TIJUANA, Mexico – The migrant caravans are stuck.
Thousands of Central Americans who traveled north to the U.S. border this fall, drawing dire warnings from President Donald Trump, have settled into an uneasy existence in Tijuana, facing a backlash on both sides of the border.
Coordinators who helped direct the migrants through Mexico with bullhorns and advice have largely vanished, and many migrants are frustrated, unsure what to do next.
"It's like a house without the parents," said Andrea Ramirez, 41, a Guatemalan who is living with her two daughters in the El Barretal migrant shelter in Tijuana, where many caravan members have settled. "The children do whatever they want."
Most important perhaps, the migrant caravans have not drawn the same sympathy or political support that some previous groups — such as the surge of unaccompanied minors in 2014 — did in either Mexico or the United States.
"I left my country because I thought this caravan was going to the United States," said Jose Morenos, 49, who joined a caravan in Honduras after seeing a story on the news. "I would not have come here if I knew they'd stop in Mexico."
It's a sign of how little the groups understood the harsh political realities of immigration that they approached the border in November just as Americans were embroiled in a bitter midterm election campaign in which Trump falsely warned of a looming "invasion" of criminals and terrorists.
Since then, Trump has fought Congress over his demands for $5 billion for his border wall, keeping immigration in the spotlight.
And the migrants' chances of gaining legal entry into the U.S. have only worsened: On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced that asylum-seekers will be forced to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed in the U.S., a dramatic policy shift.
Mexican officials initially registered about 6,000 migrants from the caravans at an emergency shelter less than 400 feet from the U.S. border, double the facility's planned capacity.
Overcrowding and flooding prompted officials to shutter the shelter on Nov. 29, pushing about 2,800 people into El Barretal. Others went to smaller shelters scattered in and around Tijuana.
Their presence has sparked protests in Tijuana — and some violence.
On Tuesday, two people threw a canister of tear gas into El Barretal shelter, according to Mexican federal police. It detonated in the section for women and children. No arrests were made.
The following day, however, state police in Tijuana arrested two men and one woman on suspicion of killing two Honduran teenagers who were part of the caravan.
The teenagers were heading to a shelter for unaccompanied minors, and while authorities said they were not targeted because of their affiliation with the caravan, the case highlights the dangers for migrants in Tijuana.
Mexican authorities have deported about 300 of the caravan members and helped about 700 more back to their home countries, according to the government. They say about 1,000 others illegally crossed the border, a figure that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials dispute, though they wouldn't provide their own figure.
More than 1,000 people from the caravans have found jobs or been cleared to work in Mexico, while about 3,500 others have registered for work visas, according to the Mexican government.
Nearly 600 people from the caravans have applied for asylum in Mexico, according to the U.N. refugee agency. It's unclear how many have applied for U.S. asylum, but the number of migrants claiming asylum at U.S. ports of entry in October and November doubled from the same period last year, Kevin McAleenan, Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said in a conference call with reporters.
On Dec. 11, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an advocacy organization, coordinated a march to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana to ask officials to speed up processing of asylum requests.
U.S. officials have blocked asylum-seekers from making claims at border crossings, including the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana, by physically turning them away, citing "capacity" issues.
"These shifts have left lines of asylum-seekers waiting in almost every major Mexican border city," researchers from three universities said in a Dec. 3 report.
McAleenan rejected those conclusions in the conference call, noting a 120 percent increase in processing asylum claims in fiscal 2018. San Ysidro, the "most capable" crossing, has the largest number of people waiting, he said.
"We work to accept a maximum amount of asylum-seekers per day at all of our ports of entry," he said.
Alfonso Guerrero Ulloa, a Honduran who has lived in Mexico since he was accused of a terrorist attack in his home country more than 30 years ago, led an effort to deliver a letter to the U.S. Consulate that asked Trump to either let migrants enter the U.S. or pay $50,000 to each migrant who goes home.
Teodoro Alvarado, 48, of El Salvador said the demand for money had tarnished the migrants' asylum effort, however. "It hurts us." "People are going to think we are criminals, because that is extortion."
U.S. officials have cited the letter, as well as a clash at San Ysidro on Nov. 25, when the Border Patrol used tear gas to block hundreds of people trying to rush the border, to question the migrants' motives.
"You know, as an American, I think that is outrageous," Nielsen said on Dec. 14 on Fox News. "They demand Americans pay them $50,000 each. They have demanded we change the way [in] which we do immigration and protect our border. These are not migrants who are seeking asylum."