For the last 25 years, the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana has served as a house of hospitality for men, and for the last 15 years 90 percent of its residents have been Mexican nationals deported from the United States. In November of 2018, the composition of its residents began to change with the first arrivals of the Caravan in Tijuana. Tijuana soon became the destination for thousands of Central Americans, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as hundreds of other people from various countries in Africa. In a matter of a few weeks, the streets of Tijuana were flooded with immigrants from all over the world and the face of the city once again shifted dramatically.
This new population did not have Tijuana in mind as their final destination, but rather they came in desperation because things were so bad at home that their only hope for a better life was to flee to the northern border of Mexico with the goal of asking for political asylum in the United States. No one in Tijuana was prepared and, in a very short time, all 25 of the houses for migrants in Tijuana were filled. These new arrivals soon found themselves participating in the cat and mouse game called “request for political asylum.” They attended interview after interview and each time were told to return in a couple of months. Consequently, they have lived in a state of perpetual limbo with no real end in sight.
This new reality has provided them three basic options:
1) Return home and accept a possible death sentence;
2) Wait it out and hope for the best knowing they could become victims of kidnapping and extortion at any moment; or,
3) Ask for refugee status in Mexico and switch from the American dream to the Mexican dream.
At this stage it seems that people are selecting some of all three options. However, as the asylum noose tightens around the necks of many migrants and the reality sets in that asylum in the United States will only be granted to a select few, we are expecting that more and more will chose to request refugee status in Mexico. This decision will have a great impact on all the border cities, especially in places like Tijuana where there is a lot of work to be found and the possibility of starting a new life.
Meanwhile at Casa del Migrante, we are being forced to adapt to this new reality. In early 2019 life at the Casa changed dramatically when men started arriving with children. We were being invited to become more welcoming to an entirely new population.
I am amazed at how rapidly things can change in the world of migration and how rapidly we are invited to adapt in helping the migrants we are called to serve. The good news is that I believe we have adapted well to serving our new population at the Casa. Considering all the new developments happening along the border, we have had to adjust our game plan in order to respond to a variety of challenges. A few of these challenges are:
- Immigration Laws: The ever-changing rules, processes and Executive Orders regarding access to asylum in the United States, as well as changes in Mexican and Central American laws has created an endless minefield. It is as if we are playing the game of asylum and just about ever other week the rules of the game seem to change.
- Election of President Lopez Obrador: At the beginning of the new administration it was announced that no Casas for Migrants in Mexico would be receiving any financial assistance from the Mexican government because as they like to say all the casas del migrante are corrupt. We may have lost about 20 percent of our budget (approximately $50,000), but we are committed to continue to do the work that the government does not want to do and serve those who arrive at our front doors daily.
- Presence of the National Guard: This is another new reality for those living at the border. The National Guard was originally conceived to be a force to confront the violence in many places of Mexico. For example, last year in Tijuana, there were more than 2,500 homicides. The National Guard’s presence is needed to give all of us a sense of peace and security. However, the cruel reality is that the National Guard has quickly deteriorated into a well-organized Army with the mandate to control migration along the northern and southern borders of Mexico.
However, on the other hand, not all is bad at the border because this new influx of migrants and refugees has created some wonderful possibilities to help people in new and creative ways. Let me mention just a few.
- Presence of more international organizations: In response to the surge of migrants at the border, more and more international organizations set up offices in Tijuana (ACHNUR, OIM, Save the Children, UNICEF and COMAR).
- Donations: The generosity of people from both sides of the border continues to amaze us as people really want to help and all sorts of donations big and small come our way almost every day.
- Child Care Program at the Casa: As time went on, we felt the necessity to set up childcare at the Casa for both the newly arrived and for migrants living nearby who drop their children off before they go to work.
- Refugee Protection team: Thanks to the refugee protection program of the United Nations (ACHNUR) we have been able to provide a team that does outreach to our Casa and 9 more Shelters in Tijuana and Mexicali. We are about to expand the program to four other shelters in four other cities of the Northern border.
- CESFOM: CESFOM, the Scalabrini Formation Center for Migrants, is about to be born. We have secured funding for the project and construction should begin before the end of the year. In about 8 months we will have the official blessing of a school for any adult migrant residing in Tijuana. Our plan is to have six classrooms up and running and providing formation and training that will equip people with all sorts of opportunities for employment and for a new life.
In conclusion, as Charles Dickens said so eloquently: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Life at the border is filled with many challenges and no doubt there are more to come but there is also reason to be hopeful. We have been blessed at the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, and this has allowed us to share these blessings with our guests.
November 20, 2019