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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 February 2019

Asylum seekers wait at US border as shutdown limits crossings

Communities either side of the US-Mexico border are stepping in to help migrants

A migrant stands next to her tent in Tijuana, Mexico, January 14, 2019. Reuters
A migrant stands next to her tent in Tijuana, Mexico, January 14, 2019. Reuters

As the US government shutdown enters an unprecedented fourth week, federal courts remain shuttered and immigration judges tasked with processing more than 800,000 outstanding asylum cases are still furloughed.

For thousands of asylum seekers stuck on the Mexican side of the US border, that means the days and weeks ahead are filled with further uncertainty. Court hearings for those who have already applied for asylum are not being heard due to the shutdown, meaning border officials are only accepting a restricted number of applications – between 20 and 90 per day.

President Donald Trump claims migrants are creating a "crisis" at the border that justifies his demand for a wall. The Democrat majority in the House of Representatives disagrees, which has led to the shutdown.

The overwhelming majority of migrants in Tijuana say they are fleeing threats to their lives in their home countries and hope to enter the US legally to lodge asylum claims at official ports of entry, as international law permits. As such, a border wall would not serve as a deterrent. The White House claims a border wall would stop those attempting to illegally enter the US, though in 2017, the number of arrests for illegal crossings hit a 46-year low.

For the roughly 6,200 people who recently arrived at the border from Central America, it is the delay in processing their asylum applications which is causing a crisis, as Tijuana’s capacity to care for them is stretched.

 A woman gestures toward Mexico from behind concertina wire on the beach on the U.S. side of the US-Mexico border on January 10, 2019. Getty
 A woman gestures toward Mexico from behind concertina wire on the beach on the U.S. side of the US-Mexico border on January 10, 2019. Getty

Meanwhile, all nine members of Congress who represent communities on the US side of the border oppose the wall, in large part because their local economies are closely linked to and dependent on communities across the border in Mexico.

Tijuana and San Diego, 30 kilometres to the north, are linked by the busiest border crossing in the world. Every day tens of thousands of Mexicans head north to work in San Diego, while American tourists and companies are increasingly making use of Tijuana’s low cost of living and cheap labour.

As political grandstanding in Washington continues over Mr Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall, communities on both sides of the border are stepping in to ease the pain of migrants affected by the shutdown. Charities such as the San Diego-based Border Angels, and Casa YMCA, a shelter for young people and migrants in Tijuana, have delivered tonnes of aid and provided shelter for hundreds of desperate migrant families. Local San Diego newspapers run articles listing the dos (cash donations are welcomed) and don'ts (but not used clothes) of giving to migrants.

At the tiny Border Angels office in central San Diego, Enrique Morones, the charity’s founder, welcomes people walking in off the street, their arms laden with bags of nappies, first-aid kits and tents. “Thanks for bringing these. What’s your name? Where did you hear about us?” Mr Morones booms out in the direction of donors. “Make sure we get their emails,” he tells a volunteer. Every few days or when their store room reaches capacity, volunteers stuff their cars with the donations and drive 30 minutes south to Tijuana.

While the response from the local communities and charities has been positive, official responses have been less warm. Juan Manuel Gastelum, the mayor of Tijuana, has been labelled the 'Trump of Tijuana' for his criticism of migrants.

In San Diego, federal authorities have been accused of dumping processed asylum seekers on city streets without giving any onward support, leading to warnings of a potential public health crisis. The deaths of two migrant children last month in Texas and New Mexico sparked harsh criticism of US border officials and made headlines around the world.

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Read more:

Donald Trump 'not in a rush' to declare emergency in border wall fight

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Donald Trump walks out of talks with Democrats on shutdown

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With border patrol agents forced to work without pay due to the shutdown, fears have grown that extremist groups such as the San Diego Minutemen may resurface. Tim Donnelly, a conservative former candidate for governor of California and local Minuteman leader, told the San Diego Union-Tribune last May: “This is a very dangerous region; there’s a lot of people who go through specific smuggling corridors… We’re here to defend our freedom because ultimately that is what’s under threat.”

In Tijuana, Casa YMCA is struggling to keep up with the numbers affected by the US government shutdown. “We didn't expect this [crisis] to last as long as it has," says Uriel Gonzalez, the organisation’s head. “Migrants now see that coming to Tijuana is not easy,” he says.

Food, clothing and medical supplies are the main shortages shelters across Tijuana face, Mr Gonzalez says, a pre-existing problem that is only being exacerbated by the shutdown. “Feeding up to 150 people every day where resources are scarce is difficult.”

With almost every shelter in Tijuana at full capacity, at least two slated to close in the coming weeks and a new migrant caravan expected to set off from Central America this week – something certain to rile Mr Trump – the border “crisis” is far from over.

Updated: January 15, 2019 01:57 PM

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