Haitians vulnerable on Mexico-U.S. border as migrant crisis escalates

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Haitians make plea for entry into US via Mexico
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Haitians make plea for entry into US via Mexico
A Haitian migrant is seen at La casa del Migrante shelter aafter leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. The sign reads, "There is no room for women and children". Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant speaks with other migrants from outside Padre Chava shelter after leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants ask for food outside Padre Chava shelter after leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants eat inside Padre Chava shelter after leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants ask for an opportunity to sleep outside Padre Chava shelter after leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants look from behind a window inside Padre Chava shelter after leaving Brazil, where they south refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants line up outside Padre Chava shelter after leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants ask for an opportunity to sleep outside Padre Chava shelter after leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants wait outside the Migrant Care office after leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attempting to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant rests inside Padre Chava shelter after leaving Brazil, where they sought refuge after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, but are now attemption to enter the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico, October 3, 2016. Picture taken October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrant, Denis Josiul, 27, looks at his mobile phone at Juventud 2000 shelter after leaving Brazil, where he relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 7, 2016. Picture taken October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrant, Julio Elminet, 29, poses for a photo inside the kitchen of the Juventud 2000 shelter after leaving Brazil, where he relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 7, 2016. Picture taken October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrant, Denis Josiul, 27, poses for a photo inside the kitchen of the Juventud 2000 shelter after leaving Brazil, where he relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 7, 2016. Picture taken October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrant, Julio Elminet, 29, waits his turn for the shower as he looks at his mobile phone, at Juventud 2000 shelter after leaving Brazil, where he relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 7, 2016. Picture taken October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrant, Normilus Mondesir, 38, sits outside Juventud 2000 shelter after leaving Brazil, where he relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 7, 2016. Picture taken October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrant, Normilus Mondesir, 38, poses for a photo inside the kitchen of the Juventud 2000 shelter after leaving Brazil, where he relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 7, 2016. Picture taken October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrant, Naomi Josil, 29, poses for a photo inside the kitchen of the Juventud 2000 shelter after leaving Brazil, where she relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 7, 2016. Picture taken October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant walks near garbage at the Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where she relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. Picture taken October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant gestures at Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where he relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. Picture taken October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant walks on a street after leaving Brazil, where she relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant washes clothes at Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where they relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants are seen at Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where they relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. Picture taken, October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants rest at Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where they relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. Picture taken October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant hangs clothes at Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where she relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants are seen at Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where they relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. Picture taken, October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant looks at his mobile phone as he rests on a mattress inside a Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where they were relocated to due to Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. Picture taken October 5, 2016 The sign on the wall reads "Please, do not connect". REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant is seen as a child rests inside a shelter, after leaving Brazil, where they were relocated to due to Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. Picture taken October 5, 2016 REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Haitian migrant uses his mobile phone at Hotel del Migrante shelter after leaving Brazil, where they were relocated to due to Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Mexicali, Mexico, Mexico, October 5, 2016. Picture taken October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
African and Haitian migrants intending to seek asylum in the U.S. rest on mattresses inside a shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants are seen at the Juventud 2000 shelter, where they relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Haitian migrants wait outside Migrant Care office after leaving Brazil, where they relocated to after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, in Tijuana, Mexico, October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
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MEXICALI, Mexico (Reuters) - Camped in migrant centers, broken-down rooms of a dingy, semi-derelict hotel and on church floors, thousands of Haitians desperate to enter the United States are in limbo and exposed to crime in dangerous border neighborhoods of Mexico.

The hard-bitten fringes of Tijuana and Mexicali are currently believed to house some 5,000 Haitians, and about 300 more are arriving daily after an arduous journey from Brazil, Mexican official numbers show.

The Haitians are not yet trying to slip illegally through the desert brush into the United States. Instead, they will mostly make asylum pleas to U.S. border officials.

SEE EARLIER: These heartbreaking images show the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti

But U.S. migration facilities are overwhelmed. Almost three times more Haitians arrive every day than are granted interviews, the Mexican government says, creating a bottleneck and a fast swelling border population.

Thousands more are still making their way north in a movement of people bound to exacerbate the backlog in the final weeks of a U.S. presidential campaign that has focused heavily on immigration and the Mexican border.

Mexico's established migrant shelters are unable to cope with the rapidly rising numbers, so five Protestant churches have opened their doors to the new arrivals in recent days, and in Mexicali's red-light zone a flop house for deportees and drug addicts has been converted by a migrant activist into cheap and dirty digs for the Haitians. It has no glass in its windows.

In the streets outside, locals smoke meth and a glue mixture called "cement" to get high. In Tijuana, small tent cities housing Haitians have sprung up on patches of wasteland.

Three Haitians told Reuters they had been mugged by local criminals. Rights activists say the newcomers are vulnerable to extortion and kidnapping by gangs who charge thousands of dollars to smuggle people into the United States. They also worry about some of the new arrivals turning to crime.

Desperation is growing as shelters run by Mexican charities fill to the brim. About 600 Haitians were crammed last week into Padre Chava's soup kitchen and shelter in Tijuana, where arguments broke out among migrants over food and blankets.

At least five makeshift spaces have been opened by churches in the town to cope with the overflow and even so, some are sleeping in the streets, said Margarita Andonaegui, director at Padre Chava's place.

"They tell us they are being mugged at the bus station and taxi drivers take them to the police to be extorted. A few days ago one of them was assaulted and beaten. We had to take him to hospital for stitches," said Andonaegui.

"They are exposed both to being mugged and to becoming muggers, because many are on the streets" without work, she said.

Related: More struggles along US-Mexico border:

21 PHOTOS
Life along Mexico's border with the United States
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Life along Mexico's border with the United States
IMPERIAL SAND DUNES, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: A digger removes sand drifts from the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 28, 2016 in the Imperial Sand Dunes recreation center, California. Without daily removal of the sand, the dunes would cover the fence and undocumented immigrants and smugglers could simply walk over it. The border stretches almost 2,000 miles between Mexico and the United States. Border security and immigration issues have become major issues in the U.S. Presidential campaign. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People meet loved ones through the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol opens the park on the American side in San Diego on weekends to meet through the fence with family and friends through the fence at Tijuana. The park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 24: Haitian refugees look over donated items at an immigrant center on September 24, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. In recent months a surge of Haitian refugees has arrived to Tijuana, seeking asylum at the border crossing into the United States. The center, called the Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava, serves breakfast to more than 1,000 immigrants daily, many of them deportees from the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
IMPERIAL SAND DUNES, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: A digger removes sand drifts along the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 28, 2016 in the Imperial Sand Dunes recreation center, California. Without daily removal of the sand, the dunes would cover the fence and undocumented immigrants and smugglers could simply walk over it. The border stretches almost 2,000 miles between Mexico and the United States. Border security and immigration issues have become major issues in the U.S. Presidential campaign. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People enjoy a late afternoon near the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park, located on the border between the two countries is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 24: Immigrants, many of them deportees from the United States, eat breakfast at a soup kitchen on September 24, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The center, called the Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava, is run by a Catholic order of priests and feeds more than than 1,000 immigrants each morning. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 24: People stand in line to cross legally into the United States from Mexico on September 24, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Securing the border and controlling illegal immigration have become key issues in the U.S. Presidential campaign. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A couple holds hands while meeting loved ones through the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol opens the park on the American side in San Diego on weekends to meet through the fence with family and friends through the fence at Tijuana. The park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People enjoy a late afternoon near the U.S.-Mexico border fence which ends in the Pacific Ocean on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park, located on the border between the two countries is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Mexicans enjoy a late afternoon near the U.S.-Mexico border fence which ends in the Pacific Ocean on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park, located on the border between the two countries is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A child plays in the Pacific surf near the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The nearby Friendship Park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Immigrant activists pray at the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol opens the park on the American side in San Diego on weekends to meet through the fence with family and friends through the fence at Tijuana. The park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Maria Rodriguez Torres, 70, embraces a grandchild after seeing her other grandchildren for the first time through the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. She had traveled with family members from Mexico City to see her grandchildren through the fence at 'Friendship Park.' The U.S. Border Patrol opens the park on the American side on weekends to meet through the fence with family and friends through the fence at Tijuana. The park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
JACAMBA HOT SPRINGS, CA - SEPTEMBER 26: Residents line up to receive free food at mobile food pantry near the U.S.-Mexico border on September 26, 2016 in Jacamba Hot Springs, California. The Feeding America truck delivers to the border town's needy residents twice a month. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
JACAMBA HOT SPRINGS, CA - SEPTEMBER 26: A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle stands guard along the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 26, 2016 in Jacamba Hot Springs, California. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
JACAMBA HOT SPRINGS, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 26: A cardboard cutout of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is on display at a debate-watching party for supporters of Hillary Clinton at the Yum Yum Chinese restaurant near the U.S.-Mexico border on September 26, 2016 in Calexico, California. People across the country tuned in as Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton participated in their first debate. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
HOLTVILLE, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: Mexican farm workers hoe a cabbage field on September 27, 2016 Holtville, California. Thousands of Mexican seasonal workers legally cross the border daily from Mexicali, Mexico to work the fields of Imperial Valley, California, some of the most productive farmland in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
HOLTVILLE, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: A A Mexican farm worker plows a U.S. farm on September 27, 2016 in Holtville, California. Thousands of Mexican seasonal workers legally cross the border daily from Mexicali, Mexico to work the fields of Imperial Valley, California, some of the most productive farmland in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
HOLTVILLE, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: A marker stands over an immigrant's grave on September 27, 2016 in Holtville, California. Hundreds of immigrants, many who died while crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States, are buried in a pauper's cemetery. Many of the grave markers simply read 'John Doe.' (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A man looks through the U.S.-Mexico border fence into the United States on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park on the border is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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After surviving a massive earthquake in 2010, tens of thousands of Haitians sought refuge in Brazil, hoping for a new life in a booming economy.

But Brazil's worst recession in decades put many on the road again this year and U.S. policy not to deport them back to their devastated homeland drew them to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"We don't want to cause problems in Mexico. We want to get to the United States to work and help our families," Peterson Joseph said, lying in a tent in the sweltering hallway of El Migrante, the Mexicali hotel, after calling his relatives back home in Haiti, which was battered last week by another natural disaster, Hurricane Matthew.

The U.S. government has flip-flopped on deporting Haitians in recent weeks, first saying they would be flown home like other undocumented immigrants then reinstating special treatment after Hurricane Matthew brought new destruction to the Americas' poorest country.

"It makes us so sad to think we can't cross. We have traveled for so long, so many countries," said Joseph, who will likely spend weeks living in the squalid hotel before he has a chance of getting an interview with a U.S. border official.

'DESPERATE'

After 2010, some 80,000 Haitians made their way to Brazil, where many found employment in agriculture, industry and construction. But jobs have now dried up.

"There was no more work. The economy froze and now I am stuck here - no money, no hope, no way to even return home to see my children," said Carolina Pierre Louis, a Haitian living in Sao Paulo.

To escape those conditions, those who can scrape together the money are making a hellish journey north, through mountains and in rickety sea-bound vessels, on foot through Panama's jungle border with Colombia.

Most countries in Latin America make it hard for Haitians to legally enter their territory, and many of the migrants throw away their passports to help the pretense they are from Africa, meaning airplane travel is not an option.

"These people are desperate," said Father Paolo Parise, who leads efforts by a Catholic church in Sao Paulo to help the Haitians. "They are going to try to enter at Tijuana, or pay [smugglers] to get into the U.S. through the desert."

Migrants interviewed by Reuters said they had already spent from $4,000 to $7,000 to make the journey.

Sandra Joseph, a 22-year old woman with three kids who waited for food and a room at a shelter in Tijuana said she had lost track of how much the journey had cost them.

"We were robbed by thugs and police. They charged us $1,300 dollars to cross the Nicaraguan border. We don't have any more money," she said.

U.S. officials said many Haitians pose as Congolese while in Mexico to avoid deportation because Mexico has weak diplomatic ties to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of the Congo.

Mexico says more than 4,000 Haitians entered the country this year and some 11,000 Africans. Many of those who say they are Africans are likely Haitians although people from Congo and other African countries as well as from the Middle East are also using the route north from Brazil to reach the United States.

It is unclear how many more Haitians could arrive at the U.S. border, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana said last month that 40,000 had left Brazil. Some 8,000 are in Panama and Costa Rica, according to those countries' governments.

The tide of Haitians adds to a backlog of U.S. asylum requests that has ballooned since 2014 as Central Americans flee drug violence and poverty.

More than 5,000 Haitian immigrants entered the United States without visas this fiscal year through Oct. 1, Department of Homeland Security officials said, up from 339 the previous year.

"This is one of the worst migration crisis in memory," said Pat Murphy, a U.S. priest who runs a migrant shelter in Tijuana.

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