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Mexico City Falls Short Of Its Migrant Friendly Hype

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In recent years, Mexico has been cracking down on migrants flowing across its southern border illegally, detaining and deporting them in large numbers. But the capital, Mexico City, is taking a different approach from the federal government. Instead, it wants to be a safe place for Central American migrants and says it will offer sanctuary. But officials there are falling short of that promise. Jorge Valencia of member station KJZZ reports from Mexico City.

JORGE VALENCIA, BYLINE: Mauricio Quesada doesn't smile much. And the wrinkles and bags under his eyes show the fear and terror he experienced as a teacher in El Salvador.

MAURICIO QUESADA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: Quesada says that, in his country, teachers are routinely extorted by gang members.

QUESADA: (Through interpreter) All of the sudden, someone began coming at night and leaving envelopes under my door. They wanted me to pay $150 every two weeks. At first, I could do it. But then, I started running out of money and tried leaving them just $75.

VALENCIA: That didn't sit well with the violent MS-13 gang, the ones extorting Quesada. He says they started trailing him, so he sent his family to a relative's house for safety and then he fled to Mexico. Authorities here rejected his asylum application, saying he didn't have enough evidence.

QUESADA: (Through interpreter) What kind of proof was I supposed to give them? Maybe I should have come without an arm or with two bullet wounds on my chest. Maybe that would have been enough.

VALENCIA: As the U.S. has gotten tougher in its own immigration enforcement, Mexico is increasingly becoming a destination for migrants. The government says it doesn't have an estimate for the number living here illegally, but the interior ministry says almost 190,000 were taken into custody last year. And many who aren't getting picked up are taking their chances in Mexico's giant capital city, living and working illegally.

City officials here are trying to welcome them, says Ruben Fuentes, head of the city's migrant outreach program.

RUBEN FUENTES RODRIGUEZ: (Through interpreter) Migrants, regardless of their nationality, are not prosecuted in Mexico City, at least not by our office. Our role is to help them.

VALENCIA: Just like in U.S. sanctuary cities, officials here say they don't turn over migrants to federal authorities. They issue them ID cards so they can go to local health clinics, and they even offer them grants to start their own businesses. But Gabriela Hernandez, an advocate, says that this liberal city isn't living up to its migrant-friendly hype.

GABRIELA HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) There are two realities here. One is what the mayor says, and the other is what his public servants actually do on a daily basis. Human rights groups like ours try to stop that from happening, but it still does.

VALENCIA: Hernandez says officials do turn over undocumented migrants to the feds. And hospitals sometimes do refuse to treat them.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: She says that Mexico City needs to do much more if it were to actually be a sanctuary for migrants. That would make life easier for Mauricio Quesada, the teacher from El Salvador. He's now been in Mexico City almost a year and is trying to stay positive.

QUESADA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: Quesada says he knows he's got a long road to travel. He says he wants to apply to the city for a business grant, but those aren't given out until late summer. For now, the job he has as a carpenter is barely enough to make a living, let alone send money to his family.

For NPR News, I'm Jorge Valencia in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "INTERLUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.