Historic Mexico church becomes capital's largest shelter for weary migrants

Migrants crowd Mexico City church in bustling makeshift shelter

By David Alire Garcia

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A historic Mexico City church has morphed into the capital's largest migrant shelter, with hundreds of sleeping mats stacked high inside and a growing tent city clustered around it where many await news before resuming their risky trek north.

The noisy, makeshift migrant hub located just blocks behind the president's downtown offices is the latest sign of Mexico's struggle to handle record migration from across Latin America.

The Catholic church's activist pastor has for years opened its doors and spacious nave to the homeless or otherwise marginalized, including drug addicts and sex workers.

But lately the number of migrants has swelled to over 3,000 on one record night two weeks ago - 1,300 inside and another 2,000 outside in tents - as word of the safe space spread.

The church is a way station for migrants as most wait for unpredictable appointments with U.S. border agents through a mobile phone app.

In a policy change, the United States now says migrants must sign up for appointments on the app to approach a legal port of entry or face a higher bar to seeking asylum, in a bid to reduce unlawful crossings.

"The journey has been very difficult. In my country, you're always dealing with an economic crisis. There isn't work, lots of companies have closed, we had the hurricanes, and then there are the gangs," said Eva Alvarez, a Honduran mother.

She spoke while waiting in line off the side of the church ahead of dinner, along with her rambunctious, smiling sons, 8-year-old Dominick and 12-year-old Eyder.

About two months ago they left their home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second-largest city known for its industry and violence and have been in Mexico City about three weeks.

"Right now, I want to wait here until I get my appointment on the app," she said.

In August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said more than two-thirds of migrants who had recently sought an appointment to plead their case for entry secured one "in less than eight weeks." DHS did not share overall wait times and it is unclear if they have lengthened or shortened since then.

The wait comes as U.S. border agents recorded the most-ever apprehensions in the 12 months ending in September, or 2.4 million, higher than any other year-long period on record due to surging displacements worldwide.

Among the rows of tents outside the red-domed 17th century Our Lady of Solitude church – one of Mexico's oldest - spontaneous celebrations erupt when appointments on the app are confirmed.

Arriving at the church earlier this week, 30-year-old Venezuelan migrant Alejandro Urbina explained near his tent that he logs onto the app every day.

"It just depends on your luck," said Urbina, standing next to his Belgian shepherd Trixy, who he credits for a viral TikTok video he posted as the pair crossed the treacherous Darien Gap separating Colombia from Panama around four months ago.

Urbina's dream is to make it to New York and work as a dog trainer.

Reverend Benito Torres, the church's pastor, explained that the Christian imperative to help the most vulnerable is what motivates him. But he also hopes the Mexican government will do more.

"The problem is we're over our capacity," he said in an interview. "And while it seems the government knows this, we haven't seen any reaction."

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Dave Graham and Lisa Shumaker)