JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Even though its air-conditioning system remains inoperative, Mexican officials on Thursday inaugurated a new federal shelter for migrants returning from the United States.

The facility can serve up to 3,000 migrants and will provide meals, sleeping quarters, medical services and access to jobs and health insurance. The first 22 migrants arrived at the new shelter on Wednesday afternoon, and 13 more came in on Thursday morning, said Labor Undersecretary Horacio Duarte.

“This center will compliment the various private and church shelters in the city. Those shelters offer meals and a roof. This center also will bring employment and health services directly to the migrants,” Duarte said. He added that the air-conditioning system would be fixed in the next few days.

Zazil Rubio, representative of Mexico’s National Employment Service in Juarez, said 36 migrants in this border city received work permits in June and 37 more got them in July. “Most of them are Cuban men and their working in maquiladora production lines, stores and some who have professional studies were hired by pharmacies,” Rubio said. “Once they have a work permit and a job, they can get health benefits their own (apartment) and leave (the shelters).”

Mexican officials on Thursday offered reporters a tour of the facility — which is named after Leona Vicario, a journalist and heroine of Mexico’s war of Independence — but denied them access to the migrants for privacy reasons. “This is not a detention center, people are free to come here or not in the first place, and later to leave if they choose. If the migrants decide to go back to their countries, we may assist them through a program offered by the International Migrant Organization,” Duarte said. The shelter was built primarily for foreigners in the United States Migrant Protection Protocol program, he added.

Members of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute set tables in the dining room of the new migrant shelter in Juarez.

“It’s for those who crossed into the United States without authorization, were arrested, expressed their intention of applying for asylum and were sent (to Mexico) to await their process,” the Labor Undersecretary said.

The shelter is on a building formerly used as a factory. Duarte said it has a kitchen, separate sleeping quarters for men, women and families, restrooms, a large warehouse and dining area. The center is staffed by members of the National Immigration Institute, and the iron gate on Thursday was manned by members of Mexico’s National Guard carrying rifles. Security has been an issue at private and church-run Juarez shelters since the migrant crisis began in October.

Duarte said this is the first shelter in Mexico operated by the federal government, but that two more shelters would open soon in Tijuana and Mexicali, and two more might open in Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros.

Juarez Mayor Armando Cabada said the federal shelter will ease the pressure on half a dozen church-based facilities for migrants, which often are overcrowded and lack food and other supplies.

There are a total of 1,200 migrants at other Juarez shelters now, with between 100 and 200 new migrants being returned to the city by U.S. authorities daily. In addition, some 20 to 30 new migrants are arriving to Juarez each day in hopes of presenting asylum claims in the U.S., said Enrique Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua State Population Council in Juarez.

More migrant shelters are planned for Tijuana, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros.

The new shelter won’t house unaccompanied minors, who are usually placed in the custody of Juarez’s child protection agency, known as DIF. The State of Chihuahua and DIF are building a children’s shelter in Downtown Juarez which should open in mid-August.

Labor Undersectetary Duarte admitted that the Central American and Cuban migrant crisis took the Mexican government by surprise. Still, he said President Manuel Lopez Obrador didn’t want to rush things. “We decided to do things right rather than rush them.”

He was also open about Mexico’s commitment to continue to comply with the immigration agreement struck with the Trump administration on June 7. President Trump, upset that Mexico wasn’t stopping the migrant caravans that originated in Central America and marched toward the United States, threatened to impose a 5 percent tariff on Mexican exports to the U.S. that would keep going up every month until it reached 25 percent.

Soldiers guard the entrance to the new migrant shelter. (Photo by Julian Resendiz)

“What we are doing is complying with an agreement signed by the U.S. and Mexican government to avoid the tariffs,” Duarte said. “Any expense we incur in building shelters like this one will be far less than what the tariffs would cost us. The export tariffs would devastate our country’s economy and would bury the economy of northern border cities.”

Duarte said the June 7 agreement had a 45-day probationary period whose objectives were met. He said a second 45-day trial period would conclude in September, and at that time both countries would reevaluate the situation.