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Visiting the Migrant Shelters of Tijuana

In today’s current political climate, the issue of immigration has become extremely polarized. Democrats advocate for the rights of immigrants (documented and undocumented), and Republicans clamor for a border wall to stem the tide of “illegal aliens.” Listening to the endless chatter of pundits and politicians on this issue can be numbing, frustrating, and can make the issue an abstract political debate, rather than a real thing involving real human beings.

In an effort to humanize this issue for myself, and (perhaps) for some readers, I decided to try to meet some actual migrants, to put a human face on what is often reduced to little more than a Facebook argument, at least in this country. As a local journalist, I was not hopeful that I would be granted access to a US migrant detention facility. And so, I decided to approach the issue from another vantage point.

I reached out to a San Diego-based group called Border Angels, a group which, every two weeks, leads something called a “Caravan of Love” southward across the border into Tijuana, to deliver food and supplies to migrant shelters.

Under president Trump’s “remain in Mexico” asylum policy, thousands of folks seeking asylum in the United States are forced to wait in border towns like Tijuana, as they wait months for an asylum hearing that may, or may not, grant them entrance to our country under both U.S. and international law.

I present here an account of a trip I took with a Border Angels caravan on July 13th to three migrant shelters in Tijuana, where I had the opportunity to meet and speak with actual migrants from places like Honduras, Guatemala, and Haiti—the vast majority of which were women and children fleeing poverty and violence.

Hugo’s Perspective

Three friends and I drove down from Fullerton to San Diego on a Saturday morning. A few days before, I’d put out a Facebook call, asking for food and supplies, and my friends and family did not disappoint—our trunk was loaded. Thank you to those who donated.

We arrived a bit early at the offices of Border Angels in San Diego. Before heading out from there, Hugo Castro, who was leading the caravan, gave a short speech about the work of Border Angels, and gave some rather candid insights about US immigration policy (past and present).

Hugo Castro explains the work of Border Angels and gives some immigration history.

He described their work as an effort “to keep the flame of hope, because many of them [migrants] are hopeless, and also the flame of love because most of them feel afraid, in this environment of hate and fear…They are afraid they are running away from death, from violence, and now here they are seen and treated as criminals.”

Border Angels was founded by a man named Enrique Morones back in 1996, mainly doing outreach to field workers living in Carlsbad.

“Most of the workers were living next to the fields,” he explained, “because they wanted to avoid police or border patrol, because they were undocumented, and also they wanted to save as much money as possible to send to their loved ones.”

As U.S. immigration policy became more restrictive in the mid-1990s, the work of Border Angels expanded to things like water drops for migrants who were dying in the deserts, trying to cross the border.

1994 was a watershed year for immigration, as it saw the birth of Operation Gatekeeper and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Under Operation Gatekeeper, seven miles of wall was built along the border in San Ysidro. Now more than 800 miles of wall/divide exists between the United States and Mexico. Walls were built under the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.

Border wall between Tijuana and San Ysidro.

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, United States, and Mexico started as a way to decrease tariffs, and to provide the free flow of equipment, goods, and capital.

“But the most important capital was not considered in NAFTA—the human capital,” Hugo explained, “So because of that, many small farm owners in Mexico, and also farmworkers, went into bankruptcy…and they started coming here to the United States.”

Today, an average of 2 people die every day trying to cross the border, either from heat, or from drowning in rivers like the Rio Grande, the All American Canal, or trying to swim across the ocean in Playas Tijuana.

Or they are kidnapped by “coyotes” (human traffickers) and extorted for money.

Tijuana is currently experiencing massive waves of migration from various parts of Mexico, Central America, and Haiti—most fleeing poverty, violence, extortion, and/or natural disasters.

There are 31 shelters in Tijuana for migrants, and most of them are running way above capacity. These shelters are funded and supplied by churches and non-profits like Border Angels. Government funding from Mexico has been cut off, Hugo explained.

A volunteer loads supplies into a vehicle as part of the “Caravan of Love”

The First Shelter: Mission Evangelica Roca de Salvacion

We drove across the border into Tijuana and made our way into a very poor “Colonia” (or neighborhood) of the city, to the first shelter–a church called Mission Evangelica Roca de Salvacion.

I spoke with Salvador Zepeda, pastor of the church.

“We help people who come from different parts of Mexico and Central America, families who come for a better life, who want to cross to the United States through the process of asylum. We have been doing this, helping people since 2008,” he explained.

Salvador Zepeda, pastor of Mission Evangelica Roca de Salvacion.

Currently, the average wait-time for asylum seekers to get their hearing is over three months. The system has bottlenecked to a tiny drip—about one family unit a day, according to Zepeda.

So, instead of being allowed into the US to await their hearing, thousands of families wind up on the streets of Tijuana, or in shelters.

“In the last 3 months, it’s been very hard. They say they are ‘full’ on the other side. So they are not letting people enter,” he said.

These are not “illegal immigrants.” They are seeking asylum at ports of entry, as is their right under international law.

I asked Salvador why he thinks the US has stopped taking asylum seekers.

“About a year ago, a year and a half, we had a lot of people from Honduras, and there were a lot of bad people in that caravan. Gangsters smoking weed, using crystal [meth]. But now the people, the good people, have to pay for the actions of those other people. After those Hondurans, they almost closed the door to asylum,” he explained.

Migrant mother and child.

The people currently at Roca de Salvacion are mostly from Michoacan and Guerrero (Mexico), and a few are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

“What is the main reason these folks are seeking asylum?” I asked.

“Violence, from cartels,” he said.

“When these people are allowed to enter under asylum, is there still danger of them being separated from their children? Do you see that happening?” I asked.

Most of the migrants at the first shelter were women and children.

“Yes, we’ve seen minors between 12-18 years old—they separate them because they don’t have their father with them. They require proof from both parents,” he explained.

“Do you think some of these families here in the shelter will be separated when they try to cross the border?,” I asked.

“Some of them, yes,” he said.

As volunteers of Border Angels unloaded their cars of food and supplies, a group of about 20 migrant children sat in small chairs watching a cartoon about frogs, sometimes eyeing the volunteers curiously.

Migrant children watching a cartoon about frogs.

Carlos Espinosa, director of the shelter, explained its mission.

“We started this shelter with the idea that it is better to give than to receive. This is a place of hope, humanitarian aid, service, to deny ourselves to be able to provide to those most in need. This is our mission. People here arrive with sadness, without hope, many of them running away from violence, flying away from death, and God prepared this place to save these people,” he said.

Right now, 70 migrants are staying in the shelter, but they expect 80-90 children in the next ten days.

“The capacity is 120, but we have had up to 380,” Espinosa said.

They are currently working on building a church nearby, which will be able to house more people.

Children’s artwork was proudly displayed.

“We need money for utilities, water, etc,” he says, “The Mexican government doesn’t offer any assistance. They bring the migrants, but they don’t bring the donations.”

At the shelter, I got talking to a young man from Ghana, who has been there for four months.

He fled his country because he is gay, and his lover was murdered. In Ghana, as in some other African countries, LGBT folks are often persecuted and even killed.

He is hoping to apply for asylum in the United States, but wants to earn money before crossing.

He explained to me that it has been difficult for him in Mexico, as he does not speak Spanish. The other day, he was happy to meet some other migrants from Africa.

“When they learned I was from Africa, they said, ‘Oh, my brotha!’ I just hugged them,” he explained.

This young man had fled Ghana because of LGBT persecution.

The Second Shelter: Camino de Salvacion Iglesia Cristiana Bautista

A word about driving in Tijuana—beware of the speed bumps. They are everywhere, and are constructed in such a way that if you are driving in a regular car, no matter how carefully you navigate them, chances are you will get a nasty scrape to your undercarriage. I would recommend an SUV or a truck—something raised. Aside from speed bumps, and the occasional pothole, the streets are not much worse than Fullerton’s (which isn’t saying much).

The next shelter we visited was another church called Camino de Salvacion Iglesia Cristiana Bautista.

I met a young couple from Honduras named Fabricio and Emma, and their three young children. They have been at the shelter since December of 2018 (so seven months), waiting for their asylum appointment, which is on December 10th 2019. Thus, they will have waited a full year to get their asylum hearing.

Fabricio and his family will have waited a full year in Mexico before their asylum hearing.

Fabricio’s dad’s lives in the United States, and he is looking for a lawyer to help them with their case.

I asked him why they fled Honduras.

He explained that there was no school being held for their kids (due to national school privatization efforts and a resulting strike). Also, there was very little work. Even when he found work, he would be stopped and extorted for money by gangs, who would also threaten his family.

I met another young man, also from Honduras, who had a huge scar cut diagonally across his face.

He had worked for the national police, investigating government corruption. He was successfully uncovering corruption where government officials were stealing thousands of dollars. His life was threatened, so he fled.

“There was a lot of electoral fraud going on with the president in the recent election. A lot of politicians were involved in that. There’s a big smokescreen, everybody’s covering everything up,” he said.

He applied for asylum, and has a court date for August 12. He thinks he will be allowed to enter the US because he has proof of “credible fear” for his life.

“What do you hope to do in the United States? What are your dreams, aspirations?” I asked.

He said his main priority is to take care of his grandparents, who are sick and still living in Honduras. His grandfather has a heart condition, and his grandmother has thrombosis, so she can barely walk. He wants to be able to help them financially.

He didn’t want me to take his photograph, for safety reasons, but showed me photos of his grandparents.

A very young asylum seeker.

The Third Shelter: Iglesia Embajadores de Jesus

Getting to the third shelter required us to navigate a rocky dirt road, deep into another very poor colonia.

Outside the shelter, kids were milling about and playing. There were farm animals roaming about—pigs, chickens, and a few dogs.

Many of the migrants at this shelter were from Haiti, fleeing natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake, a resulting cholera epidemic, and a more recent hurricane.

There were also a number of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala.

I got talking with a woman named Julieta and her son Victor, who are from Guatemala and are staying in the shelter as they await their September 27th asylum hearing.

Julieta and her son Victor are asylum-seekers from Guatemala.

“Why did you leave Guatemala?” I asked.

“There was a lot of violence, a lot of extortion,” she explained, “Criminal organizations are recruiting young kids into their activities. I have a 14-year-old son who is at the age when they are recruiting him…they’ll use kids to extort money from other people, and it eventually leads to their deaths. A lot of people are getting killed.”

Julieta hopes to be reunited with family in Houston, Texas.

“How do you see your life in the United States? What do you hope for?” I asked.

“I hope that my son finishes his studies and graduates from college. I hope to get a job. I hope to eventually bring my two daughters, who are still in Guatemala, to the United States. I hope to be reunited with my family,” she said.

“Is it dangerous for your daughters in Guatemala?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “We are from an area that is considered a ‘red zone’—a very dangerous area with much violence.”

Another very young asylum-seeker.

In another area of the shelter, my friend Bonnie and I got talking with a woman and her 15-year old son, who are seeking asylum for the very same reason as Julieta and her son.

This young man reminded me very much of my nephew Jonas, who is the same age. The day before, I went to see Jonas play basketball at a tournament in Anaheim, and I could imagine this young man being on his team, laughing and joking between games. Instead, he is here, living in a tent with his mother, waiting for my government to say it’s okay for them to enter the United States.

As the woman was speaking, she began to cry, and Bonnie leaned in for a very long hug. They were both crying now, and I was looking at this scene, thinking of my family and the accidental privilege of my birth, and the general unfairness of the world.

As I type these words, I begin to cry, home in my safe apartment in Fullerton, and I’m reminded of a poem I recently heard called “Home” by a migrant named Warsan Shire:

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.

You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.

You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.

No one burns their palms under trains, beneath carriages,

No one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck, feeding on newspaper, unless the miles traveled mean something more than journey.

No one crawls under fences, no one wants to be beaten and pitied.

I want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark,

Home is the barrel of the gun.

And no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore,

Unless home told you to quicken your legs, to leave your clothes behind, to crawl through the desert, to wade through the oceans, to drown, to save, to be hungry, to beg, to forget pride. Your survival is more important.

No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying, “Leave. Run away from me now. I don’t know what I’ve become but I know that anywhere is safer than here.”

At this point, arguing about who is to blame for the humanitarian crisis feels like standing safely outside a burning house filled with people, arguing about who started the fire, while the house burns.

Someone may ask, “Why didn’t they come the ‘right way’”? To which I respond, most of them did. They did not try to cross illegally, but rather sought asylum at an official port of entry, which is their right. If we must name criminals and victims, the guilty party in many of these scenarios is the United States government who, by denying entry to asylum seekers and forcing them to wait in Mexico, is violating both international law, and its own laws, to say nothing of its core values.

What we are essentially saying is not “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” We are saying, “Do not enter. If you try, we will make you wait in horrible conditions before we let you in, if we let you in.”

Is this the America we want to be, or could we, with all our wealth and resources, do better?

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4 replies »

  1. I was part of this caravan on this weekend reported on here. I removed the back seats and filled a mini van and took 2 volunteers along. Pick up trucks are good to use. If you have a truck or box van you can hold more donations. It takes all day and the driving can be sketchy but its worth it.

    • This is excellent reporting Thank you
      Also this poem opens wide the experience of terror facing the immigrant, both at the left-behind former home and in transit to the hoped-for new home. Love is the only real balm for such pain and your visit must surely have provided that.

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