters, but most won’t budge.

“If we leave here, we’ll lose our place in line,” said Sandra, a 27-year-old mother of three who said she’ll stay put even though her children have gotten sick from living outside. “People who have gone to the shelters have lost their place.”

The ever-evolving immigration picture at the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez has morphed once again: Where only a few months ago record numbers of Central American families were arriving here to seek asylum, their presence — and their plight — is now being filled by Mexicans who want to claim asylum in the U.S. to flee drug violence.

The Mexican asylum-seekers are taking a different tack than those leaving other countries, partly because new, restrictive immigration policies the U.S. has used to stem the migrant flow don’t apply to them.

Perhaps the biggest contrast is also the most visible one. While other asylum-seekers are spread out across Juárez, taking refuge in shelters or other types of housing, many Mexicans are pitching tents in the open.

At one of the tent cities in Chamizal Federal Public Park, located near the Bridge of the Americas border crossing, makeshift tents dot the landscape, a patchwork of shelters fashioned out of green, blue and black plastic tarps weighed down by rocks and circumscribed by gutters dug in the dirt to keep the rainwater out.

In common areas near the tents, children ride bicycles and kick soccer balls. Parents hang hand-washed laundry between tall trees, families prepare dinner at cooking stations and men stack piles of wood. Many of the migrants wear donated jackets and other clothes to deal with the cold.

Most people camping here are from the violent states of Michoacan, Zacatecas and Guerrero, which are in central and southern Mexico. Many said they decided to make the journey after gangs tried to recruit them and threatened them with death if they didn’t join or pay them money.

“They came to our house and told my sister if we weren’t back in four hours, they would kill us,” said Juan, a 28-year-old from Zacatecas who was carrying his 3-year-old daughter and her doll in his arms while riding a bicycle around the park.

After that, Juan, who didn’t give his last name for fear of reprisals, headed north immediately with his wife, sister and children — and he didn’t even stop at home to pack a bag.

“We didn’t give them time to find us,” he said, adding he didn’t want to end up like a friend, who had just been killed by gang members.

Juan said he at first had considered paying a smuggler to get him and his family across the border, but then an uncle in the U.S. had told him they could walk across and claim asylum.

“I have hope that they’ll accept us,” he said.

Since March, migrants who claim asylum have been sent back to Mexico to wait for their court dates under a U.S. policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols. But under the policy and consistent with the 1951 Refugee Convention, a United Nations treaty, Mexican asylum-seekers aren’t subject to the measures because they can’t be sent back to the very country where they claim they’re being persecuted.

“If they do come across the border, they’re by definition seeking asylum from Mexico, so they have to be able to wait in the U.S.,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Another new Trump administration policy, which disallows claims from people who failed to claim asylum in other countries en route to the U.S., doesn’t apply to Mexicans, either.

The U.S. has responded by starting pilot programs in El Paso that speed up the adjudications of Mexican asylum-seekers and put them on a fast track to deportation if their cases are denied. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit earlier this month, arguing the programs don’t allow immigrants access to adequate legal counsel.

Mexican asylum-seekers waiting in Juárez have created their own separate system of “metering” — essentially, a waiting list used to limit the number of people allowed to apply for asylum at U.S. ports of entry.

The main “metering” system used by most migrants — from Central Americans to Cubans to Africans — is implemented by Chihuahua’s State Population Council. But Mexican officials said both they and U.S. authorities have agreed that people claiming persecution in Mexico shouldn’t use a list maintained by that same country.

And that’s the list the migrants believe they’ll lose their place on if they pack up their tents to head to a shelter.

In the past week, as freezing temperatures started to show up in the weather forecast, officials from Chihuahua have tried to move people in the tent cities to migrant shelters, especially since 48 percent of them are underage. But they haven’t had much success.

“We’re suggesting it for the well-being of the children,” said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the State Population Council, which runs Chihuahua’s migrant transition facility. “As much as we insist, they don’t want to move. There have been very few who have gone to the shelter.”

Temperatures in Juarez fell to 30 degrees early Friday and lows were expected to hit that level Saturday and Sunday as well.

It’s unclear why the number of Mexican asylum-seekers has recently increased. It could be because violence has increased in areas of southern Mexico. Worldwide media attention on Central American migrants passing through their country to seek asylum also may have encouraged Mexicans to head north. Smugglers could also be responding to the decreasing number of Central American migrants by selling their services to more Mexicans.

In August, Mexico overtook Guatemala and Honduras to become the largest source of unauthorized migration to the U.S. In October, the number of Mexicans apprehended at ports of entry rose to around 17,000, a 34 percent increase from July, the New York Times reported.

The waiting process at the tent cities is an intricate system. For starters, it’s not just one list — there are separate registers for people from Michoacan, Zacatecas and Guerrero.

Every morning at 11, people designated to oversee the waiting lists carry out a roll call of sorts and everyone on the list needs to be present. If someone is absent three times, they get kicked off the list.

As people get closer to the top of the list, they move to a small area known as “the triangle,” located on the main avenue, kitty-corner from the edge of the park and closer to the bridge that traverses the Rio Grande into the U.S.

That’s where Dulce Maria, who also declined to give her last name out of fear of reprisals, was camped out with her husband and two sons. She said that three months ago, they heard on news reports back home that the U.S. was granting asylum to Mexicans who had been the victims of drug violence, so they packed up their things and headed for Juárez.

“We got here and there were all these people,” she said. “They must have seen it on the news before we did.”

Dulce Maria said people who were ahead of her family on the list and had already crossed told her by phone that they had entered the U.S. successfully and were now waiting with their families on the other side.

The cold isn’t the only potential threat at the park. Some of the men in the camps said they take turns guarding the area at night to help ensure their families stay safe.

Some people reported “suspicious” people lingering nearby at night, and several said one woman from the camps had been kidnapped, although this couldn’t be corroborated by any public officials.

“Thank God nothing has happened to us,” said Juan, the 28-year-old migrant from Zacatecas.

Some people were reluctant to give even their first names, afraid that any photo posted on social media could alert the gangs from which they were fleeing.

Others, such as Baltazar Gonzalez, a 21-year-old from Michoacan, didn’t have a problem with giving his name. Kicking a soccer ball to himself in the park, he said a gang beat him and threatened to kill him back home.

“I’m renouncing Mexico,” he said. “My biggest dream is to get to the U.S., to get away from the insecurity.”


Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

(4) comments

Robert Bartlett

Meanwhile our progressive friends want to bring more drug gang members to New Mexico.

Tom Aageson Aageson

It is hard to imagine people coming to our house wanting to kill us and giving us 4 hours to clear out. Or losing a friend or child to senseless killings. They want security here while the US delays and delays their hearing and the poor of this country just became poorer as food supplements have been cut. This is cruel. All justice of this country is being destroyed.

Alexandra Lynch

This is an excellent series. Thank you for informing us! Maybe there's a way to take at least blankets to these camps in Juarez.

Bob Lee

Great idea. I’ve got a couple of blankets I’ll get to you and then you drive them down there. I’m glad that you are personally taking up the cause instead of taxpayers. Meanwhile, we have our own cold and starving people right here. You choose how you want to allocate your resources: Those in our country, or those from another. My personal belief is that we need to use our resources for US citizens.

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