Originally published by Mother Jones
Four miles south of the narrow footbridge that connects Ciudad Juárez to El Paso sits a sprawling, peach-colored former factory with a new “Bienvenidos” banner above its doors. The Leona Vicario Migrant Integration Center opened four months ago as the first of several shelters run by the Mexican government to house asylum-seekers turned back at the US border. With nearly 600 Central Americans currently taking up residence inside, it is a concrete manifestation of how President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have fundamentally altered the decades-old process of seeking asylum in the United States.
The shelter opened to manage the large numbers of Central Americans who have been funneled through the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, or “Remain in Mexico.” Under MPP, asylum seekers are forced to stay in Mexican border cities for the duration of their asylum proceedings—a process that can take months or years. Since MPP was implemented in late January, more than 50,000 people have been sent back to wait in Mexico.
In January, after the Trump administration announced the policy, Mexican officials called it a “unilateral move.” Over the summer, when the number of migrants reached record highs, Trump threatened Mexico with steep tariffs if it didn’t stop more migrants from reaching the US border. Mexico conceded in June. Two months later, Leona Vicario opened its doors to asylum seekers who had been sent back to Juárez. “Any expense we incur in building shelters like this one will be far less than what the tariffs would cost us,” said Mexico’s Labor Undersecretary Horacio Duarte Olivares at Leona Vicario’s opening, according to El Paso’s KTSM. “The export tariffs would devastate our country’s economy.”
The former maquiladora is about as homey as a factory could feel. A mural of Central American and Mexican flags is bordered by colorful handprints of the shelter’s first residents. Collages celebrating Columbus Day and whiteboards with upcoming events dot the walls. There’s a notice for a workshop on managing stress that will take place in the “children’s corner,” and a sign-up sheet for volunteers interested in putting together a Day of the Dead offering.
Inside a cavernous central room with concrete floors and cinder block walls, rows of hundreds of blue metal bunk beds extend in all directions. The sheets hint at who occupies them: dark, muted colors in the section for single men, pink flowers and Disney characters in the family area. About half of the shelter’s residents are children. Another room resembles Costco, with toilet paper, bottled water, and other sundries stacked in floor-to-ceiling shelving. In one corner, a handful of women dance Zumba to a Marc Anthony song as toddlers scamper around a makeshift nursery. In the corner of another warehouse room, more than 70 kids sit at plastic tables in an impromptu school: elementary schoolers fill in coloring books, while older kids fill out workbooks. Outside, members of the Mexican military prepare rice and pea soup for lunch in a camo food truck the size of a big rig.