The city of Tijuana in Mexico lies exactly on the border with the US, and from many points in the city there is a clear view of the wall stretching all the way across the hills. On one side a densely packed urban metropolis fills space as far as the eye can see, and on the other a relatively untouched area of grassland interspersed with the occasional housing development. At the border crossing itself giant flags of each country are raised high above the buildings, visible for all to see while waiting in line to cross. On the San Diego side the wait to cross is rarely longer than half an hour, while on the Tijuana side it can be up to 3 hours going into the US (“the other side”, as the USA is colloquially called by everyone here). This is the most crossed border in the world, and you can feel the atmosphere of life as a border town on the streets of Tijuana, permeating into businesses, shops and markets.
In the last year, however, the city has seen a major change, with thousands of Haitian migrants arriving, travelling on the promise of work, based on the previous status offering legal asylum to enter the USA. With this status recently changed, however, they now find themselves stranded in limbo living in shelters that are often over-filled and under resourced.
Many of this community are highly skilled and educated, often having worked in a number of Latin American countries prior to Mexico, picking up various professions to work wherever possible and learning new languages along the way. In the wake of the cataclysmic 2010 hurricane that destroyed much of the country, many migrated to Brazil for readily available work during the successive World Cup and Olympics in 2012 and 2014. With a struggling economy and work drying up there, many felt no choice but to leave the country towards the US.
With the recent change to legal status for Haitians and an increasingly strict deportation policy taking shape in the US, Tijuana is now a place of limbo for thousands of Haitian people. “People are just waiting for something to happen in the US, for some major change to take place,” says Hugo Castro of the Border Angels organisation. For the foreseeable future, then, thousands of Haitian people are indefinitely living here, with no sign of a slowdown in new arrivals entering into shelters.
Charity groups are using the term ‘humanitarian crisis’ where government officials often seem unwilling to. Such groups are emphasizing the permanent nature of population change within the city, advocating greater efforts to include the marginalised Haitian community in Tijuana society. They accuse the Mexican government of failing to offer adequate support to those living in shelters, often relying largely on charitable donations or working in unregistered temporary labour.
‘Los Angeles de la Fronterra’
One organisation working with the shelters are the group Border Angels (Los Angeles de la Fronterra), a cross-border effort based in Mexico and San Diego, with the US side primarily focused on fundraising, with the Tijuana side delivering these donations. There are three main members in the Tijuana team, working with a Haitian community of over four thousand (known) migrants in the city. The team regularly drive across the expansive urban area of Tijuana with food and supplies for shelters, including footballs, colouring books and children’s toys. Although some of the larger shelters possess a well-developed infrastructure, many smaller shelters the group visit have poor access, without regular bus connections or paved roads in some cases, becoming almost inaccessible during periods of heavy rain. At one shelter the pastor explains how she built the wooden housing cabins, a lady in her 60s, sometimes working alone in running the centre.
The Border Angels team walk around a shelter assessing some of their needs. Hugo Castro mentions the exposed wiring and multiple electrical connections scattered around. The conversation with pastors around the needs of the shelter is always impassioned, with both sides keenly aware of the financial and physical limitations of developing the shelters.
During the morning meeting at another shelter the discussion is centred on how food should be distributed for communal meals. It seems like an essential discussion in the life of a shelter, that always have set of agreed rules displayed boldly on the wall regarding meal times and many other aspects of communal space. In the meeting, three men including the pastor stand at the front of the converted church speaking, with a translation from Spanish to Creole French. It seems like a rough and ready decision making process, with people often talking over each other and some walking out midway in frustration.
Most shelters housing the Haitian community are converted churches, led by pastors that have responded to the crisis by offering such spaces as housing for large numbers of people. Before the large-scale migration of the Haitian community began in earnest during 2016, many pastors had little to no experience in running spaces set up like this, usually taking on these roles without any formal support. As a result, the internal organisation in shelters is sometimes fragmented, with no government or centralised network coordinating needs across the city, where resources may be readily available.
When delivering donations, the Border Angels group make frequent use of social media, personally thanking individuals from the US who have recently donated to the group. Nearly all their interactions at the shelters are livestreamed, where much of the donations the group receive are sustained in large part by their social media connection to those in the United States. Alongside essential supplies, these donations are used to fund new construction and housing projects. The response to the group is more hostile in one shelter, however, as one young man plainly states “we are not monkeys here for you to come with a sack of rice to take pictures with. If you want to know how it is, come here and talk with us. It is a crisis, but there are lots of other things you can do to help”. It’s a frank and clear statement from someone now clearly accustomed to the wave of journalists currently flocking to Tijuana.
Undoubtedly civil society groups are overstretched and working relentlessly in response the crisis, yet there seems to be a relationship of dependency that exists for many living in shelters. Speaking with people here the question asked is often if it is possible to help find a job. People are working hard to create a life here in Mexico, yet many are hampered by a lack of legal working status or adequate connections within the city. A wider working network with the Mexican community is still an issue for many, as people recount tales of their positive experiences working in Brazil, finding it easier to connect with society in general than here in Mexico. The charities are doing all they can to provide for people living in shelters, but many of the social barriers to life in the Mexican community are still firmly in place.
Madres y Familias: Deportados en Acción
The Haitian community are not the only group feeling the effects of border policies here in Tijuana, with an increasing number of Mexican ‘deportados’ out on the streets, often people raised in the USA, finding themselves suddenly deported and stranded in Tijuana, a city that can often feel unwelcoming and tense, very much a foreign country for those unaccustomed to the hustle of it all.
An organisation working closely with these migrant communities is ‘Madres y Familias, Deportados en Acción’, quite literally a frontline service based out of a small office almost directly on the border crossing. The offices are open five days a week offering vital legal support for migrants but with a constant supply of coffee, food and phone charging space, it feels like more of a refuge or community centre than office. The project was set up by the tireless Maria Gallete, working as policy campaigner, legal adviser, part-time guidance counsellor and mother all in one.
Inside the office on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration it’s pouring with rain outside, with two or three Haitian families sitting inside using their phones, filling the office in a tense huddle. Maria is talking with a Mexican man trying to find work in the US, attempting and failing to connect to the two US phone numbers he has written down. She tells him the hard reality is that he may be too old to be taken on to work in his 40s, with many jobs opting for younger workers. Maria encourages him to stay in Mexico, personally recounting tales of migrant workers who have failed to find stable employment for over six years, separated from families only to be deported back ultimately.
During Obama’s presidency the US saw the introduction of the Daca act, allowing some legal rights to (mostly) Mexican migrants classified as ‘illegal’, having lived in the US since childhood. Almost 1.7 million were ‘officially’ eligible, with 752,000 applicants to the programme since 2012. Over 100,000 were filed as ‘denied’ or ‘pending’. Prior to his election, Donald Trump promised to repeal this act as one of his campaign promises. In practice this could mean the deportation of millions of people who have worked and lived in the US for over 40 years.
A week or so after our first visit to the Madres y Familias office a young boy sits in a chair crying, having just been deported, with nowhere else to go. He’s eighteen, having lived in the US most of his life. All his possessions are stuffed in a bag under the chair, with no money to catch the bus to see his family in another part of Mexico. He would most likely be on the streets of Tijuana if the Madres y Familias office did not exist.
While this is happening the team are also in a rush to attend a regionwide meeting of social groups about official strategy relating to Haitian migrants. Maria is simultaneously consoling the boy while preparing for the meeting and rushing out the door. It’s a tense ride over to the meeting, for the group who have to balance the immediate needs of directly helping recent ‘deportados’ and campaigning for policy change with government.
At the meeting there are almost two hundred in attendance from dozens of civil society groups and local authorities. Notably, however, nobody from the Haitian community itself. While the US government is increasingly pushing for a greater volume of deportations, this meeting appears to be a concerted effort in the state of Baja California to collectively address the undeniable issue on their doorstep.
It’s a well-attended event, yet the meeting lasts hardly more than one hour, seemingly more of a networking event rather than any formal feedback process into local government policy. Maria Gallete explains her view on government action for Haitian migrants. “I think they are trying to help them, trying to give them asylum. But we need more participation from other organisations to help migrants, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen with the shelters. We’re really trying to work with the government, but sometimes I feel like they’re not doing everything they could”.
The future is most definitely unwritten for Tijuana and the migrant communities across all of Mexico. It remains to be seen how the government, charities and civil society groups will work together, how the network of shelters will cope and adapt to increasing numbers, and how new communities will connect with each other in Tijuana and across Mexican border towns. It seems likely dramatic changes around migration on the border will continue under the Trump administration in the US, while the response from individuals in both countries has been just as strong in supporting independent groups looking to bridge the divide and support all those affected by the border.
Words by Josef Dobraszczyk. Images by Alexandre Afonso.