The Webster’s Dictionary defines the word crisis as “a situation that has reached a critical phase.” In a period of eight weeks (from May 26th to July 21st), Casa del Migrante in Tijuana has hosted 834 “asylum seekers” from 24 countries as guests. Other migrant shelters in Tijuana – Casa Madre Assunta, Padre Chava of the Salesians and the two Casas of the Salvation Army – have reported similar numbers. We have assisted close to 4,000 asylum-seekers in just eight weeks. These numbers do not include the people who at times were forced to sleep on the streets outside the doors of different casas because there was literally no room at the inn. Our situation has reached a critical phase, and we are experiencing a full blown crisis at the border of Tijuana – San Diego.
What started as a trickle in late May of 2016 has become an eruption of humanity. Diverse men, women and children are flocking to Tijuana on a daily basis in the hope of starting new lives in the United States. The bad news is that this situation will not end anytime soon. News reports from Costa Rica indicate that thousands of people from Africa and Haiti are being blocked from entry at the border of Nicaragua. There are also media reports of over 15,000 people seeking to flee Central America this summer and God knows how many more Mexicans from places like violence-torn Guerrero and Michoacán. It is only a matter of time before this dam bursts and more persons make their way to Tijuana.
Now if things were not bad enough, the overall reaction of the Mexican government on all three levels (federal, state and municipal) has been to bury its head in the sand and to issue logic defying gems like the following:
“There is no emergency at the border.”
“People from other countries coming to Tijuana is something we are accustomed to dealing with on a regular basis.”
“The Civil Associations (Casas del Migrante) are doing a wonderful job with the asylum seekers”
“I have to take pictures of the people because my boss told me to do so,” explained one policeman as people deathly afraid of police hid their faces from the cameras.
“As of tomorrow people will no longer be able to stand at the border and seek asylum and so they will have to go the Casas for shelter.”
“Starting today all asylum seekers can line up at the new Border Crossing and wait their turn: they no longer need to go to the Casas.”
I could go on, but I do not want to depress our readership by sharing my frustrations. Instead let me explain what is happening and describe possible steps in organizing a more strategic response.
After listening to more than 800 stories in a span of eight weeks at the Casa del Migrante, it is clear that the people arriving at our doorsteps are coming from very desperate and vulnerable situations and many are literally running for their lives. If we dismiss them and force them to return home, it will be the equivalent of a death sentence. In analyzing our experience, we can divide the people arriving into six distinct groups:
Desplazados (Displaced People) from Guerrero and Michoacán
This by far is the largest group arriving at the house and most have fled after witnessing the assassination of one or more family members either by gangs, cartel members or the police. In their eyes there is no legitimate government in control and so you can imagine their fear when Tijuana police begin to take their pictures. Conditions are so out of control that people at Casa del Migrante have even received threatening phone calls on their cell phones. The numbers from this group at our Casa over the course of eight weeks has been 415.
Haitians from Brazil
Thousands of Haitians were given visas to go to Brazil after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Many were able to make a new life and even had children born in Brazil. However, with the recent destabilization of the government, the lack of employment and the increase of violence and anti-immigrant sentiment, many people have begun to make the long journey north, at times crossing 13 countries to get to the Tijuana border. As of mid-July we have had 258 Haitian guests at our Casa.
In the last two months we have seen persons from El Salvador (19), Honduras (7), Guatemala (6) and Nicaragua (1) arriving at our doorsteps with several versions of the same story. “We had to leave our country because the gangs are out of control, they demanded money we didn’t have, they threatened to take our sons and daughters and if we say no they kill one of us to drive home the point.” With their governments in disarray and police forces not trusted to maintain law and order, it is no wonder that people abandon their communities and flee to Tijuana.
Another large category of migrants has been Africans from 11 different countries. The common thread in their stories is more than just escaping poverty, which is rampant in many African countries. Rather, it is about escaping persecution, discrimination, death threats and the basic inability to live in peace and eke out a living. In two months, we have received a total of 43 Africans: the largest numbers have come from Ghana (10), Nigeria (6) and Senegal (5).
Cubans have a relatively easy path to legal status and are pretty much guaranteed entry into the United States once they arrive at a port-of-entry. In eight weeks, we have received 18 Cuban men as guests.
In this category we have 22 people from all over the world, including Armenia (12), Romania, Russia, Syria, Ukraine, India and Togo. Their stories vary, but, in most cases, life back home has become so unbearable that they had no other alternative but to flee the violence, political instability and torture. This has been the most challenging group to work with in terms of language barriers and understanding their stories. In the course of eight weeks, we have offered hospitality to 22 guests in this group. They come from seven countries, and we wonder if this is only the beginning.
This has been one part of our mission over the last eight weeks. We also continue to offer hospitality to deportees who arrive at our doors on a regular basis (about 65-75 per day). God has been good to us and the number of deportees coming to our house has dropped about 35 percent since the refugee crisis began in late May 2016. However, we know that sooner or later 98 percent of the Mexicans asking for asylum will be rejected and deported.
I hope that by now all those reading this reflection will be convinced that we have a legitimate crisis at the border that demands an urgent and realistic response. It is time to stop acting like ostriches and to take our heads out of the sand and work together for the good of the thousands living at our borders on a daily basis. My “wish list” of proposed, urgently needed responses follows:
In the five Tijuana Casas receiving the migrants, our financial resources have been stretched to the limits. No one had budgeted for this crisis and so our cash flow is low, and we do not expect the Mexican government to offer us any financial assistance. In a very short time we went from serving about 500 to 1,000 guests a month. If someone reading this reflection has the financial means to help us, please contact me at [email protected].
We have been blessed this summer with an abundance of multilingual volunteers, but as summer comes to an end, many will return to college. As the crisis lingers, we will be stretched even more. Therefore, we desperately need three or four volunteers who could give us two to six months of service as live-in volunteers. French speakers would be wonderful for the many Haitians that (I believe) will continue to come for the foreseeable future. In exchange for volunteer service, we provide room, board and the experience of a lifetime. Please pass along the word and contact me if you have an interest in helping out.
One More Temporary Shelter in Tijuana
As of mid-July our five Casas were full and people were being forced to sleep on the streets. We desperately need the Mexican Government to designate a temporary shelter for at least 100 people that could be opened when there is a need. We know that these facilities have been prepared for the emergencies created by the El Niño weather phenomena, which never really happened. Now is the time to offer care to those who are living in another type of emergency and to open a designated shelter as the need arrives.
Pastoral Response from the US Side
We have come to know that many people, perhaps hundreds, are being released into the San Diego area to await their day in court for their asylum petition. I am sure many have family contacts that pick them up at the border, but I worry about persons falling between the cracks or for that matter those who have been sent to Detention Centers to await an answer to their asylum request. It would be great if the local churches and social service agencies in the San Diego region could come together and organize a ministry of hospitality to those in need.
Creation of Task Force
Finally, at this point in the journey, we need to organize a Task Force in Tijuana consisting of Casas del Migrante and officials of the three levels of government. We need to find real solutions to this crisis in both the short- and long-term. Our dialogue over the past two months has been spotty and frustrating at best. We can and must do better to help the men, women and children who are living in this state of vulnerability. In the future, we may even consider a binational Task Force to offer a more holistic response on both sides of the border.
Before I could write a brief conclusion to this reflection, circumstances changed once again. After several days of no one being able to line up at the border to petition for asylum and people being forced to sleep on the streets because all five Casas were full, a new system was put in place. On July 15th, asylum candidates were invited once again to get in line and wait their turn at the new border crossing. All were being asked to pick up a ticket with a specific date and to wait for two to three days before being called for their appointment. As a result, the US government is processing 100 people a day. People now have the option to wait on the street, go to a hotel or come to one of the Casas. Although our Casa remains somewhat empty at this moment with about 20-30 asylum seekers, I believe it is only a matter of time when we will all have a full house.
We will take advantage of this brief period of time to rest and gather our strength. However, we urgently need a better plan that takes care of the people caught in this crisis. In the meantime, please keep us in your prayers.