By Christine Murray
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Several thousand Central American migrants languished in a filthy, overcrowded sports complex within tantalizing sight of the United States, facing sickness and indefinite waits amid shifting U.S. border policies that barred them from crossing.
Since the bedraggled men, women and children of a caravan of mostly Hondurans began cramming into the complex in the Mexican border city of Tijuana about three weeks ago, there have been multiple cases of respiratory illnesses, lice and chicken pox, according to three city officials who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
With too many to fit into shelters in a city used to receiving deportees and migrants, the caravan, which had travelled about 3,000 miles (4,800 km) since mid-October, was ushered into the complex to wait until U.S. and Mexican authorities settled on how to deal with it.
Many of the people have been living in tents made of trash bags or patches of cold floor walled off with backpacks, enduring the harsh elements and lack of privacy as they had learned to do on each leg of their near daily 30-mile (50-km)treks from northern Honduras.
“It cost me a lot to walk almost 15 to 20 hours a day, and to go back now: no,” said Anabell Pineda, 26, curled for warmth inside a tent in the stadium beside a neat pile of bags and rolled-up blankets.
Pineda, who had travelled for almost a month from the violent northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula with her 6-year-old son, said she had arrived in Tijuana 13 days earlier, feeling unwell.
When she learned it would be nearly impossible to cross under current U.S. policies to the United States, she resolved to get a work permit in Mexico.
Mexican police blocked hundreds of the Central American migrants on Sunday when they staged a protest in front of the border.
When some made their way towards the border fence, U.S. authorities shot tear gas at them, setting off a panic among the crowds of migrants marching on the Mexican side.
Back in the complex, men washed using buckets in a shower area beside a line of reeking portable toilets and giant mud puddles. Women, wary of uninvited gazes, bathed with clothes on.
Inside a gymnasium where the caravan’s first arrivals had set up neat rows of thin mattresses, a city official said migrants faced a chicken pox outbreak.
U.S. President Donald Trump threatened this week to “permanently” close the U.S.-Mexican border if Mexico does not deport the 7,000 Central Americans gathered in Tijuana.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, who leaves office this weekend, responded on Wednesday, saying Central American migrants were welcome to stay in Mexico.
But he said the migrants have a right to request asylum in the United States, and Mexico has repeatedly refused U.S. requests to force them to seek refuge there instead.
(Reporting by Christine Murray; writing by Delphine Schrank; editing by Dave Graham and Jonathan Oatis)