Municipal police parked two vans at the side of the migrant shelter on Tuesday night, dropped off a group of men and guided them into a small chapel that already overflowed with other migrant families seeking refuge from the cold.
The adjacent dining room was prepared for dinner, though the folding tables and chairs would later be put away to make room on the floor for sets of blankets that would serve as beds for hundreds of migrants.
One of the principal and longest-operating migrant shelters in Nogales, Sonora, the Albergue San Juan Bosco has tripled its number of guests over the past three months, housing an average of 360 men, women and children per night, according to Francisco Loureiro, who operates the facility along with his wife Gilda.
“The flow has increased dramatically. Normally, we receive about 100 to 120 migrants per day,” Loureiro said. “The shelter is saturated right now. It’s completely full.”
However, according to Loureiro, the recent increase isn’t a result of large groups of Central American asylum-seekers arriving in Nogales as they have in other Mexican border cities such as Tijuana, which borders San Diego, or Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas. Instead, he said, the majority of the people staying at his shelter are from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, where rampant violence has displaced large numbers of people and forced schools and even morgues to close.
The new arrivals from Guerrero, Loureiro said, have been encouraged by friends and relatives already in the United States to come to U.S. ports of entry and ask for asylum.
One of the migrants staying at the shelter on Tuesday night, 21-year-old Manuel Urtez Gonzalez of Atoyac de Alvarez, Guerrero, said his wife’s aunt encouraged him and his family to apply for asylum in the United States, months after she did so herself.
“She was here about three months ago. She’s still going through the asylum process, but she’s already in the United States,” Urtez said, adding that his family had been in Nogales for two weeks as they waited their turn in the informal line of asylum-seekers. “She told us that it was easier to come through Nogales because other border towns were more dangerous.”
Holding her 2-year-old daughter in her arms while sitting on the floor inside the chapel, 25-year-old Maria Gloria Valdez Rodriguez of Coahuayutla, Guerrero said her family also traveled north after her husband’s aunt, a U.S. citizen from California, suggested that they apply for asylum.
“Back home, they were threatening my husband because they wanted him to join criminal groups,” Valdez said. “His aunt found out what was happening, so she told us that the U.S. was granting asylum to people with problems like ours.”
She added that several other families that they had encountered at the shelter were from neighboring towns in their home state.
“Many people in the United States don’t believe that we’re in danger. We don’t have any reason to lie about it,” Valdez said.
Late last year, the Trump administration announced plans to force asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while they wait for an immigration judge to rule on their case. The change was meant to address what critics say is a “loophole” in U.S. asylum law that encourages people to come to the border to make unsubstantiated credible-fear claims in hopes of gaining a foothold in the United States.
However, migrant advocates say there is no evidence that the recent increase in asylum requests at the Southwest border, mostly from Central Americans, is fueled by dishonesty and can instead be explained by increasing violence in the migrants’ home countries. And they’ve sued to block the wait-in-Mexico policy, saying it puts vulnerable people’s lives in danger.
The U.S. government began implementing the new rules last month in Tijuana.
Municipal officials and aid organizations in Nogales, Sonora have expressed concern that forcing people to wait months or years in Mexico for a U.S. asylum hearing could overwhelm the local infrastructure. But Loureiro also blamed previously existing U.S. policy for inviting large numbers of asylum-seekers to the border.
“The reason that all these people are coming is because the United States is processing them – very slowly, but they’re allowing them in,” he said. “If they weren’t, you can be sure that all these people wouldn’t be here.”
Joanna Williams, education director at the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry that supports migrants in Nogales, Sonora, said that her organization has also seen a recent increase in people seeking aid. However, she added that KBI’s experience, the places of origin of the new arrivals is consistent with patters seen over the past year: about 50 percent from Mexico and most others from Central America.
“It’s just that it hasn’t gotten as much attention as the Central Americans,” Williams said, referring to people fleeing gang violence in southern Mexican states.
Lately, she said, the KBI “comedor,” or soup kitchen, has been providing three rounds of any given meal throughout the day, averaging a total of more than 200 people served per mealtime. Normally they would feed about 80 to 90.
In addition to struggling to provide food, shelter and warm clothes for the hundreds of migrants that they are receiving, Loureiro said the San Juan Bosco shelter has also been hustling to provide medical attention to migrants who are being are exposed to colder weather than they’re used to.
“There are many kids that are sick with a cold and fever, and adults that are having stomach issues. We already had three cases of chickenpox,” he said.
On Wednesday, the municipal government issued a news release saying health officials conducting screenings at a local shelter had detected a case of hepatitis A, though it didn't specify the facility.
Loureiro said the municipal government has told him that it would open another shelter to help take some of the pressure off of his. Nogales, Sonora authorities could not be reached this week for confirmation, but on Feb. 18, the Sonora-based newspaper El Imparcial reported that the city had opened another temporary shelter that could house up to 180 people, but not feed them.
“We’re struggling a lot and we’re thinking that by next week, we’ll have twice as many people as we have right now,” Loureiro said, referring to phone calls he had received on Monday from people in Guerrero asking for information on U.S. asylum.