(Adds Congress working on border aid)
By Lizbeth Diaz
TIJUANA, Mexico, June 26 (Reuters) - Frustrated by a long wait in Mexico for his U.S. asylum application and fearful of being returned to El Salvador, 30-year-old Omar Gonzalez said he would pay a smuggler to take him on the perilous journey north across the border to the United States.
"I have no other way out because if I go back to my country they'll kill me," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez was returned to the Mexican border city of Tijuana by U.S. authorities five months ago after applying for asylum in the United States under a program launched by President Donald Trump in January that makes non-Mexican claimants wait south of the border while their cases are processed.
The Trump administration says most asylum claims are made by economic migrants seeking a legal route into the United States, and it believes the program - the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) - will slash asylum requests once migrants realize they must remain in Mexico during the long application process.
The asylum process can often last two years. And at the end of the lengthy process, nearly 90% of claims from Central Americans are rejected, according to U.S. authorities.
In the past, when claimants were able to wait in the United States, many were willing to take those odds.
Gonzalez was one of 15 migrants interviewed by Reuters who said they were dropping their asylum claims and planned instead to cross the border illicitly with the aid of smugglers because they felt it was their best chance for a life in the United States.
A photograph of the bodies of a Salvadoran man and his toddler daughter who drowned trying to reach U.S. soil from Mexico raised global awareness on Wednesday of the desperate steps taken by migrants following Trump's clampdown on asylum.
But Gonzalez said despite the dangers, he could not risk being returned to Honduras because a criminal gang had threatened to kill him unless he paid protection money for his store in San Pedro Sula, the nation's murder capital.
"I cannot wait any longer. With the help of God and my family I'm going to win with a 'coyote,'" said Gonzalez, using the common nickname for smugglers.
Gonzalez said he had reached agreement with a smuggler who promised to take him and his girlfriend on a hidden trail across the border for $5,000 apiece.
The money would have to come from his family in the United States. Unable to get a job in Tijuana - one of Mexico's most violent cities - without a special permit under the terms of his asylum application, Gonzalez said he was scraping by on occasional part-time work paying just 180 Mexican pesos ($9.40) a day.
Though coyotes are expensive, the cost of pursuing an asylum claim was even greater, the migrants said. A dozen Central Americans sent back to Tijuana under the MPP told Reuters that U.S. immigration lawyers had requested between $8,000 and $10,000 to manage their asylum claims.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the migrants' assertions that obstacles to pursuing asylum claims was forcing them to enter the United States using people smugglers.
Reuters reviewed documentation issued to the migrants by the DHS to confirm they were part of the MPP process.
WHEN SMUGGLERS FLOURISH
The number of Central Americans arriving at the U.S. border - in caravans, alone or guided by traffickers - has jumped this year, prompting Trump to demand even tougher action from Mexico to stem the tide.
Congress is struggling to reach an agreement to provide billions of dollars more in aid to care for migrants - including shelter and food - before recessing at the end of this week for the Fourth of July holiday.
U.S. Border Patrol says it has apprehended 664,000 people along the southern border so far this year, a 144 percent increase from last year.
Since the MPP program was launched in January, more than 15,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Tijuana and two other Mexican cities, Mexicali and Ciudad Juarez.
With Trump threatening to impose trade tariffs, Mexico agreed to tighten border security and expand the MPP program. At least two other crossing points - Nuevo Laredo, bordering Texas, and San Luis Rio Colorado, opposite Arizona - were due to be added this week, according to Mexican immigration sources.
Human rights organizations have warned that the northern border towns of Mexico have some of the highest rates of violence and kidnapping in the country and Central America migrants could find themselves vulnerable as they arrive without money or support networks.
Some claimants waiting in Tijuana said the need to turn up for regular U.S. immigration court appearances in San Diego, California, felt like deliberate discouragement as it kept them tied to violent border towns.
"These requirements are a trap. ... The appointments they give us are for us to despair and go back," said Gustavo Gutierrez, a Honduran ex-military man who said he was threatened with death after he was involved in the arrest of members of a criminal gang. Gutierrez said he had not yet decided whether to pay a smuggler.
Mexico is tightening security on its northern border with the deployment of 15,000 troops and National Guard at major crossing points. In the south on the border with Guatemala, it has stationed thousands more to stop migrants from entering Mexico.
"These measures could cause a boom in human trafficking because when there is more difficulty crossing the border, the activity of the smugglers flourishes," said security and migration expert Victor Clark Alfaro, who is based in Tijuana and has spent years investigating human smuggling.
Milton Ical and his father said they paid a smuggler $13,000 to take them to the United States from Guatemala, where they said they had received death threats.
After surrendering on arrival to U.S. Border Patrol at the end of April, they waited two months for their first asylum hearing this week, and were told the next will be in two months time.
"We don't want to wait here anymore, we're going to cross over again," said 17-year-old Ical. "We're afraid to be in Mexico." ($1 = 19.1911 Mexican pesos) (Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)
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