Heat and violence pose twin threats for asylum-seekers waiting at border

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By Anna Marie Barry-Jester, California Healthline, Kaiser Health News

MEXICALI, Mexico — It wasn’t even May before thermometers hit 100 degrees in this Mexican border city. Tania was washing clothes for her two daughters when she started to feel queasy and weak. She lay down in a bed at the stifling migrant shelter where she’d taken refuge with her fiance and children.

But the throbbing pain and nausea wouldn’t go away, and she fainted. She was taken to a Mexican Red Cross hospital, one of the few places where asylum-seekers like her, waiting at the U.S. border to plead their case, can go in an emergency.

“Where I’m from, we don’t have heat like this,” she told Kaiser Health News from her hospital bed.

Tania and her family are among thousands of Central Americans living in uncertainty in Mexican border cities as a result of Trump administration policies that require migrants to wait out asylum requests on the southern side of the border.

In Mexicali, a sprawling industrial metropolis of more than 750,000 people, the fragile ecosystem of shelters is strained; some operators have begun to charge asylum-seekers for lodging and other services. And with social services stretched thin, a new threat looms: the heat of summer in one of the most torrid regions on Earth.

Historically, migrants in Mexicali make their way to coastal Tijuana this time of year in a search of more tolerable temperatures. Many, including Tania’s family, already have undertaken the trek because asylum-seekers who cross the border from Mexicali to Calexico, Calif., are given court dates 100 miles west in the San Diego area.

A woman who was returned to Mexico that morning after applying for asylum worries where she and her family might end up. Their room at the shelter had already been given to a new family.Anna Maria Barry-Jester / Kaiser Health News

But choosing to wait out their asylum cases in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, comes with menace of its own: saturated shelters and a vicious criminal element that fueled 2,519 murders last year.

Tania’s fiance worked as a night guard in a gated community while they were in Mexicali, and saved enough money for the family to rent a room in a private home when they got to Tijuana. But the money won’t last until their court date at the end of May. They are hoping space will open in a shelter. If not, they don’t know where they will go.

“People die daily here,” Tania said. “We basically don’t leave the house.”

Tania says she is trying to observe U.S. protocol in her quest for asylum but can’t help feeling she’s been penalized for following the rules. (Her name has been changed in this story, along with those of other migrants, because of their fear that speaking with news media could affect their bids for asylum.)