Stuck In Tijuana, Many Central American Migrants Opt For A Job

15 hours ago
Originally published on November 30, 2018 11:10 pm

In the mud-filled sports complex where some 6,200 Central American migrants have been mired near the U.S. border in Tijuana, a 20-year-old Honduran named Josue Pineda awaits his turn for an open-air cold water shower. He's thinking about his next move, given the near impossibility of realizing his goal of crossing the border into the United States.

Pineda is one of a growing number of newly arrived migrants in Tijuana who have started thinking about Mexico as their next home.

"Most of these people are still dreaming of America," he says, "but if there's a chance to get a job here, there's no way I'm not going to take it."

More than two thousand of these migrants have enrolled for a one-year humanitarian visa that would allow them to hold jobs legally in Mexico. Some have already begun working.

"There's around ten thousand open jobs available in the maquiladora industry," says Tijuana alderman Genaro Lopez. "Those are the factories that work for big names like Sony, Pioneer and stuff like that here in Tijuana — Panasonic, Samsung."

Those assembly plants surround Tijuana and account for nearly two-thirds of the city's official economic activity. Some locals say the main reason they're hurting for workers is the low wages they offer.

"We need human capital," says Nayla Rangel, the coordinator of a federally and state sponsored jobs fair that's a 20 minute hike from the migrants' shelter. "The companies keep demanding more workers, and we're having a hard time keeping up."

In the large, covered courtyard where the jobs fair is being held, scores of scruffy-looking men and women from the shelter line up for interviews with government officials and industry representatives.

"Every day, more and more of these people are showing up, looking for work," says Rangel. "Tijuana is essentially a city of migrants, and these ones will always be well received here."

Not everyone in this crime-ridden border city is on board with migrants who entered Mexico without authorization getting jobs and official papers.

"Oh, it's not good," says 90-year-old Tijuana resident Roberto Sandoval, sitting on his motorized scooter outside the jobs fair and watching the parade of prospective Central American workers.

"Mexico should protect its own people, not these people that come from foreign countries."

But Rene Castillo is happy. This 42-year-old construction worker from Honduras has just landed a job at a local assembly plant, where he'll start the next morning making the equivalent of $1.88 an hour.

"Thank God we've been given a chance to work here in Mexico," he says. "It may not be much to start out with, but I'm not looking to make millions — I just want to get settled and see what's next."

But Castillo has not yet ruled out attempting to get into the United States, where he has relatives. "No way am I giving up," he says, "I'm a positive person and I'll just have to give it a little more time."

It's the same for Claudia Hernandez, a pregnant Honduran mother of four who's just gotten a contract to work at another assembly plant.

"Mexico's alright," she says, "but the goal is getting to the United States — it's every Honduran's dream."

But the Trump administration wants these migrants to remain in Mexico while their applications for asylum in the U.S. are being considered, a process that could take many months.

Mexico is offering free transportation to those migrants who want to return to their homelands. To the rest, it's offering jobs.

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Mexico swears in a new president tomorrow, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. For nearly a century, Mexican presidents have come from one of two main political parties. Not Lopez Obrador. He rode to victory as a third-party candidate promising to be different.

So how different, and what might his arrival mean for U.S.-Mexico relations - questions we're going to put next to NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Hi, Carrie.


KELLY: So what is the vibe there like ahead of the inauguration? I know here in Washington the day before a swearing-in there's all kinds of security, all kinds of excitement.

KAHN: Oh, I think there's a lot of excitement here. Dignitaries from all over the world are coming. Vice President Pence and Ivanka Trump will be here. Lopez Obrador has a loyal following, and they've been waiting a long time for this. So I think there's going to be a lot of people out celebrating. A poll out today shows his popularity is sky-high. So are expectations for him.

And in his typical populist style, he says he's not going to live at the presidential residence, Los Pinos. It's too opulent and far removed from the people. And he's turning it into a museum. And tomorrow, for the first time, the gates are swinging open, and the public is invited in. There'll be big-screen TVs up to broadcast his swearing-in ceremony. So we're looking at a long day of partying here.

KELLY: Oh, and where's he going to live? Does he just keep his house?

KAHN: He might stay put there. Or he's talking about taking up residence in the presidential palace where all the government business is run out of. He says he doesn't need the whole palace. He's not a monarch. He just needs a bed and a room to rest because he's going to be so hard-working every day.

KELLY: All right, you're starting to give me some insight into what might make him so different besides the fact that he's not from either of the two big traditional parties. What else?

KAHN: Well, he is a leftist here. He's a nationalist, a populist. He's seen as a pragmatist, a defender of the poor. He lives a very humble life. He shunned bodyguards. He travels on commercial airlines. And he's vowed to sell the presidential plane. The concerns for him, though, are many as he comes into office, too. He has an authoritarian streak, and he's made recent moves to consolidate presidential power. He's upset markets by canceling a huge $13 billion airport infrastructure project here that was already under way.

And besides saying he's going to, you know, stamp out corruption and rule by example to do it, he hasn't really given a lot of details on how he's going to fight that corruption or Mexico's rising violence and powerful drug cartels. And he recently angered supporters by reversing a promise to remove the military from crime fighting. The army has been implicated in terrible human rights abuses over the past decade. So his plan is just no different than his predecessor.

KELLY: Well, speaking of his predecessor, what kind of legacy, what kind of situation is he inheriting from the outgoing president, Pena Nieto?

KAHN: Well, on the positive side, he's going to inherit a stable economy. It's a pretty lackluster economy, but it is stable. And just today the newly renegotiated NAFTA agreement was signed on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. So that's really good for foreign investor confidence in Mexico. But overall I don't think, Mary Louise, I can overstate this. This country is in shambles with regard to corruption, impunity, violence, you name it - human rights abuses.

This past government has left Mexico's democratic institutions - the police, the courts - they were weak to begin with, but they're in even more dire straits. And, you know, that's why Lopez Obrador's mandate - he was brought in on a landslide electoral victory because Mexicans were so fed up with the violence and corruption. His party has a majority in both houses of Congress, too, so he has this huge mandate and huge expectations and a lot to do in the next six years.

KELLY: And what about the border, which is of course the issue that we here in the States hear about every day in connection with Mexico? Where's that on his list of priorities?

KAHN: Well, I think that's going to be problem number one he's going to have to deal with. He has to deal with President Trump. You know, Trump is threatening to close the border over this caravan of migrants that are camped out there waiting to apply for asylum into the U.S. It'll be very interesting to see how these two very unique, unconventional presidents interact.

KELLY: NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting from Mexico City - thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.