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As Piedras Negras facility prepares to close, fate of hundreds of migrants remains unclear

A makeshift immigrant shelter on the Texas-Mexico border will close this week after hundreds of Central Americans housed there believed they could ask for asylum in the U.S. Now it's unclear if they'll get that chance.

People wait behind a barricade inside of the migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico on Feb. 18, 2019.

PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico — They're the lucky ones — the hundreds of migrants who have moved out of the makeshift shelter in this town across the U.S.-Mexico border from Eagle Pass. But as Olvin Hernandez stood behind a fence that walled him off from the rest of the city, he realized he might face a different path.

Hernandez, 21, is among the hundreds whose fate remained unknown Monday after more than 1,000 Central American asylum-seekers were allowed to leave a former factory that’s been a temporary facility for the group since they arrived earlier this month. The facility, guarded by Mexican security forces, is scheduled to close this week after housing an estimated 1,600 Central America migrants who had hoped to seek asylum in the United States.

As armed state and federal police in riot gear stood watch, Hernandez said he was lied to.

“They said they were going to help us get to the bridge. That’s what [the Mexican officials] told us in Saltillo,” he said, referring to the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila where he and hundreds of others boarded buses earlier this month. “They brought us here and from here we’re trapped. They didn’t explain why they denied [my visa]. They just did.”

Hernandez fears he could be deported back to Nicaragua if he's not granted a visa. Some migrants have been given a yearlong, renewable visa that allows them to work and move freely through Mexico. Others have been given a temporary permit which they said is valid for up to 30 days but doesn't allow them to work. Migrants said those temporary permits were issued mainly to allow for more time to process their visa applications. Only a handful, about 12 a day, have been allowed to seek asylum in the United States, the Associated Press reported Saturday.

Mexican officials, including federal police and social workers, would not comment on what could happen to the migrants who don't receive visas, saying they lacked permission. The press has been denied entry to the shelter, but reporters have been allowed to talk to the migrants through the fencing.

The migrant shelter in Piedras Negras in Coahuila, Mexico on Feb. 18, 2019. There are currently an estimated 700 migrants ...

The abandoned factory was converted into a makeshift shelter this month when the group of migrants came to this border town looking to escape violence in their native countries and seek refuge in the U.S. The facility has become just one of the latest flashpoints in the U.S. immigration debate. Last week, President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency on the southern border to fund his long-promised border wall. During his State of the Union speech earlier this month, the president invoked the caravan as a reason the country needed the barrier.

The caravan was the latest in a surge of arrivals that began in earnest in 2014, when a record number of unaccompanied minors and family units — mainly women and their minor children — entered Texas illegally through the Rio Grande Valley. The surge has continued and includes several adult males, some of whom are also traveling with their young sons or daughters. Since Trump took office in 2017, his administration has implemented policies aimed at reducing the amount of asylum-seekers.

Although foreigners have a right to apply for asylum, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have been stationed at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border to turn back migrants who don’t have permission to enter the country, telling them to wait in Mexico. CBP officers have justified the move by saying the agency has limited space to house asylum-seekers while they wait for their claims to be processed.

Immigrant rights groups have argued the policies have increased tensions in Mexican border towns that are already prone to violence. Late last year, Customs and Border Protection officials used tear gas in two incidents after migrants seeking asylum in Tijuana, Mexico, attempted to illegally enter the United States. Last week, a group of migrants in Piedras Negras confronted Mexican law enforcement and tried to tear down some of the protective barriers lining the perimeter of the facility. The migrants were reportedly frustrated that Mexican authorities would not allow them to leave the facility even if they had permission to do so.

As she kept watch over her 10-year old niece at the facility Monday, Rosa Amaya wasn’t sure of her next move. She said her application for a Mexican visa hadn’t been processed yet. Should she receive the one-year visa that allows migrants to work and travel in Mexico, she’ll stay and work. But the other offering is a 30-day permit that doesn’t allow employment.

“If they give us permission to leave, we’ll stay in Piedras Negras [for the 30 days],” she said. That will give more time for Mexican immigration officials to process her visa. If it’s denied, her only option could be returning to Honduras.

“What am I going to do in Piedras Negras?” she said.

A young migrants reaches for food and coffee from a shelter employee in Piedras Negras. Feb. 18, 2019.

Since the caravan arrived earlier this month, U.S. Border Patrol agents and some Texas Department of Public Safety officers have been stationed along the Rio Grande's northern banks, attempting to thwart migrants who might cross the river and turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents. With the caravan’s numbers dwindling, however, some migrants said they might wait it out and try later.

It’s unclear how many migrants who were part of the caravan have tried to cross the Rio Grande. A spokesperson with the Del Rio Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, which includes Eagle Pass, didn’t immediately respond to an email Monday. But the agency said in a press release that agents rescued 17 migrants in three incidents last week. Since the caravan arrived, 35 migrants have been rescued, according to the release.

Other members of the caravan have taken the Mexican government up on its offer to apply for Mexican visas and move elsewhere in the country. Some of the asylum-seekers have moved on to Mexican cities like Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso; Reynosa, across from Hidalgo, Texas; Monterrey, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon; and Hermosillo, Sonora. It’s unclear why those cities have been chosen, but one man at the shelter said he thought it was because they were likely spots for migrants to find others facing similar circumstances.

A woman who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals said it was more simple than that: The city of Piedras Negras didn’t want to deal with them anymore.

A small group of migrants walk down Libramiento Manuel Perez Treviño in Piedras Negras. The group was recently released fr...

Human rights groups have criticized the migrants’ treatment and the lack of access the Mexican government has allowed aid groups. In a statement Sunday, Doctors without Borders said transferring the migrants to other cities wasn’t a solution to the problem in Piedras Negras.

“We are concerned that people still trapped in the factory have limited access to medical care,” the statement said. "We are also alarmed that the Mexican government is transporting many of the migrants to other unsafe cities along the border. Migrants in Mexico are often targeted by criminal groups and are particularly exposed to violence and abuse.”

Migrants wait in line with their belongings inside of the shelter in Piedras Negras. Those with Mexican visas are allowed ...

Several people inside the facility said they were sick with coughing or fever. Dr. Adelberto Peña de Los Santos, a physician with the Coahuila's state health authority, acknowledged during an impromptu press conference outside the facility that there was an increase in illnesses inside the shelter but said it coincided with an increase in cold or flu during the waning winter months.

When the shelter closes and some migrants decide to remain in this border city, it's unclear how much support they'll receive. On Monday morning, a Mexican cab driver said he and his colleagues have been told not to transport the migrants near the international bridge. At the local grocery store, one of his colleagues saw two reporters and asked, "You're not from Honduras, are you?"

Some, like Amaya, know there are challenges ahead but hope they've seen the worst of them.

"We suffered a lot [on the journey here]," she said. "Here we've suffered only a little."

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