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The rows of worshipers were nowhere in sight as Pastor Adriana Reyes stepped through her church’s sanctuary on a recent morning in Tijuana. Just rows of tables, where families from Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, and southern Mexico silently leaned over a breakfast of noodle soup and scrambled eggs.
Outside, the cars and trucks rolled purposefully down Boulevard Casablanca, a major thoroughfare in eastern Tijuana. But behind the mustard-yellow walls of this small migrant shelter, it was the start of another day of waiting — and hoping to reach the United States.
The new year brings much uncertainty, both for migrants at the San Diego-Tijuana border — and for the broad network of shelters who assist them with little or no government support.
Large numbers of migrants waiting for humanitarian visas in southern Mexico soon could be heading north toward the U.S. border. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has resumed its return of asylum applicants to Tijuana and other border cities as their petitions undergo review. At the same time, the number of “repatriations” – or deportations — of Mexicans from the United States through Tijuana, which dipped sharply in 2020, are back up — from just over 24,000 in 2020, to more than 79,000 in 2021.
“The most difficult thing is to learn to listen to people, because every individual has a story, and different reactions,” Reyes told me last week as she led me through dormitories filled with bunk beds — enough room for 60 people to spend the night. “At times they may be aggressive, not because they want to be, but because they are feeling pain, and they don’t know how to express it.”
When I began covering Tijuana in the mid-1990s the migrants were largely Mexicans heading north to work in the United States — or returning home to their communities in Mexico’s interior. But now the picture has changed drastically. Shelters are filled with people from throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and beyond, most of them hoping for asylum in the United States. And more than ever, people are fleeing drug violence in southern Mexico.
The migrants I interviewed back then were most often men, young and middle-aged, whose lives straddled Mexico and the United States, and they were clearly in transit. But last week I met entire families living in limbo. Some were fleeing for their lives, others determined to find work in the United States — but all of them uncertain of how and when they would get there.
Enrique Lucero, director of migrant services for the city of Tijuana describes the growing population of migrants as a bottleneck.
“There are people who have been waiting for a year for their asylum petitions to be addressed,” Lucero said.
The numbers have been growing since the implementation in March 2020 of Title 42, a pandemic public health order that prevents migrants from seeking asylum at the border.
Lucero says there are currently some 10,000 migrants in the city with some form of migratory status in Mexico. About half of them are permanent residents, another 2,500 have temporary residency, while another 2,500 hold humanitarian visas.
But that doesn’t account for everyone. “Many don’t want to apply for a humanitarian visa, because they fear that if they do, they won’t be able to apply for asylum in the United States,” he said.
There’s one thing I’ve learned about Tijuana. For all its challenges, the city is filled with people who rise to meet them. Many do so quietly, like Reyes, the pastor at Iglesia Bautista Camino de Salvacion in the eastern Tijuana neighborhood of El Pipila. The church’s shelter is one of more than two dozen in the city, most of them opened in recent years to meet the growing needs of migrants and deportees.
Earlier this month, the Tijuana newsweekly, Zeta, honored Gustavo Banda, director of the Embajadores de Jesus migrant shelter as its person of the year for 2021. He opened the shelter in 2016, and in recent weeks has been housing more than 1,000 people.
“The world of supporting migrants has evolved especially since 2016,” says Graciela Zamudio. Her organization, Alma Migrante, offers legal defense, training and other kinds of assistance to migrant shelters, nonprofit groups and volunteers.
“The great majority of people who make up this community are just people like any one of us,” Zamudio told me. “They are not specialists, but as they spend more time in contact with migrants, they become experts in their needs.” Last year, Alma Migrante joined forces with the University of San Diego’s Mulvaney Institute to invite migrant advocates to tell their own stories through videos.
It was at a screening of the videos last December that I became aware of Reyes’ eastern Tijuana shelter, miles from the San Ysidro border in a working-class section of the city. Like many of the shelters, this one has a religious affiliation.
Reyes and her late husband, Jose Antonio Altamirano, both educators, founded the church 27 years ago when few people lived in eastern Tijuana. It wasn’t until 2016, when large numbers of Haitians began arriving at the border, that they began sheltering migrants. Seeing the need, they volunteered to house four or five families—and suddenly found 31 people at their door.
“We said, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’” Reyes recalled. “We had something like five blankets and a crate of eggs and some cooking oil, that’s all.”
Today, support comes from many places. From the parishioners themselves. From a church across the border in Chula Vista. From the International Organization for Migration, which provides hygiene kits. From Centro FBT32 — the Tijuana arm of Families Belong Together — which offers psychological counseling. From World Central Kitchen, which supplies the shelter’s main midday meal.
“I’ve always seen the hand of God. When we need something, God provides what we need, and sometimes even more,” Reyes said. “If we don’t have food, not even eggs for tomorrow, someone brings us eggs. If we don’t have potatoes, someone shows up with potatoes.”
Last winter, both Reyes and her husband fell ill with COVID. The shelter was on lockdown at the time, and Jose Antonio Altamirano was the only person authorized to leave to purchase food and other essential supplies. She speculates he caught it outside, because no case has been detected among migrants at the shelter. On March 20, he passed away at the age of 53.
Today, his 51-year-old widow, who works for the state as a school inspector, is committed to keeping the shelter open. She is able to do so thanks to two other church members who are sharing the leadership, and to the migrants who step in with daily chores.
“Everyone told me I should close, that I was not going to be able to handle it,” she said. “Not for a moment did I think of closing. I’m not doing things just on my own. God moves me and helps me and gives me strength to move forward.”
And she has no doubts that the migrants will keep coming. “We have contacts with pastors in Tapachula. They’re asking us if we can house people, they’re already on their way.”
- Maquiladoras: Tijuana’s maquiladoras are booming, with a record 270,000 people employed in the city’s export-oriented industry, reports KPBS-FM. COVID-19 supply chain disruptions in the U.S. and other factors have especially been driving a surge in “fulfilment-center” warehouses in Tijuana and other Mexican border cities.
- Remain in Mexico: Two Colombian men were the first U.S. asylum seekers sent back to Tijuana on Wednesday under the court-ordered return of Remain in Mexico–a Trump-era program that requires most asylum applicants at the border to wait in Mexico while their cases are under review. (Union-Tribune, Reuters)
- Nueva Tijuana: The public debate over a proposal to create a new municipality by splitting off eastern Tijuana from the rest of the city continues. (Union-Tribune)
- Long border waits: A strongly-worded editorial by Union-Tribune’s editorial board published on Dec. 30 urges the White House to address the issue of lengthy waits at the border. It points out that many inspection booths at San Ysidro Port of Entry go unused due to a shortage of border agents and “drivers often must wait two hours or more to cross.” The editorial states that “passively accepting a close-to-broken border is unacceptable. The delays smack of elitism, if not racism.”
- CJNG leader: Baja California media are reporting the killing of a suspected Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion leader in the municipality of Tecate. He was identified as Daniel Isaac Ortiz Covarrubias, aka “El Moreno,” shot to death Tuesday afternoon in Tecate while getting a haircut. (Zeta, AFN, La Jornada, Milenio)
- COVID-19: Baja California health officials report that there are 1,234 new COVID cases statewide, about half of them in Tijuana. Among the latest fatalities: Rafael Liceaga Campos, a columnist for the Tijuana daily newspaper El Imparcial. (Esquina32, AFN.)