By Julio-Cesar Chavez
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican officials concerned about the health of Mexican asylum seekers including around 200 young children sleeping in the open near the U.S. border in Ciudad Juarez tried to move people to shelters on Wednesday, as temperatures dropped below freezing.
In recent months, Ciudad Juarez has seen a rapid increase in Mexicans seeking to apply for asylum in the United States, leading to a backlog in the city as U.S. border officials limit the number of asylum cases they receive at the port of entry each day.
A waiting list contains about 1,200 people, of which about 550 are staying in camps near the bridge to the United States, the Chihuahua state government said. Nearly half of those in the camps are children under the age of 12.
"For their own good, they can't be in these public spaces," said Enrique Valenzuela, who heads the civil protection services in Chihuahua state and was trying to persuade the migrants to shift to shelters.
"It is for the good of their sons and daughters who are exposed to crime and above all the inclement weather."
Weather forecasts predict freezing temperatures in the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso area through the weekend.
Policies under U.S. President Donald Trump aimed at reducing the number of new arrivals in the United States have led to tens of thousands of mainly Central American asylum seekers living for months in Mexico as they await U.S. court dates or interviews with border officials.
Immigration advocates say the policies expose vulnerable populations to crime, extortion and the elements.
On Wednesday, a grandfather from the state of Zacatecas sat at a small grill where people were cooking breakfast, scrambling chilli and eggs while his one-year old granddaughter sat in a chair bundled up in multiple sweaters.
The coffee he drank was made with water that was still frozen when they tried to pour it into a pot for boiling.
Giving only his first name for fear of reprisals, Rodrigo said he traveled with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to escape violence in their home state.
The family all slept in a tent together, insulating it with cardboard and sheets of plastic. As temperatures dropped to 24 Fahrenheit (-4 Celsius) in the early morning, the baby woke up crying, Rodrigo said.
His family had been waiting for more than two months to be called on the asylum list, Rodrigo said, and had no plans to leave for shelters despite the weather forecast.
"We have only ten families ahead of us on the list, so we'll cross in the next eight days or so...if you're not here for the roll call in the morning your family gets removed from the list after two or three absences," Rodrigo said.
One woman who declined to give her name said she was considering moving to another city to escape both the cold and what she feared were cartel members who had followed her from Guerrero state.
Other families said they would leave the camp, worried children would fall sick. Some families have decided to cross the border illegally rather than wait, they said.
Officials in Chihuahua state were seeking a meeting with their U.S. counterparts to discuss the situation in the camps, a Mexican official said, requesting anonymity. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in Ciudad Juarez; Additional reporting by Julia Love in Mexico City and Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)