A Haitian migrant waits for customers at a local street market in Tijuana. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For many years, Haitian migrants have been stuck in limbo in Tijuana. Some have chosen to stay in the city, because navigating the asylum process and coming to the United States is increasingly difficult. Those who cross may be placed into immigration detention.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things harder.

“COVID is affecting people everywhere,” said Guerline Jozef, president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a coalition of Haitian nonprofit organizations and community activists who work with immigrants. “The problem for our community is they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Those in Tijuana, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus, are facing an extreme economic crisis, unable to get the jobs they once relied on, and struggling to access food, pay rent and even bury loved ones.

There are approximately 4,000 Haitians currently in Tijuana, said Fenel Saint Juste, vice president of the Asociación de Defensa de los Migrantes Haitianos, an organization in Tijuana that aids Haitian migrants. He estimates there are an additional 4,000 to 5,000 who are in Tapachula, trying to get to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“In Tijuana, there is an economic crisis because of the pandemic,” Saint Juste said. “There’s no work. Before the pandemic, Haitians didn’t have so many problems trying to find work.”

Saint Juste said that many Haitians came to Tijuana with hopes of crossing into the United States, but with new emergency rules in place because of the pandemic, they face a greater risk of being promptly deported. As a result, many have decided to stay in Tijuana longer than they anticipated, but there are no jobs for them.

“Many Haitians come to the border to cross to the United States, but since there seems to be no possibility of not being deported, they’re staying here,” Saint Juste said.

Factories where some Haitians found work have either closed or reduced the number of people who work at a time, cutting down hours and shifts because of the pandemic. Some Haitians would sell products in markets, which were closed for a time because of the pandemic, and are just now starting to reopen.

Saint Juste said his organization has been trying to assist Haitian migrants to the best of its ability, by distributing food, or finding hotel rooms for newly arrived migrants in the city, since most migrant shelters are no longer accepting new people.

Amid the pandemic, Saint Juste has even had to assist families in paying to bury loved ones who have passed, he said. Those who can’t afford to do so end up with a debt to morgues.

Jozef said the pandemic has also made it more difficult for organizations in the United States to provide assistance. She and her coalition used to go to Tijuana every two weeks to bring legal aid, medical care, food and other humanitarian assistance to Haitian and other Black migrants, but with pandemic border-crossing restrictions in place, they no longer can.

Fenel Saint Juste, a Haitian migrant, fixes his merchandise at a local street market in Tijuana. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Beds have been a particular issue, since migrant shelters in Tijuana have effectively closed their doors to newcomers, Jozef noted.

They have teamed up with people on the ground in Tijuana to continue to provide cash assistance, but they probably need 10 times more what they have been able to provide, Jozef said.

It’s also been difficult to figure out how the virus itself is impacting Haitians in Tijuana because of a general lack of testing in the city that is particularly elusive for Haitian migrants who face additional obstacles, like racism, in trying to access health care, Jozef said. For example, she knows of one Haitian woman who died last month with coronavirus-like symptoms, but no one knows for sure that she had COVID-19.

“We really want to make sure people understand that Black migrants exist,” Jozef said. “Black families are the majority of people being held in detention. In Tijuana, we have people who are extremely vulnerable affected by the pandemic, on top of everything else we deal with – anti-Blackness and racism. They don’t have access to medical care. We have to find ways to support them in any way we can.”

Jozef said many families in detention in the United States are Haitian or African migrants, and that the United States continues to deport Haitian asylum-seekers back to Haiti, despite the instability of the country and the pandemic. The coalition she’s been working with has been trying to raise funds to pay bonds for migrants in detention, but bonds for Haitian migrants can run more than $10,000.

Most Haitians have been crossing into the San Diego area or in Del Rio, Texas, she said.

In June, hundreds of human rights and racial justice leaders called on the Trump administration to immediately halt deportations of Haitians, warning that they not only placed many asylum-seekers in danger, but threatened to destabilize Haiti’s already unstable health care infrastructure.

During one recent deportation flight on July 7, Jozef said, there were roughly 23 children under the age of 2. There were roughly 44 children in total.

“Those people, they literally came because they had no other option and then they got deported immediately,” Jozef said. “The people who are being deported are asylum-seekers. Those who are running for their lives are literally being sent back to get killed.”

Included on these deportation flights, which have been ongoing since March, have been Haitians who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Jozef said that some of Haiti’s early cases were linked to the flights.

“We’re dealing with human beings, children, mothers and fathers that are in extremely vulnerable positions,” Jozef said. “We’re calling on the U.S. to stop deporting people during the pandemic and to release families with children – not separate families – and stop keeping people caged without knowing what the future holds.”

  • The number of migrants detained along the Mexico border jumped 40 percent in June, despite Trump’s emergency crackdown that used the coronavirus pandemic to turn back those who cross illegally. (Washington Post)
  • A Government Accountability Office report found Customs and Border Protection didn’t follow guidelines on migrant children’s health care, including keeping children in crowded conditions longer than rules allowed and choosing to ignore a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to give children the flu vaccine. (Wall Street Journal)
  • New complaints allege rampant verbal abuse from CBP officials to migrants in their custody and that Border Patrol sent a newborn U.S. citizen to Mexico.

The Latest in Baja’s Water Saga

Critics say Baja California governor Jaime Bonilla’s investigation into widespread corruption at the state’s water agency is aimed at his political enemies, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. They also worry that the investigation could be used to build up his own nest of public funds and could be used to resurrect the controversial $470 million desalination project in Playas de Rosarito.

The current state of the desalination plant is … confusing.

Last week, Reforma reports, the company spearheading the project disclosed that its contract had been canceled, said Mark Robak, a member of the Otay Water District, which has long backed the project in an effort to have its own independent water supply, separate from the San Diego County Water Authority.

The project has indeed appeared to resurface in a new plan backed by Bonilla, though it would be smaller, Newsweek Mexico reports.

For some background, the Border Hub for Investigative Journalism published an investigation last year detailing irregularities in the contracting process for both the Rosarito desalination plant and another one planned in Ensenada. The desalination plant has also been critiqued by San Diego water officials. They told us in 2017 they worried the project would siphon money from Tijuana’s already-strained sewer system, which has caused millions of gallons of sewage to cross north and frequently forces the closures of San Diego beaches.

Journalists Denounce Bonilla for His Attacks on the Press

More than 80 Baja California journalists signed onto a letter to the National Human Rights Commission denouncing the governor’s attacks on the press during his regular news briefings to the public, Tijuana Press reports.

Seminario Zeta has been the publication most frequently targeted by Bonilla, but the governor also recently attempted to discredit Reforma reporter Aline Corpus after she wrote about how the government was withholding information about COVID-related deaths.

Human Rights NGO Article 19 also sent a letter to Bonilla last week expressing concerns over the governor’s attacks on the press, Zeta reported.

While all this is happening in Baja, a new report, “Libertad de expresión en México 2020,” reminds us that Mexico remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, where they often face safety concerns and concentrated attempts to discredit their work, Animal Politico writes.

Coronavirus at the Border

More Border News

  • After investigating “inappropriate” social media use, Customs and Border Protection fired four employees for secret Facebook groups with violent, sexist posts, suspended 38 without pay and disciplined 27 “with reprimands or counseling.” (Los Angeles Times)
  • A coalition of business leaders in San Diego and Tijuana sent a letter to Mexico’s secretary of transportation, advocating for Mexico to assign a project leader for Otay Mesa East or Otay Mesa II, an estimated $100 million new port of entry that’s still in the works. The coalition also asked the Mexican government to purchase the rights to build a new road connecting the border crossing to the Mexican side. (Union-Tribune)
  • State legislators rejected a proposed change to Baja California’s constitution that would have guaranteed same-sex marriage rights. (Union-Tribune)
  • A protest by members of the Kumeyaay Nation calling for CBP to consult with the group to identify possible heritage sites that are being destroyed by the construction of new border infrastructure stopped construction on the border wall Friday. (KPBS)
  • A long-running feud between federal and local officials over control of a toll road that runs between Playas de Tijuana and Rosarito reached a boiling point last week, as protesters threw water balloons, tomatoes and eggs at federal highway officials. (Union-Tribune)

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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