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    a man selling cigarettes

    Living in Limbo

    Migrants from around the world, setting their hopes on legal entry into the United States, congregate in Mexico.

    By Joseph Sorrentino

    March 16, 2024

    Signs on Casa Tochan’s front door announce that the shelter is not letting in any more men. Leonila Romero Gonzalez, who helps place people in shelters in the city, says that when Tochan and other shelters are full, “people sleep on the streets or in parks.”

    Tochan (Nahuatl for “Our House”) houses migrants and refugees in Mexico City. “We opened in 2011,” Gabriela Hernández, the shelter’s director, tells me. “When we started, we had more people from Central America. Now, the greatest numbers are from Africa, Afghanistan, a lot of Venezuelans, Haitians. Right now, there are seventy men.” The shelter only houses men. “Last year, we had between 100 and 140.” They only have beds for forty-eight; the rest sleep on mats placed around the shelter. Neartly everyone, Gabriela says, wants to go to the United States. Despite the wait, the uncertainty and the odds of getting in, that’s where they plan on going.

    To enter the United States legally, people must first get to central or northern Mexico, where they can apply for CBP One (CBP stands for Customs and Border Protection). “CBP One is the process to enter the United States legally,” explains Maricela Reyes Barrera, a social worker. “People fill out the application online and have to check daily to see if they have an appointment. It can be a week, a month, or three months to get an appointment. Then they are told to go to one of eight ports of entry. The appointment is twenty-one days after they get the notice. During the wait, people need to stay busy.”

    The men find different ways to do that.

    a man collecting trash

    Steven collecting trash and signing people in. All photographs by Joseph Sorrentino, January 2024. Used by permission.

    Mahdi was one of the directors of a nonprofit in Afghanistan. “We taught youth about their rights and how to advocate for them,” he says. “It was a threat to the Taliban.” Fearing for his life, he fled. He made it to Mexico City in late December, filled out the CBP One application and arrived at Tochan. “I am using my time to learn Spanish,” he says. Mahdi is fluent in English and holds classes to help four other Afghanis learn the language. Living in the shelter isn’t easy for him. All the dorms are full, so he sleeps in an open area, on a mat placed on a concrete floor. With so many people staying in the shelter, there are days when there isn’t enough hot water. “I have gone two days without a shower. I used to take one a day.”  Once he enters the United States, he plans on joining his fiancée, who now lives in Wisconsin.

    a man teaching English to other men

    Mahdi teaching English.

    It’s not possible to work legally during the wait. The only work available is in the informal sector. “People will get paid less if they do not have papers or legal status,” says Maricela. “They will get 200 pesos ($12) for twelve hours while a Mexican will get paid 350 ($21).” 

    Jesús taught sports at a university in Venezuela but left because of the violence and poverty. Now, he stands behind a small table stacked with cigarettes that sell for 10 to 20 pesos ($0.60 to $1.20) a pack. “I work seven days a week,” he says, “eleven to twelve hours a day.” He earns 250 pesos ($15) a day. “I rent a room with my father. We pay 1,000 pesos ($60) each.” He figures food costs another 200 pesos ($12) each. “Without my father, it would be impossible to survive with this salary.” He has an appointment with CBP in three weeks’ time and hopes he’ll be able to enter the United States then. “All I do now is work and sleep. There is no time for anything else.”

    a man selling cigarettes

    Jesús at his cigarette stand.

    For twenty years, Steven worked in an auto body shop in Los Angeles. He was brought there from Honduras by his mother when he was eleven years old but never applied for legal status. Then, one day, immigration officials came to his workplace. “They started asking for papers.” He was deported and arrived at Tochan in late November. He worked construction for a week. “I was paid 250 pesos ($15) for twelve to fifteen hours. I got sick from inhaling so much dust. I decided it was not worth it. I do not need to kill myself for 250 pesos. In the United States, I earned $1000 a week, worked eight hours a day.” He has applied for asylum in Mexico, a process that may take up to a year. In the meantime, he helps out at Tochan. “I open the door, see if people are sick. I help in any way I can.” He plans on moving to Tijuana once he is granted asylum because his family – his mother, three brothers and four sisters – live in Los Angeles. “So it is closer. They could visit me once in a while. That would be nice, to see them again.”

    Tochan has a small carpentry shop where Victor, a Salvadoran, spends most of the day making small items that are sold in the shelter. Most of the money goes to Tochan but, he says, “they give me a little.”

    a man working in a carpentry shop

    Victor working in the carpentry shop. He makes things that are sold in the shelter.

    Several men pass the time by exercising. “It is not a class, just a way to keep busy,” explains Cesar, a Venezuelan. “It is as much for the mind as for the muscles.” Jonathan, a Salvadoran, isn’t participating because he is tired. “I just arrived last night,” he tells me. For part of their journey to Mexico City, he and a friend had ridden the train migrants call La Bestia. As they approached Pico de Orizaba, a volcano on the border of Puebla and Veracruz, they saw immigration officials ahead. “They had these large flashlights and they were looking for people,” He and his friend hid in the space above the wheels. “We were hanging on, the wheels below us. Very dangerous.” It was also very cold. He took off a sock to show me part of a toe he had lost to frostbite.

    a man lifting weights

    Cesar encouraging Gerardo, a Colombian.

    People suffer a lot during the trip, but not all of the suffering is physical. “People have post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression,” says Janett De Jesús Vallado, a psychologist working at Tochan. She estimates that 20 percent of the people arriving at Tochan have these issues, often stemming from the violence, murder, and extortion they experienced in their home countries as well as on the trip. She holds private and group sessions and, when necessary, sends people to Doctors Without Borders for medication.

    At eleven o’clock in the morning, virtually everything in the shelter comes to a halt as the men huddle over their cell phones, checking to see if they’ve gotten their appointment. A few minutes later, Luis rushes into the office, smiling. After waiting for five months, he has finally gotten his appointment. He had worked as a trucker in the state-run petroleum industry in Venezuela. “Trucking,” he says, “is my passion. It is a bohemian life.” He lost that job when he signed a letter of protest against the government. After that, he was only able to work in the private sector where, although the salary was comparable, there were no benefits. He and his family went to live in Ecuador but he left when it became increasingly violent there. His wife, who is a doctor, and two adult children are still in Ecuador. “They did not leave with me because I did not want to expose them to the risks that happen during this crossing,” he said. “And my wife wants to migrate in a more legal way.” Eventually, he hopes to live with his family in Utah, where they have relatives. During the five months he waited, he says, “there was much stress, many thoughts and worries. To survive, I worked in the kitchen.” When I ask how he feels now he simply says, “Happy, happy.”

    a man standing by a stove

    Luis in the kitchen.

    Inside Tochan, men gather in small groups during the day, talking, exchanging information about how to get to the United States – legally or illegally – and laughing. It’s always surprising to hear laughter, but if they couldn’t laugh, the wait would surely be even harder.

    Contributed By JosephSorrentino Joseph Sorrentino

    Joseph Sorrentino is a freelance investigative journalist, photographer, and playwright who has been documenting social justice issues since the 1980s.

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