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Overburdened, Tijuana’s shelters struggle to meet demands

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Migration has always been a part of life in the border city of Tijuana. This remains more true today than ever, but its impact on the city manifests in much different ways than it used to.

Tijuana used to be just a stopover town on a migrant’s journey to the United States. But since the Haitian migration wave of 2016, it has increasingly become an involuntary purgatory for thousands of deportees and migrants who are waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

After the 2010 earthquake, thousands of displaced Haitians moved to nearby South American countries, predominantly Brazil. There, they found construction jobs as Brazil prepared for the 2016 Olympics. But those jobs eventually evaporated and Haitians turned their sights north.

Many made their way to the different ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, with a majority arriving in Tijuana. The United States had initially approved some of their asylum requests, but in 2016 the policy changed to deporting Haitian refugees or denying them residency.

As a result, about 3,000 Haitians ended up staying in Tijuana. As much as Tijuana has always been a city of migrants, it had never before seen a wave of Afro-Caribbean migrants, much less migrants who settled in town rather than continuing north.

Less than five years ago, a Black Tijuanense was a rare sight. Now, there is a thriving Haitian community: they’re opening businesses, taking classes at local schools and renting apartments.

But it wasn’t easy at first. Many came impoverished and struggled to get settled.

Camino de Salvacion

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One October evening in 2016, a young Haitian couple with a baby got out of a taxicab in downtown Tijuana. The little family caught the eye of Pastor Jose Antonio Altamirano, who was driving his wife, Adriana Reyes, home from work.

“They were just arriving, they turned to look in every direccion, as if saying, ‘Where do we go?’” Altamirano said. “I saw it in my rearview mirror and the image was nailed into my heart … where are those people going? I’m going home to rest, have dinner, what about them?”

This motivated Altamirano and Reyes to turn their baptist church, Camino de Salvación, into a migrant shelter. Tijuana’s wave of Haitian arrivals “exposed the fact that the shelters in the city could not keep up,” said Altamirano. “We realized, as a church, we had to do something.”

At first, all they could offer was a roof to sleep under and not much else. “We had no stove, no fridge, we had nothing to start with,” said Reyes.

When they went to pick up the first group of residents, they were expecting 15 people, but 30 showed up. So Altamirano and Reyes enlisted the help of their congregation to make improvements as quickly as possible. Gradually, empty rooms turned into kitchens, pantries and sleeping areas.

While the church was initially responding to the sudden wave of Haitian migration, since late 2017 it has seen a growth in the numbers of Central Americans that come to the shelter.

Camino de Salvacion welcomes families as well as individuals. Sleeping arrangements are similar to those of other shelters in the city: men in one area, women and children in another. Men sleep in an underground room made of concrete. A series of about 10 homemade triple bunk beds (and no other furniture) fill the space.

Women and children have more space, but a lot less privacy. They stay in the largest room in the building, an ample hall where worship services and other events, like banquets and celebrations, are held.

In between events, women and children lay their sleeping pads on the floor, and use flattened folding tables, propped sideways, as an improvised wall in between mattresses. These “walls” are held in place by stacks of chairs. Every time there is worship or other events, these improvised sleeping cubicles must be dismantled to make use of the chairs and folding tables. At the end of the event, the sleeping cubicles are set up once again.

The shelter is best suited to accommodate about 35 people but, by March, there were about 75 residents, and even more people requesting refuge.

“People who arrive are asking [to stay],” said Reyes. “I feel conflicted because there’s no more room.”

Reyes knows she could probably find a nook to squeeze in a few more people, but she does not want to compromise quality of life through overcrowding. She learned this lesson last January when there was a measles outbreak amongst the children at the shelter.

Like all shelters in Tijuana, Camino de Salvacion receives very limited government aid to serve the migrant population. Since they opened their church as a shelter three years ago, Altamirano can recall only one instance where he received government aid: when Haitian migrants started arriving in late 2016. The government paid one electric bill for Camino de Salvacion, gave them prepaid cards to shop at local supermarkets, and some cash aid. Altamirano doesn’t remember how much money the shelter received from the city, but he recalled that during that time, “all we had was rice and beans for them, occasionally we’d get chicken.”

Altamirano said he tries to avoid saying outright that he doesn’t get help from the government, and several times steers the conversation towards the help they do receive from other sources.

“We’re not interested in meddling in political matters, or politicising this, or talking about governments,” he said. “We’re not interested because that’s not our function. Our function is to help.”

To Altamirano, Reyes and so many other volunteers and activists in Tijuana, the conversation around immigration should come from a perspective of compassion, not politics.

“Few people leave their place of origin because they want to,” said Altamirano. “Your life is in danger if you stay, but also if you go. Then you arrive at a place and there’s no one who will take you, who will help you, that must feel so desolate.”

“We are convinced that Jesus would have opened up whatever he had to give to people,” he continued.

Central American Arrivals

Illustration: Korina Moreno

Last fall, a caravan comprising thousands of migrants arrived in Tijuana, after weeks of traversing Mexico. Despite the caravan’s very predictable arrival, Tijuana’s local government neglected to prepare until six thousand mostly Honduran refugees were at the city’s doorstep.

Migrants started arriving to Tijuana in mid October, but it wasn’t until mid November that the city stepped in, using the Benito Juarez sports complex as an emergency shelter. The city originally announced the shelter had a capacity for 2,000 people, but within two weeks that number had grown to 6,000 people.

Tents were crowded together on a dirt floor where puddles formed during the winter rains. Outdoor showers were set up adjacent to port-a-potties. Overcrowding and rains led to flooding the dirt floors and creating unsanitary living conditions.

After two weeks, Benito Juarez was evacuated. The federal government stepped in and moved some 2,000 refugees to El Barretal, an out of the way concert venue about a 40-minute drive from the U.S.-Mexico border.

A month later, once the crowds of international news media left the city, Mexico’s National Institute for Migration (INM) evacuated El Barretal with less than 48 hours notice, and with no plan as to where to house refugees next. Everyone was suddenly on their own in a strange city.

As the crowd scattered in the coming days, some attempted crossing into the United States, or went back to their home countries. Many chose to wait out their application for U.S. asylum at one of the roughly 20 local migrant shelters.

As a result, most of these shelters have become overburdened, stretching themselves to serve many more people than they were originally meant to accommodate. None of these shelters are government run or sponsored. Most shelter managers do not collect a salary for their work. Aid from government agencies is minimal and sporadic.

Some of these shelters are faith-based or part of a church, while others are managed by deportees who know the pain of displacement, or migrants who couldn’t make it into the United States.

Hotel Migrante

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Hotel Migrantes is one of the most precarious shelters in Tijuana, a place that serves single men—either deportees or migrants on their way north. It’s located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Zona Norte, just a couple of blocks from the heart of the red light district.

Hotel Migrante has no office or desk. The street entrance opens directly to a dark, low-ceiling room where two rows of mattresses are laid on the ground wall-to-wall with barely any space between them. The place is set up to house 35 people, but by early March there were about 60.

There is no kitchen, no refrigerator or stove. Hotel Migrante sometimes has access to the kitchen at Movimiento Juventud 2000, an adjacent shelter for children and families. The shelters are somewhat partnered and share resources, but when donations come in, the children and families at Movimiento get priority.

“We do manage the single men separately,” said Pedro Cordova, the manager of Hotel Migrante. “The priority has always been the kids, as long as they’re OK over there … the ones [single men] here, well, let’s just say if there is enough food it will be given to them.”

When there isn’t enough food, residents must go to a couple of nearby community kitchens for a free hot meal. “It pains me not being able to help them more than we can,” said Cordova.

But as an unpaid volunteer, there’s little he can do. Cordova’s day starts at around 8 a.m. when he unlocks the front gate of Hotel Migrante. He spends his day cleaning, running errands and helping the residents. He’s usually there until 9 p.m., and he’s always on-call. In exchange he gets food and a room to sleep next to the shelter.

Originally from Honduras, Cordova owned a phone repair business there. This made him the target of extortion by gangs, a common problem amongst small business owners in Honduras, who must pay gangs a “war tax” for the right to own a business and not be killed.

“It got to the point where he had to pay off six different gangs,” Cordova said, each one demanding about 350 lempiras per week, or 2,100 lempiras among them, equivalent to about $86 U.S. “I was now working for them and there was nothing left to support my children.”

When he couldn’t pay the war tax, he fled. “There was a green light on me, this means when they see you, they’ll kill you.” Cordova was forced to leave his two children behind, as he said, “with a pain in my soul.”

Without a place to stay when he first arrived in Tijuana four years ago, he came to Hotel Migrante. After finding a community there, he eventually became the manager. Most of the men who stay at Hotel Migrante are trying to enter the United States, but Cordova isn’t one of them.

“I would have liked to work there and be able to help my children back home,” said Cordova. But if he applied for asylum in the United States, he would have no way to show proof of the death threats he faced. If his petition for asylum were denied, he could be deported to Honduras.

“That’s sentencing me to death, so I’d rather be here,” said Cordova. “I’m not going to go into the United States just to get deported, arrive in my country and get shot.”

For Cordova, one of the things that keeps him going is when he receives messages from people after they’ve stayed at Hotel Migrante. He remembers one of them: “‘Hello Pedro, guess what? Thanks to God I obtained asylum, I’m here … thank you for the space you gave us.’”

Roca de Salvación

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One of the most difficult to reach shelters is Roca de Salvación, located on a steep hill on the skirts of El Cerro Colorado mountain.

The shelter was started by Salvador Zepeda, a deportee who was brought to the United States by his older sister when he was nine years old. As an adult, he obtained residency and worked for himself as a contractor in Madera, California.

But Zepeda’s troubles started in 1994, when he was welding from a tall structure, he fell and suffered a herniated cervical disc in his neck, which left him disabled. This led to depression. He was heavily medicated on antidepressants and painkillers. The following decade was a blur of “clinic after clinic,” according to Zepeda. “I was very drugged,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking.”

Which is why when his residency visa expired in 2000, he paid no attention. In 2004, a deportation order was issued against him and warnings were mailed, but Zepeda had moved and he never received them.

Unaware of the deportation order until 2008, Zepeda was driving his wife home after a church service when they were pulled over. He was arrested and taken to a processing center in Fresno, where he quickly agreed to sign a voluntary deportation order.

“I could have gone to court, my children would have fought for me but I didn’t resist,” said Zepeda. When asked why he signed so easily, he said he wasn’t sure. “I felt a lot of sadness for my family, but at the same time I felt a call… People don’t understand.”

Within eight hours of his arrest, Zepeda was on a plane full of other deportees on their way to San Diego. From there, a bus dropped him off in Tijuana. “Mexican immigration received us and gave us some kind of map,” remembered Zepeda. “They never offered a shelter or anything.”

He eventually found a church that offered him shelter and quickly got on his feet. During this time he met many deportees. “Many came with their heart destroyed,” he remembered. “I would look and I would cry…they’re all bitter, they cry, they don’t know what to do.”

Rather than than despair about what had happened, Zepeda used some of the money he had saved before his deportation, to rent a building and open it as a shelter. His wife started visiting him in Tijuana, bringing over his tools and helping him sell his trucks in California. She eventually moved to Tijuana to be with him.

While he started the shelter to serve deportees, he now mostly receives migrants from all over the world who are applying for asylum in the United States. Roca de Salvación is best suited for 80 residents, but it often houses as many as 130 people, and during the Haitian migration wave of 2016 that number reached 300.

In March, there was a calm energy in the shelter and residents of all ages smiled while talking to each other. Many were playful and lighthearted when interacting with Zepeda. Children played and ran circles around donation boxes while a teenage couple flirted in a corner of the yard.

But behind the wellbeing of the shelter residents, there is a lot of struggle. It wasn’t until after a few years of running the shelter that Zepeda thought about asking for government assistance, and in 2012 he petitioned funds from the city of Tijuana.

It took the city four years (and several requests from Zepeda) to offer 50,000 pesos (about $2,800 U.S.) worth of aid to the shelter in 2016, around the time it was serving 300 people.

“I get sad,” said Zepeda. “These thoughts come to me, that if I can’t find the support, if I can’t find a way to pay [bills], I would have to give up the place.”

But Zepeda is slowly working towards more self sufficiency and last year purchased a plot of land about 50 yards uphill from the rental property the shelter currently occupies.

The plot is a construction site that, when finished, will be the new, permanent location of the shelter. Rent will be one less expense for Zepeda to worry about.

He purchased the property for $15,000—paid for it in part with funds he received the last time government aid was offered in June of 2018. The rest he raised by selling tamales and elotes with help from the church that welcomed him when he was first deported.

Zepeda doesn’t feel a pull to return to the United States, but he does want to regain his residency status so he can claim back payments from his permanent disability. He estimates that between his unpaid social security and disability, he is owed $270,000 by the U.S. government.

He has pledged to God that if he can get that money, he will not only use it to finish construction of the current shelter, but he will try to achieve a long-held dream of his.

“I don’t want the money, I want to help children who are orphaned,” said Zepeda. “I was an orphan… when I was a child. I once dreamt of a beautiful shelter for street children and that is what I long for.”

To ask how you can help these shelters, message them through their facebook page. 

Story by: Mabel Jiménez