TIJUANA, Mexico — The tiny, month-old boy slept soundly on the bottom bunk, seemingly undisturbed by the squealing Central American toddlers running by and a kitten leaping from the neighboring bed.
About 25 people sleep in the cinderblock room crammed with seven bunkbeds at a Tijuana shelter overflowing with migrants, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador but also from as far away as Africa. Each bunk bed is like a makeshift home where families pass their days waiting — waiting for their number to be called at the U.S.-Mexico border so they can apply for asylum in the United States, or waiting on a Mexican visa to be able to work.
More people arrive each day and now their future is even more uncertain. Under a new Trump administration policy announced last week, migrants who pass through another country — like Mexico — on their way to the U.S. will be ineligible for asylum.
For 16-year-old Milagro de Jesús Henríquez Ayala, her cramped corner bunk covered in eight backpacks with donated diapers, toys and clothing is not the ideal spot for raising her newborn son, but it is the best place she has found since she left her violent homeland of El Salvador with her younger sister, Xiomara, after gangs threatened their family.
The sisters, who were 15 and 13 at the time, were part of an untold number of Central American minors who traveled without their parents, accompanied only by other migrants, in a caravan that crossed Mexico and landed in this crime-ridden city in November. Henríquez Ayala became pregnant by her then-boyfriend during the trip, before arriving in Tijuana.
Even after that journey was over, life in the border city across from San Diego has been trying and held moments of fear.
At four months pregnant, Henríquez Ayala was living off cookies and juice. She started suffering abdominal pains and felt anxious, fearing Mexican officials would deport them.
Determined to Build a Life on South Side of U.S.-Mexico Border
One day she discovered a bullet-riddled body outside the low-budget hotel where she and her sister cleaned rooms in exchange for lodging and the little bit of food.
She almost miscarried. After she was taken to the emergency room, the girls moved to the shelter.
When she was seven months pregnant, a Mexican smuggler infiltrated the shelter pretending to be another migrant and tried to pressure Henríquez Ayala and her sister to cross the border illegally. She refused because she was worried it would put her at risk again of miscarrying.
The smuggler took another teen girl from the shelter instead. Henríquez Ayala has not heard from that girl since, and fears she may have been kidnapped.
Henríquez Ayala said she is no longer seeking the American Dream — at least not for now.
She has finished the paperwork for a Mexican visa and is determined to build a life on the south side of the U.S.-Mexico border, though the lanky girl has no idea how she’ll do that. She left middle school and has almost no job skills, and now she must find work that allows her to be with her baby, Alexander.
The girls’ father, Manuel Henríquez, had left them after they crossed from Guatemala into Mexico to go on his own to the United States because he thought it was too dangerous with his teenage children in tow. But he was quickly detained and deported.
Tijuana Has One of Mexico’s Highest Homicide Rates
Now he is with his daughters in Tijuana after Mexico granted him a one-year humanitarian visa. He earns about 200 pesos, or roughly $10 a day, selling woven bracelets. He lives at the shelter, too, and hopes to bring his remaining three adult children and three grandchildren in El Salvador to Mexico.
Back home in San Salvador, the Central American nation’s capital, gang members had beaten him for refusing to make extortion payments on his bracelet-selling business. They also threatened the girls for walking into what they consider the gang’s territory on their way to school.
“You can make money here but slowly,” said Manuel Henríquez, 58.
On a recent day, he wove bracelets for a group of U.S. teens from Knoxville, Tennessee, who were doing volunteer work at the shelter as part of their church service.
Henríquez Ayala bathed Alexander in a small plastic tub on the cement floor next to her bunk bed. Like all her baby’s belongings, it was donated by someone across the border. Alexander wiggled and cried as she gently washed his black hair.
Tijuana, which has one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico, is not the dream she initially sought when she fled home. But she said it is better than the life she left behind.
“I almost don’t like to come out of this room,” she said, smiling, standing in a narrow passage between the bunks. “I feel safe here. But I know I will have to leave someday and find a home.”