Haitian migrants wait in line on Oct. 13, 2021 at the COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency, to register for refugee status. / Photo by Joebeth Terriquez
Haitian migrants wait in line on Oct. 13, 2021 at the COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency, to register for refugee status. / Photo by Joebeth Terriquez

The sudden arrival of 30,000 Haitians at the Texas border last month drew international attention to a renewed flow of migrants from the Caribbean island nation through Mexico. But here at the border’s western end, smaller numbers have also been trickling into Tijuana. 

Sounds of Creole rang out Wednesday morning in Colonia Castillo, as a couple hundred Haitian migrants arrived to register with Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR – a  first step to getting an identification document that allows them to remain in Mexico provisionally. Several said they wanted to go to the United States. But for now, Mexico was their best option.

“We’re looking for a better life,” a 22-year-old migrant from La Gonâve, Haiti, told me. His first name was Jean, and he had left Haiti at 17. He had been a master sushi chef in Santiago, Chile, but never obtained work papers. He saw little future there, especially with the country’s economic downturn and increasingly tight visa restrictions.

I first covered Haitian migrants in the 1980s, as a reporter in Miami. They were called “boat people,” crowding into rickety vessels, fleeing relentless poverty and the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Some made it to land. Others lost their lives in the crossing or were interdicted by U.S. Coast Guard cutters and delivered back to Haiti. It’s a phenomenon that has continued. 

Fast forward nearly three decades, and more than 2,000 miles away to the San Diego-Tijuana border. To my astonishment one May morning in 2016, I found the pedestrian entrance at the San Ysidro Port of Entry packed with Haitians hoping to enter the United States. The majority had been living in Brazil, where they’d been offered work after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. But with economic conditions deteriorating in Brazil, many embarked on a perilous journey to the U.S. border. 

In the months that followed, thousands were admitted into the U.S. under humanitarian parole while immigration judges considered their petitions. But then the U.S. government put an end to that policy, and Haitians faced detention and swift deportation to their country. Some 3,000 Haitians instead opted to remain in Tijuana. They enrolled in school, found jobs and opened small restaurants. Some were touted as immigrant success stories.

Mexican authorities assist Haitian immigrants with the help of a translator at the COMAR offices, Mexico’s refugee agency, to register for refugee status on Oct. 13, 2021. / Photo by Joebeth Terriquez
Mexican authorities assist Haitian immigrants with the help of a translator at the COMAR offices, Mexico’s refugee agency, to register for refugee status on Oct. 13, 2021. / Photo by Joebeth Terriquez

Today Haitian migrants are back in the news in Mexico as their country reels from an earthquake, the assassination of its president and rising gang violence. The newcomers to Mexico are almost all arriving from South America. Thousands linger in Tapachula, awaiting documents from the Mexican government. But others have tired of indefinite waits – and set off across Mexico.

Like many of the new arrivals in Tijuana, Jean and his family of six traveled without documents from Mexico’s southern border, riding buses and taxis, avoiding major routes and government checkpoints. They reached Monterey, an easy shot to Ciudad Acuna and the Texas border. 

“I have cousins who went there and were deported,” he said. “I have to stay in Mexico, work, go to school if I get the chance.”

Officials at the COMAR office in Tijuana have been seeing a rise in applications from Haitians in recent weeks, but the numbers have remained relatively small. Of 2,800 applications across Baja California for refugee status received from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, the greatest number were Haitians, followed by Hondurans, said Efrén González, the local director. Last Wednesday in Tijuana, they received 205 applications.

“We’ve seen more Haitians arriving in Tijuana, but not massively,” said Paulina Olvera, director of Espacio Migrante, a Tijuana nonprofit group that supports Haitian migrants. “But they are not staying in shelters. They have networks and they stay with Haitians who have lived in Tijuana longer or rent rooms in hotels and houses.”

As Haitians have been arriving in the city, there has also been an opposite trend: Haitians established in Tijuana who have left their jobs and apartments and taken off for Texas and other points on the U.S. border. Anel Ortiz, a professor at Universidad Iberoamericana who has researched the city’s Haitian community, said that several hundred hurried off in recent months to Texas and other parts of the border in hopes of reaching the United States. The exodus began in July, peaking last month.

The movements can be hard to track, she said. “They organize through WhatsApp, and many of these Haitians knew each other when they were in Brazil or Chile.”

Will recent arrivals like Jean decide to settle in Tijuana? And for how long? Jean had only been in Tijuana for a week when I met him. He said he would go wherever he found opportunity. It was clear that he had more questions than answers. 

Allow me to introduce myself. I come to the Border Report with a passion for the San Diego-Tijuana region and for the journalists on both sides of the border who tell its stories every day. I was lucky to be a border reporter myself for 27 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune until I retired last year. It’s a region with huge challenges, but also unique opportunities and my hope is that Border Report will address both. 

I can be contacted at the following address: sandradibblenews@gmail.com

In Other News

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Sunday announced the construction of a 6.8-mile elevated highway linking Tijuana’s A.L. Rodriguez International Airport to Playas de Tijuana, where travelers access the coastal toll road to Ensenada. The project would cost nearly $500 million and be financed through a federal customs fund. It is scheduled for completion by the end of 2023. (Reforma, AFN) 

The San Diego-Tijuana region is vying with Moscow to become the next World Design Capital. It’s a designation made every two years by the Montreal-based World Design Organization, and “recognizes cities for their effective use of design to drive economic, social, cultural, and environmental development.”  Results are expected this month. Proponents say it’s a chance to “demonstrate this region’s unique role in the global economy.” (San Diego Union-Tribune)

After being shut down for 19  months, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced that the U.S.-Mexico land borders will reopen on Nov. 8 to non-essential travel by visa holders fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But many school teachers and others in Baja California who received the Chinese CanSino vaccine fear they will be barred from crossing because the World Health Organization has yet to approve that vaccine and the Russian-made Sputnik vaccine. A U.S. official told me Monday that DHS is looking to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for guidance and expects to resolve the issue before Nov. 8.

Attention cross-border birders: The San Quintin Bay Bird Festival takes place next month from Nov. 3 to Nov. 7. Organized by the nonprofit Terra Peninsular, it includes both virtual and in-person activities, including panel discussions and exhibits. Registration is open through Nov. 1.

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