Refugio Salesiano Don Bosco in Tijuana on Aug. 24, 2023. A shelter for women and children.
Refugio Salesiano Don Bosco in Tijuana on Aug. 24, 2023. A shelter for women and children. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Refugio Salesiano Don Bosco, a shelter in eastern Tijuana, was alive with laughter and chatter on Thursday morning. Dozens of migrants, all women and children, were starting their day with a meal of refried beans and scrambled eggs. They hailed from as far as Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa, though most had fled communities in southern Mexico.

“They keep coming and coming,” said Claudia Portela, coordinator of the Centro Salesiano Project in Tijuana, which includes two migrant shelters and the soup kitchen known as Desayunador Padre Chava. “This doesn’t stop.”

As the U.S. border policies and migration trends have seen profound shifts in migration in recent years, Tijuana’s shelters have grown in numbers and adapted their services to meet the needs of successive waves of arrivals. But they must often scramble for resources themselves. 

It’s no longer just a question of providing food and shelter. The Centro Salesiano project offers medical services, psychological counseling and schooling for migrant children. Access to the internet, for instance, is now essential at Tijuana’s network of shelters, filled with U.S. asylum seekers, who must seek appointments though the Biden administration’s portal by signing on to the CBP One mobile application. 

Back in June, the Centro Salesiano issued a public plea for support, saying donations had dropped drastically since the start of the year and they might have to close. The Centro, whose facilities in Tijuana include two migrant shelters – one for men, the other for women and children – is one of better established groups in the city. The soup kitchen alone serves some 1,000 meals daily at a center in downtown Tijuana. When I visited the eastern Tijuana shelter last Thursday, there were 83 migrants, and several more on their way.

In response to the Centro Salesiano’s pleas, the municipal government gave  a one-time donation of 150,000 pesos – almost $9,000. It also pledged a smaller monthly support. Earlier this month, the state of Baja California announced it would be contributing 250,000 pesos – almost $15,000. But Portela says those funds can’t solve the current need for at least $40,000 monthly to keep operating the two shelters and soup kitchen.

Jeanne from Congo (left), Dorotea Sosa (center) and Suzianne from Haiti (right) while working in the kitchen at Refugio Salesiano Don Bosco in Tijuana on Aug. 24, 2023.
Jeanne from Congo (left), Dorotea Sosa (center) and Suzianne from Haiti (right) while working in the kitchen at Refugio Salesiano Don Bosco in Tijuana on Aug. 24, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Donations have plummeted since January, Portela said. And it’s not just the drop in contributions. Volunteer groups from both sides of the border once clamored for the chance to serve, but their numbers have dwindled, she said.

Shelters across the city are feeling strained, said Enrique Lucero, director of Tijuana’s office of migrant support. “They’re all on the knife’s edge, with their resources stretched to the limit, living day to day.”

The Salesians are a Catholic missionary order founded in Italy during the 19th century, and first came to Tijuana 36 years ago. But it was not until 2021 that they opened the eastern Tijuana migrant shelter to help the growing numbers of women and children who found themselves stranded in the city. The shelter is located far from the border, in the working class neighborhood of Mariano Matamoros, in a large hilltop compound that includes a school and a church.

The shelter remains open – as does the men’s shelter across town near the border and the Padre Chava soup kitchen. But as donations have dropped, Portela has been forced to cut paid staff. Of 11 people who once worked at the women and children’s shelter, only five remain. So far, they have been able to keep open the one-room school for migrant children.

While administrators worry about the future, the mood in the shelter’s dining hall was upbeat last week, where the shelter’s long-term residents helped staff prepare and serve the meal.  They were migrants from Ghana, Brazil and Haiti who had secured asylum appointments through the CBP1 app, and looked hopefully toward the future.

The Big Picture After Title 42

The expiration of the United States Covid-19 pandemic public health policy known as Title 42  that allowed the rapid expulsion of those entering the country illegally raised much uncertainty for shelters in Tijuana in cities along Mexico’s northern border. 

Border arrests: After plunging in June, U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures released this month show a 33 percent rise from June to July in apprehensions for illegal crossings all along the U.S.-Mexico border – an increase attributed to greater numbers of families traveling with children.  

Asylum appointments: Last May, before the end of the pandemic-era border policy, Lucero, director of Tijuana’s migrant support office, told KPBS News that some 16,000 asylum seekers were in the city waiting for appointments. When I met with him last week, he estimated that there were about 13,000 of them – with 5,000 living in 32 different shelters, only three of those operated by government agencies.

For asylum seekers, getting an appointment through the CBP One application has become relatively easier as the U.S. government has expanded the number of daily appointments – from 1,000 in May to 1,450 as of July 1. Of those asylum applicants in Tijuana are allotted 385 appointments per day, Lucero told me.

In Other News

Tropical Storm Hilary: Despite fears of widespread flooding,  Tijuana emerged relatively unscathed when Tropical Storm Hilary swept through the region earlier this month. Farther south, the storm unleashed heavy rains on the Baja California peninsula and caused flash floods in the Baja California Sur communities of Santa Rosalia and Mulege, where one man died after his vehicle was swept up in a stream. South of San Quintín in Cataviña, an Uber driver lost her life when her car was caught in a rising stream. 

Baja California Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila said that about 500 people statewide took refuge in temporary state shelters set up for the storm. Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission reported that more than 233,000 clients in Baja California lost power. In Tijuana, residents of 96 colonias temporarily lost water service, according to the state water agency, CESPT. 

The storm also had a cross-border effect, causing an increase in sewage-contaminated cross-border flows down the Tijuana River channel and into the United States.(Mexico News Daily, KPBS, Accuweather, Proceso, Esquina 32, Zeta)

Cross-border sewage issue: Spain’s leading media outlet, El Pais, took a close look at the question of cross-border sewage flows that contaminate beaches in Tijuana and San Diego.

Crumbling Tijuana: KPBS looked at the issue of Tijuana’s crumbling hillsides, a complex problem rooted in the city’s topography, improper construction, poor government oversight and lack of resources that is likely to gain urgency with climate change. 

Protected natural areas: Environmentalists are celebrating the establishment by presidential decree this month of two new protected natural areas in Baja California Sur near the historic community of Loreto. Loreto II National Park covers 15,000 acres, while  Nopoló National Park measures about 5,000 acres. The designations provide “ecological protection to a pristine and biodiverse coastline,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Foundation, which worked with local organizations to promote the special protection.

The parks are two of 13 new naturally protected areas in Mexico that will be overseen by Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Natural Areas. Also on the list is San Quintín National Park, a 210-acre area in the state of Baja California. (CONANP, The Ocean Foundation)

Official publicity payments: In Mexicali, journalist Dianeth Pérez Arreola published a four-part series last week that takes on the sensitive subject of government publicity payments to media organizations, a common practice in Mexico at all levels of government. The  articles, posted on her investigative website Brujula News, focus on the practices of Baja California Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila, probing into the background of communications director Ariel Lizarraga, a longtime political strategist, and reporting that the government’s expenditures far exceed the budget approved by the state legislature. Pérez Arreloa writes that the governor’s policy resembles those of her predecessors, and that “there are no clear rules on the publicity policy, nor an intent to establish them.”

Venezuelans in San Diego:  Inewsource reports on Venezuelan migrants who find themselves camping on the streets of San Diego. They “are among thousands of Venezuelans entering the U.S. under an expanded program rolled out by the Biden administration that protects some migrants, temporarily, from the threat of deportation.”

Tijuana eliminated from Little League World Series: Tijuana’s Little League baseball team was knocked out of the league’s Word Series Thursday after losing to Curacao in the international semifinals. (KPBS, San Diego Union-Tribune, Axios)

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