Trapped in Tijuana by U.S. immigration policy, thousands of Central American migrants are being offered jobs by the city’s maquiladora industry while they await their cases to move through the lengthy U.S. asylum process on the other side of the border.
“We feel the obligation is here in Tijuana,” said Salvador Diaz Gonzalez, president of the Association of Industriales de la Mesa de Otay (AIMO). “It’s our responsibility as an industry in Tijuana to offer jobs.”
At El Barretal, an event space turned into a migrant shelter city of pup tents in eastern Tijuana, one of the migrants, Carlos Melgar, a 25-year-old, said he was surprised to get stalled at the U.S.-Mexico border after arriving in mid-November as part of the 6,000-strong Central American caravan that traveled through Mexico.
He had requested asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry but was ordered to return to Mexico to wait for his application to be processed. A driver in El Savador, he said he wanted to work but didn’t know what to do next.
“There’s a lot of people asking for asylum, and it’s very difficult to deal with,” he said.
Applicants typically wait between 6 months and several years for their cases to be heard and a decision rendered.
In the past, asylum seekers were released in the United States with orders to return to court to complete the process. But under a new Trump policy, that would no longer be the case. Anybody who requested asylum was to be processed by federal immigration agents, then, like Melgar, immediately returned to Mexico.
The abrupt policy change threw the Mexican government into chaos and Tijuana straining under the challenge of dealing with the migrants.
Then, a U.S. court decision banned the Trump administration from denying asylum to migrants who illegally cross the border. That decision prompted mass attempts to cross the border fence only to be met with tear gas fired across the border by U.S. agents. Others slipped across individually or in small groups. Some returned to their home countries.
In mid-January, the Barretal shelter, which was established after a shelter in Tijuana’s Zona Norte became overcrowded and flooded, was being abruptly closed.
Where as many as 3,000 had been housed when this reporter visited the facility a week before, only about 700 remained. Many had moved on, possibly crossing the border illegally or gotten jobs or apartments in Tijuana.
It’s unclear how many of the migrants have gained jobs in the city’s maquiladoras.
In late December, Luis Aguirre Lang, president of the local chapter of the Export Manufacturing Industry Council (Index), said nearly 2,000 of the Central Americans had been informed about the maquiladora hiring program and that nearly 700 had been identified during a month-long job fair as qualified for work in the industry.
The maquiladoras were ready to receive the migrants and offer them the documents needed to work in Mexico because of the experience two and a half years ago when 6,000 to 7,000 Haitians showed up in Tijuana.
Only 4,000 were allowed entry in the United States. Some 2,000 to 3,000 gained authorization to work in Mexico and have established a community in Tijuana.
“We already knew it was going to be difficult for the migrants to cross to the United States. We relied on our experience with the Haitians,” AIMO’s Diaz said.
“We talked to Mexican immigration authorities about how we could give them jobs. They came up with a humanitarian visa, good for one year,” he said.
But that visa didn’t allow for maquiladoras to take deductions for tax purposes or to provide the benefits normally paid to maquila workers.
“We had to get the approval of the federal government, the state and city officials and the tax authorities, social security and labor officials. All that took us one and a half years,” Diaz said. “With the Central Americans we knew what the process was.”
The industry has a substantial shortage of workers. There are some 7,000 to 10,000 openings in just Tijuana maquiladora plants. Workers also are needed in Mexicali, Tecate and Ensenada factories.
But many of the jobs have become highly skilled, requiring college and even engineering degrees. Most of the Central Americans were poorly educated, with limited schooling.
“With Haitians, it was a different problem,” Diaz said. “It was the language. But, actually, many spoke Spanish or learned fast. There were a lot of professionals, doctors, engineers and accountants.”
Keven Saltier Lopez, 20, who traveled from Honduras, said he was willing to work in the maquiladoras but has only a primary education. One of the reasons he joined the caravan was to earn more pay. He said he was concerned the factories do not pay enough.
If hired by a maquiladora, Central American migrants will receive close to two minimum wages per day in addition to all the benefits granted to Mexican workers. There are openings for less qualified workers in steel, garment and other factories, Diaz said.
In addition, jobs in the service industry or in rural areas such as San Quintin and the Valle de Guadalupe are being offered. There are some 2,000 vacancies just in Tijuana’s restaurants, he said.
El Barretal is closing just as another caravan plans to follow in the Central American migrants, leaving Honduras with the safety of thousands bound for the Tijuana border.
As the migrants make their way north, AIMO, Index, the human resources organization Arhitac, Canacar and other Tijuana organization still are working with the federal government to offer jobs.
“Our obligation is to create jobs,” Diaz said. “We can provide workers to other Baja cities. Another option is if a company here has a branch in Guadalajara, Monterrey, we can offer jobs there.”
Edwin Josue Dubon, a 23-year-old who worked in a clothing store in Honduras, said he was uncertain what he will do.
“I had a friend who was murdered. When the police came to me, I knew I was in trouble. It dangerous for me there. I would like to gain admission to the United States. I had a friend who was granted asylum there a year ago. But it’s complicated You need proof that you need asylum.
“I’m willing to work here in Tijuana,” Dubon said, “but I don’t know if I will get a job.”