AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Let's check in on one of the busiest parts of the southern border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego. Thousands who trekked north from Central America have spent about two months in Tijuana waiting to enter the U.S. and ask for asylum. NPR's John Burnett has this report from both sides of the border.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: For Tijuana, the Central American caravans have become a humanitarian challenge. For the Trump administration, they're a potent and convenient symbol of why the United States needs stronger border security.
RODNEY SCOTT: We don't know who else is in that group. But statistically it would indicate to me that there are some people that want to do harm to this country, who are coming in not to claim asylum.
BURNETT: Rodney Scott is chief of the San Diego Border Patrol sector. In the weeks since the caravan arrived, hundreds of migrants have lost patience and illegally jumped the border fence. He says his agents have arrested more than 2,500 of them in the no man's land between border barriers.
SCOTT: And the sheer numbers just statistically indicate there are nefarious people within that organization.
BURNETT: I cross into Tijuana through the well-guarded port of entry to meet some of the migrants, who look more bedraggled than nefarious. Their numbers have dropped dramatically from around 6,000 when they arrived in early November to under 2,000 today. They're staying in makeshift shelters throughout the city, waiting week after week to hear this announcement, which is made every morning in a small park near the U.S. port of entry.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: On this day, number 1,627 comes forward to start the ragged line of caravan migrants who will cross the border and request asylum from U.S. immigration agents. Forty to 60 people every day are allowed in. Darling Adalid Mercado is a clean-cut 19 year old in a ball cap with a crucifix around his neck. He says he left his home in Ocotepeque, Honduras, three months ago to flee town thugs who wanted to recruit him. He's angry at volunteers who organized the caravan, who he says gave them bad advice.
DARLING ADALID MERCADO: (Through interpreter) Village Without Borders is an organization that told us to join the caravan, that everything is going to be easy. But then you're on the road, and it's really hard, really difficult. They deceive you. They say, we're going to the Mexico-U.S. border, and we'll all cross together. But the truth is you can't do this. It's illegal. Activists have urged me, come on, Darling; just jump the fence. But it's better to return to my country because that's against the law. They'll punish you. It's better to wait in line.
BURNETT: If he's not sent to a migrant detention facility, Darling Adalid Mercado wants to join his brother in San Antonio, Texas, and find work. Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a Mexico-based immigrant solidarity organization, posted a response to recent criticism of its actions on its Facebook page. They emphatically reject the, quote, "defamation of our work of accompanying the caravan." The group vows to continue to support and protect the human rights of Central American migrants in transit.
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BURNETT: The waiting game in the squalid shelters in Tijuana is grating on everyone's nerves. Blanca Irias and her family from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, are cooling their heels at a shelter run by an evangelical church called the Ambassadors for Christ. She's a heavyset woman with weary eyes. They're staying in a camping tent set up in a church sanctuary.
BLANCA IRIAS: (Through interpreter) We're frustrated. We've been here a long time. We're discussing the possibility of staying here in Tijuana because there's work, and it pays well. But there are days when we also wonder if we should jump the fence. We don't know what we'll do.
BURNETT: More and more Hondurans who came in the caravan are deciding to stay in Tijuana. Mexico has issued more than 2,000 humanitarian visas that allow them to work in this booming border city on the Pacific coast. Foreign-owned assembly plants, construction sites, fruit vendors - they're all hiring. Santos Favian Gomez, who says he fled marauding gangs in Choluteca, Honduras, has taken a job washing dishes for a humanitarian group, World Central Kitchen, that prepares hundreds of meals for the migrants daily.
SANTOS FAVIAN GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) I'll remain in Tijuana because I hear if you cross into the United States, they put you in jail. It's better to work here than to be a prisoner over there.
BURNETT: Favian Gomez says he traveled alone. He'll save a little money to send home to his wife. He'll try to find a house to move out of the crowded shelter, and he'll make his home in Tijuana.
FAVIAN GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "It's pretty here," he says, scrubbing beans from a pan, "and the people are nice, and anything is better than returning to Honduras." John Burnett, NPR News, Tijuana.
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