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Living in Wait: Migrants Work to Survive in North America’s Largest City

Facing uncertain timelines and perilous conditions, migrants in Mexico City look for the next step in their journey towards a new life.



As the train arrives the migrants have only a few minutes to find the safest place for a long, undetermined journey as the destination of the train is usually unclear and can partially or completely stop, pushing migrants to change trains and routes. (Oscar Castillo for Direct Relief)

Award-winning photojournalist Oscar B. Castillo has previously reported for Direct Relief on human migration from Venezuela, Colombia, New York City and the U.S.-Mexico border. His latest photo essay and dispatch follow.

MEXICO CITY — As the traffic light turns red, and cars come to a halt, the driver of a truck makes a swift gesture to Wilyender, 15, and Mervin, 17, who rush towards the vehicle to clean the windshield. Both have perfectly cut hair that contrasts with their heavily worn shoes.

After approaching the driver and cleaning the windshield with serious, focused looks, the teens display big smiles while splitting the couple of coins the driver gave them. In the lane next to them, Alexandra, 10, has less luck.

“God bless you anyway, don’t worry, maybe for the next time,” Alexandra says in a notably polite and gentle voice, smiling as she moves towards the next vehicle.  

In another lane, Yordi Romero, 34, sells lollipops. He offers the candy to drivers with one hand while using his other hand to push a wheelchair carrying Nerli, 16, who is the daughter of Yordi’s partner, Kelly. Nerli has spina bifida.

The light turns green, but for these migrants, life remains on hold.

Finding Shelter

A few meters from this bustling intersection lies the Northern Bus Terminal of Mexico City, a transportation hub for the northern regions of Mexico and the U.S. border. In recent months it has become an important stop for migrants on their journey to the United States. Different nationalities, different needs and dreams converge at this point, all hoping to continue their migratory journey as quickly and safely as possible. But it is not easy for everyone to move forward.

In a parking lot nearby, there is an improvised migrant camp housing about 50 families in tents and makeshift houses constructed from found materials — and a lot of ingenuity. It is surrounded by big avenues and metro tracks, though still very much out in the open. 

From these flimsy dwellings, most migrants repeatedly attempt to secure a coveted appointment with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) through CBP One, a digital application. The app has been used by migrants to make more than 64 million requests to enter the U.S. Overloaded with this high number of users, many users report the app is often slow and unstable. With each crash, the number of requests increases, as does the number of migrants stuck in limbo in Mexico City. 

For two months, Yordi Romero, his partner, Kelly Leal, and their 4 children slept in the tents near the terminal. There were no available restrooms, much less any resources to address Nerli’s specific needs due to spina bifida. They managed to rent space in a mechanic’s workshop converted into a room for rent. Yordi has worked various jobs since arriving in Mexico, including at a nearby construction site on 10-hour shifts to pay for lodging and some food. 

The family, from Maracaibo, Venezuela, also battled the CBP One app, spending many long nights trying to cajole the app to work, while longing to continue their journey north.

The Beast or The Wait

After trying to find positions along the train, migrants depart on a journey full of risks as the presence of armed irregular groups increases on the way up north. Kidnapping, extortion, accidents, forced disappearance and even death are a constant threat. (Oscar Castillo for Direct Relief)

The complex and slow immigration process pushes many individuals, and even whole families, to face the difficult decision of waiting for the luck of an appointment in rough conditions or continuing along riskier routes like the infamous “La Bestia” train. This generic term refers to a vast network of freight trains in Mexico known for multiple accidents and deaths.  

But the danger is not only accidental; armed groups linked to drug cartels often target the train and the surrounding areas it passes to rob, extort, and kidnap migrants. Police abuse and corruption by various law enforcement agencies are also a threat to migrants. 

A few months ago, during a previous visit to the train, a young Venezuelan migrant who introduced himself just as “Oriente” explained that “La Bestia” is not the train itself, but rather the migrants capable of enduring and overcoming so many obstacles and risks.  

“The real beasts are us that can ride it,” he shouted as he jumped from one wagon to another, seeking a better “seat” for the ride.

In a lonely remote area on the outskirts of Mexico City, a young couple from Venezuela said they preferred to try to reach the border by train as soon as possible rather than sleep in the street with their three kids. On the side of the tracks, their daughter Fabiana, 6, was distracted by the lights generated by her shoes with each step she took among rocks, debris, rails, cacti, and other elements that make up the beautiful, yet hostile landscape along the train route. 

Breaking the stillness, a train arrives, and about 20 people run in all directions, trying to find a spot that gives some sense of safety. Not everyone finds it. The following day, via text message, Fabiana’s father said he was separated from his wife and one of his kids. His wife was without currency, a phone, or food. The next train would not stop within walking distance of her location, and traveling with their child, she couldn’t jump on it.

He later found out that his wife and child were detained by Mexican migration police and sent to an unknown town where they had to find shelter, money and a way to get in touch with him. It would take the family over a month to be reunited closer to the border, despite only being a few hours apart. 

Clinics and Churches Fill Gaps

View of an improvised migrants camp in front of La Soledad church in Mexico City. Migrants have lived here for months as their way toward the north has become increasingly difficult due to slow U.S. border applications, tighter migration control, violent events on the way and other extreme situations that compose this complex issue. (Oscar Castillo for Direct Relief)

Sociopolitical instability in different Latin American countries and factors such as violence, repression, and climate change continue to force the displacement of thousands of people. Places like Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Haiti are enduring severe civil unrest, which also has an evident impact in increasing the complexity of migration. 

The Mexican government reported almost 700,000 migrants passed through the country from January through November last year. CBP reported 2.5 million encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border last year. As the biggest city along the migration route to the U.S., Mexico City, the most populous metropolitan area in North America, is a popular waypoint along the journey to the U.S.

Places like La Soledad Plaza in the city center, bordered by Our Lady of the Solitude church, have become increasingly long-term migrant camps. This complex is one of the city’s largest such camps, with about 3,000 people staying in a shelter next to, and run by, the church and outside on the plaza one night last November. Our Lady of the Solitude, led by Father Benito Torres, and his close collaborator, Claudia Torres, works to alleviate the various difficulties faced by hundreds of migrants.  

“Honestly, I’m not sure what I would have done without the help from this place,” Hugo Saavedra said. “I arrived in Mexico City very sick and fainted yesterday. I couldn’t even stand up, but here they have helped me with medicines, attention and a bed,” Saavedra, who came from Venezuela, said. 

Lack of clean water, public bathrooms, hygiene items, and many other necessities receive significant attention at the church’s shelter, which is coordinated by Claudia, though she gave credit to Father Benito for tirelessly sourcing needed supplies from wherever possible. She said that bed and board are provided to newcomers for three to four days. Healthcare clinics are organized continuously with the local Luis E. Ruiz Health Center.  

During these events, patients are given a complete meal and general check-up. Basic treatments are provided for mild and moderate cases; the most common conditions are respiratory and intestinal infections.  

According to Dr. Marco Antonio Rojas, leader of the medical brigade, one of the biggest challenges in treating migrant patients is their transience, which makes it difficult to monitor their health status. However, Dr. Rojas says consistent and free support is attempted from the shelter. If needed, patients are referred to the hospital network in the area, where they receive specialized care in much-requested areas such as gynecology and pneumology (respiratory system-related care).  

“The challenge often lies in the availability of medications, especially pediatric medicines and antibiotics, for the treatment of respiratory infections. We don’t have a constant supply,” Dr. Rojas said.  

Luis Rodriguez, 46, stands for a picture at the fruit stand where he works in Iztapalapa, Mexico City. Rodriguez lives in a shelter close to the street market and works there every day while waiting for an appointment to reach the border and get into the United States. (Oscar Castillo for Direct Relief)

Unable to predict when they will obtain their CBP One appointment, migrants in Mexico City often try to stabilize their situation by working and finding a place to rent. In Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s most populous district, even before the latest surge in migrants, Luis Gerardo Rodríguez has been waiting for confirmation of the process for over three months. He now spends his days working at a fruit and vegetable stand in a market near the shelter. He earns about US$25 a day, working up to 14 hours. It’s enough to help his mother in Venezuela and save some cash for a potential flight to the border once an appointment comes through. 

Exultation, and Next Steps

Kelly Leal and her family are seen on their way to Terminal del Norte bus station. (Oscar Castillo for Direct Relief)

For some, the appointment finally comes. Yordi Romero and his family cry tears of joy and celebrate after learning they were approved to present themselves to the United States immigration authorities.

Kelly removes sheets from the walls of the converted car mechanic room and discovers a sign that reads “engine repairs.” Rosbelly, 8, combs her hair and ties it with a ribbon. Nerli already has her hair braided and organizes her deck of cards in a shiny gold purse with a smiley face. Yordi puts perfume on Keiner, 6, who was dressed in his Sunday best.

The family heads to the Northern Bus Terminal. Other migrants bid them farewell from their tents. Many of the well-wishers have faced similar ordeals and continue to wait for an appointment. They wave their hands, sending greetings and blessings to Yordi, Kelly, and the kids while harboring hope that they will be the next ones to continue their journey.

Direct Relief has supported medical facilities across Mexico, including regions through which many migrants travel, as well as the health system in Mexico City.

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