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Children of asylum-seekers take classes at Espacio Migrante. / Photo courtesy of Espacio Migrante

The coronavirus has made life in Tijuana significantly more difficult for asylum-seekers, who already often found themselves trapped in a kind of legal limbo.

Trump administration policies like “metering” restricted the number of asylum-seekers let into the United States each day, and the Migrant Protection Protocols program, which required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their immigration proceedings to play out in U.S. courts.

The situation became even more uncertain when the U.S. government, citing the pandemic, effectively suspended asylum processing and began turning migrants back at the border. The Trump administration’s emergency coronavirus restrictions have resulted in only two people being granted humanitarian assistance at the U.S.-Mexico border since March, the Washington Post reports.

Now, as the coronavirus rages, migrants waiting out the legal process in Tijuana are experiencing not only indefinite stays, but limited shelter space. Many migrant shelters have effectively closed their spaces to keep the virus out. Asylum-seekers are also finding employment hard to come by because of restrictions put in place to quell the spread of the coronavirus.

“Many of our families were hopeful because they had their final hearings in March or April, but the U.S. suspended all hearings until June 22,” said Paulina Olvera Cáñez, director of Espacio Migrante, a migrant shelter and community center in Tijuana. “And it’s very possible that will get extended. That’s been frustrating.”

Espacio Migrante has had to stop letting migrants staying in their shelter go to work, and has implemented additional hygienic measures to keep people staying with them from getting sick.

There are also thousands of families waiting in Tijuana who aren’t living in shelters, Olvera Cáñez said, and if they’re not working, then they’ll struggle to survive to pay rent or find food.

In the meantime, the shelter started a new program to provide schooling for asylum-seeking children in April with the hope that it could be replicated in other parts of the city.

Olvera Cáñez said Espacio Migrante had tried to enroll some children in Tijuana schools in the past, but often by the time they were enrolled, those families had already crossed into the United States.

“Some parents are also scared for their children to go to school in Tijuana because it’s not their city and sometimes it’s not safe,” she said.

The program offers coursework in coding through a collaboration with the University of California San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center and the group Create Purpose, which seeks to expand educational opportunities to vulnerable children.

Tom Wong, the director of UCSD’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center, has been collecting surveys about the needs and situations of asylum-seekers who are in the Migrant Protection Protocols program for more than a year, and found that families were having a particularly hard time getting access to education.

“The pandemic has amplified and made even more vivid the importance of trying to address gaps in these children’s education,” Wong said. “Shelters are trying to do their best, many have play spaces for kids. But play can only prepare a young person in his or her formative years so much.”

Wong said the organizations decided to focus on coding because they wanted to provide children with a tangible and desirable skill that could help them find asylum in the United States and then complete public school here.

“We may be giving them a way forward,” he said. “Not replacing formal instruction or education, but at least giving them an introduction that engages their interest and imagination, so they can imagine a different set of possibility after their asylum journey is over.”

There are seven children, all girls ranging from ages 8 to 14, currently in the program, Olvera Cáñez said.

“It’s cool because the children get really excited to go,” she said. “Even 15 to 20 minutes before class, all the little girls get ready. It’s nice for them to have a space to be children and learn something.”

Create Purpose provided laptops to Espacio Migrante and helped the shelter set up Wi-Fi. Because of the pandemic, they ended up having to begin the program with remote, online instruction. But Wong said that has been a blessing in disguise, since remote instruction will actually be key to offering the program to more asylum-seekers throughout the city.

“The pivot was to online instruction and online instruction is actually how we can scale,” Wong said.

Questions Surround Mexico’s Coronavirus Numbers

It’s hard to tell just how many people are actually dying from the coronavirus in Mexico, the Los Angeles Times reports. In Tijuana, health officials have also challenged the government’s count. One doctor at Tijuana’s General Hospital told the Times in early May that he and his colleagues had counted more than 200 coronavirus deaths at their hospital alone, while the official death toll in the city at the time was around 400.

A Zeta report from Tijuana hospitals is especially horrific: It describes patients waiting for hospital beds amid body bags filled with corpses. “It is a discouragement, a great sadness to be living this pandemic and to see the patients slip through our hands,” one Tijuana nurse says in a different account in El País.

The Mexican government is not reporting hundreds, possibly thousands, of deaths from the coronavirus in Mexico City. Some officials have tallied more than three times as many fatalities in the capital than the government publicly acknowledges, the New York Times reports.

The coronavirus hasn’t slowed violence in Tijuana, but last week the death toll surpassed homicides for the first time. Last week, there were 39 homicides in the city between Monday and Friday, while 63 people  died from the coronavirus in the same time period, reports Tijuana Press. As of Sunday, there were 3,228 positive cases being reported by the government in Baja California and 549 deaths, with an average of nearly eight COVID-related deaths per day, reports La Voz de la Frontera.

Coronavirus Is Also Taking a Toll on Mexican Journalists

In Mexico, reporters covering COVID-19 face equipment shortages and government obstruction, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“I think the most difficult aspect for us is the lack of transparency, the fact that the authorities are hermetic and will only provide us with information when they want to, and then as little as is convenient to them,” Adela Navarro Bello, the editor-in-chief of Tijuana’s Zeta, told CPJ. “The environment has become hostile; the state government says they don’t trust us, that the media aren’t telling the truth.”

In Tijuana, the coronavirus has taken the life of at least one reporter, Moisés Márquez, reports Infobaja.

Baja California’s ‘Perfect Storm’

A perfect storm of economic, health and political problems is brewing in Baja California. The state’s former governor is being investigated for corruption, and his wife is being investigated for allegedly diverting funds earmarked for children through the Comprehensive Family Development System. (Infobae)

About 40 other officials from the previous state administration are also being investigated for alleged fraud. (Radar BC)

On May 11, Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously struck down a 2019 state law that permitted Baja California Gov. Jaime Bonilla to lengthen his term in office to five years from the original two years. (El Universal)

More Border News

  • Tijuana and San Diego leaders have formed a binational working group to monitor cross-border coronavirus impacts. The San Diego mayor’s office is donating 1,000 3D-printed face shields and five ventilators to Tijuana hospitals. (Union-Tribune)
  • U.S.-Mexico border factories are being pressured to stay open despite COVID-19 risk. As of last week, 24 cases have been confirmed among maquila workers in Tijuana and 17 in Mexicali, but that’s likely an undercount. (The Guardian)
  • Tijuana sanctioned 63 businesses and shut down 10 last week that weren’t complying with rules intended to quell the spread of COVID-19. But despite restrictions on large gathering, one Baja California public official recently held a wedding celebration with dozens of invitees. (Zeta, Excelsior)
  • The effects of COVID-19 on illicit activities remain largely unknown, writes Cecilia Farfán Méndez, the head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego. But evidence from the Great Recession shows that we can expect the economic downturn to lower financial institutions’ incentives for enforcing anti-money laundering regulations and that criminal organizations in Mexico and Colombia may take advantage.
  • Health experts and residents worry that the South Bay, which has experienced higher coronavirus numbers than the rest of the county, isn’t ready to re-open, as San Diego county officials begin rolling back restrictions. (inewsource)

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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