In many ways the city of Tijuana has become the epicenter of the challenges presented by the migrants arriving in waves just about every week at the border. In 2018, six migration-related phenomena challenged us:
The Caravan of Central Americans that arrived in April – I am sure you heard and read about it. Some even suggested that about 2,000 members of the caravan were going to “invade” the United States, and that we needed to send in the army to stop the invasion. On May 1st, I had an opportunity to visit this refugee camp of the caravan at the border and there were about 150 people, about half of them children. Not much of an invasion, and all they wanted to do was to escape the violence of their home countries and ask for political asylum in the United States. A few days later, all 150 crossed the border and are now awaiting their fate in the system (detention centers).
Mexican Asylum-Seekers – the untold story around the time of the caravan is that just as many Mexicans were requesting asylum at the same time as the Central Americans. They also had set up their own little camp waiting to be called for their appointments. The difference, however, is that about 99 percent of these Mexican asylum-seekers would be rejected the same day as they arrived asking for asylum. Many said they were escaping the violence of the cartels in their hometowns, but they met a very common response from US immigration officials: “Mexico is a big place so just move to another state.”
Increasing Violence in Mexico – 2017 was one of the most violent years in the history of Mexico, with over 29,000 homicides (not including the thousands of people who have disappeared). As if that was not bad enough, all signs indicate that 2018 will be even worse. Tijuana as a border city is not escaping this trend and, in fact, has become one of the most violent cities in Mexico, with 650 homicides as of April 22, 2018. To be a migrant in a city like Tijuana makes life very challenging.
Tijuana as a Destination Rather Than a Transition City – In the first five months of 2018, we noticed a new trend in which many Central Americans, as well as people from other parts of the world, are now deciding to stay in Tijuana rather than attempting to cross the border illegally or to request asylum. Although Tijuana is an extremely violent city, many migrants see it is as much safer than from where they come. The good news is there are many jobs in Tijuana, and the Mexican government is making an effort to offer many people humanitarian visas. However, you have to wonder how long the city can support this influx of newcomers. By the way, Tijuana has not received many people from Venezuela, but there are over 32,000 Venezuelan refugees in Mexico. It might be only a matter of time before they come to the border.
Arrival of Africans and Others – Some days it seems like a repeat of May 2016 when a new group of Africans or a few from India or 5- 6 from Yemen show up at the door of the Casa. The refugees in 2018 come from 20 different countries. At times, we struggle to deal with people speaking five or six different languages. Another challenge is that many of the Africans have come with the dream of seeking asylum in Canada, but so far we have not found a way to make this happen. I should also note that there are still over 3,000 Haitians living in Tijuana, and we are trying to help them as best we can.
Increasing Numbers of Deportees and the Potential for More – In the last three months, there has been a definite uptick in the number of deportees coming to Tijuana. The population arriving at our doors daily offers new challenges. For example, we are receiving many who have spent 30-40 years in the United States and, to them, Spanish is definitely a second language. In addition, we are also receiving an increasing number of elderly migrants, as well as about ten persons per month with severe psychological problems. In the meantime, as US detention centers routinely overflow, we can expect continued increases in the number of deportees in the very near future.
Confronted by these challenges, our staff has realized that we must come up with new approaches to the problems facing by the migrants. To that end, on May 14, 2018, we initiated the first class of Basic Computer Skills with an eager group of 25 students. As I peered into the computer lab to see how things were going, one young man of about 25 years of age enthusiastically remarked: “Hey Padre, today we are entering a new world.”
The new world began for us when we took a leap of faith and initiated our latest program for the benefit of our migrant brothers – the Scalabrini Education Center for Migrants (CESFOM). After much discussion and reflection over the past year or so, we came to the conclusion that offering migrants “techo y comida” (food and shelter) was simply not enough. We realized that if we truly want to make a difference in the lives of migrants, we needed to do a better job at equipping them for life’s journey. Consequently, CESFOM has one very simple goal – that each migrant who enters the Casa will be afforded all the opportunities to become a better, more successful person.
Our experience over the years has taught us that education and human formation are the keys to giving every guest at our house the tools needed to lead a more fulfilling and hope-filled life, whether in Mexico or some other part of the world.
CESFOM has as its foundation four simple objectives:
- To form new skills in each of the migrants linked to some basic education;
- To provide training to migrants in a variety of occupations;
- To offer migrants certification in trades and revalidation of education; and
- To provide opportunities for migrants’ spiritual development.
With these four objectives in mind, we launched phase I of the pilot program at the Casa del Migrante. The curriculum includes:
- Revalidation of primary and secondary education via exams offered by the Mexican government;
- Basic Computer Skills class two times per week;
- Intermediate Computer Skills class offered four times per week;
- Introductory Spanish class (primarily for Haitians and African migrants);
- Discover Bible Reflection – a weekly faith sharing group open to all at the Casa;
- Classes in basic guitar that are offered twice a week for two hours;
- Parenting classes to offer the men an opportunity to be better parents; and
- Basic Computer Skills class for the volunteer cooks at the Casa.
Phase I of the pilot program should last about 3-4 months as we prepare to move into a more permanent site. We currently are in negotiations to purchase a building a few blocks from the Casa that will become the future home of this new venture to assist the migrants. The new site for CESFOM will eventually include administration offices, four classrooms, and ample parking for staff and visitors.
If all goes well, it is our hope to inaugurate the permanent location of CESFOM in early September 2018 and then offer some additional courses to our basic curriculum such as:
- A course for those who wish to learn the trade of being a barber;
- A certification program for electricians and plumbers ; and
- The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (Sacraments for Adults).
Our goal is that by the end of 2018, CESFOM will be running at full capacity, and we will be well along the way towards changing the lives of migrants who call Tijuana their home. As we move ahead, we hope to open CESFOM to migrants living throughout the city. Our dream is that CESFOM can develop into a center that welcomes all migrants and is a true game changer in the lives of participants. Of course, we hope the program can be replicated in other parts of Mexico as well. Although this venture will require quite a bit of funding, the courses in CESFOM will be free of charge for all participants.
Now as you read about our dream to make a difference in the lives of so many migrants some of you might be saying: “Sounds great so how do I get involved?” Let me share with you five basic ways to help us out with this new world called CESFOM:
- Pray for us as we launch this program.
- Become a Padrino (sponsor) for a student with a monthly donation.
- Come and offer your services as a volunteer teacher for 1-3 months.
- Donate some materials for our students such as: pens, pencils, notebooks, paper, pencil sharpeners, etc.
- Share our dream with others and follow us on Facebook – Casa del Migrante and CESFOM – to see how we are progressing.
The world of migration is becoming more and more complicated every day, and so we are urged to be as creative as possible to help those who come our way. There is a lot to be done for those forced to leave their homelands in search of a better life. We are convinced that CESFOM and all it represents is just one more way of helping our migrant brothers on their road to a new life.
For more information about this project, please contact us at [email protected].
June 7, 2018