I always suspected that one day it might happen in Tijuana and then on May 26th at around 12 noon, we received a call from the office of the regional delegate of Mexican Immigration for an emergency meeting at 2 pm. As we made our way through the traffic and headed to the meeting, we wondered what it was all about. None of us were prepared for what we would hear. The delegate told us that refugees from around the world had begun to arrive at the Tijuana border crossing with the hope of petitioning for political asylum, and he needed our help to offer a humanitarian response. The US authorities were not prepared and could not process the people fast enough. By the time we learned about the refugee crisis, there was already a waiting line of over 400 people in US facilities, and they were not letting anyone else in the building. As a result, a line of about 100 men, women and children, who were waiting to seek asylum, had formed along the border crossing. We were asked to offer hospitality to those waiting in line until their names were called.
So, on the evening of May 27th, the mission of the Casa del Migrante expanded from serving immigrants and deportees to include refugees. That evening I went to the border with one of our Haitian seminarians, and together we talked with people in line in an effort to convince them to come out of the cold and potential rain and rest at our house for 24 hours. It was a hard sell at first, as many were afraid of losing their place in line after waiting two or three days. One young Haitian man put it very bluntly when he told us, “I would like to trust you but, at this point, I can only trust God.” After about three hours of negotiating (thank God for Ricket, my Creole-speaking seminarian), we were able to convince about 75 people to accept our offer of hospitality. I felt a bit like Noah as we loaded van after van of people from all over the world. About 50 women and children would go to Casa Madre Assunta (a shelter run by the Scalabrinian sisters) while about 25 came to our house. We thought this was a unique phenomenon that might last a couple of days, but we have come to realize that our mission has just begun a humanitarian service to the world’s refugees.
I must admit that at first it was a bit chaotic as people began to arrive at our house and thought we were taking them to a detention center. However, with the tender Scalabrinian care of our staff and volunteers, we quickly won over the hearts of our new guests. It was also a busy night for deportations, so at the end of the night we had over 155 guests at the house and five or six had to sleep with a mattress on the floor.
At the end of the first night, we began to review the registrations of our new guests and had some startling revelations:
- Our first group of 25 refugee guests came from Haiti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Mexico and Honduras.
- The largest number was Haitians, and many spoke quite a bit of Portuguese because they had lived in Brazil.
- Those from Mexico were from Michoacán and Guerrero and were fleeing for their lives due to the increasing violence. One family of 11 had run for their lives.
- The majority had crossed between 10 and 13 countries to reach Tijuana.
- Several said Nicaragua was the most difficult stage of their journey because the smugglers charged $2,000 to cross.
- When asked about their mode of transportation, many said walking, bus, boat or car.
- Some have been on the road for three to five years and see no reason for hope or cause to return home.
- When asked if there were more people coming, the most frequent response was “yes, thousands.”
It is not an exaggeration to say we have a legitimate refugee crisis at the border, but no one seems to realize it: this is one of my main reasons for writing this reflection. While it took only five or six days for local press to begin talking about this issue, the US media does not seem to think it warrants much attention. However, just like the leaky faucet in the kitchen that someday you plan to get around to fixing, the drip, drip, drip of refugees continues to arrive in Tijuana at the pace of about 80 to 100 per day. The good news has been the generous response of so many not-for-profit agencies opening their doors to the refugees, as well as the amount of donations that arrive on a daily basis. The generous people of Tijuana have given us proof that the miracle of the loaves and fishes is still happening on a daily basis.
The disappointment has been the lack of a consistent plan by the US authorities. I would have thought that after over a week of this experience, they would have developed a plan of action to address the acute hemorrhaging of refugees at the border. It is not enough to wish this problem away, the US must respond to all aspects of the challenge. The Mexican government also needs to offer a better response. I do not see a concrete collaborative effort that benefits the people. Perhaps, because elections in Mexico are taking place on June 5th, this has paralyzed many who have the power to make a difference.
It is now a week since the refugee crisis officially began, and I do not see it disappearing any time soon. We continue to receive about 20-30 every other day and after they are accepted for an interview at the border, we receive another group. At present, the largest group arriving at our doors are from Haiti but rumor has it that we should be prepared for people from India, Nepal and African countries. I hope that in time we can organize a more cohesive humanitarian response to the refugees arriving in Tijuana.
No doubt some of you might think: “Why don’t they just stay home and let their government take care of them? Why do people come here?” Let me put their drastic escape from poverty and violence in very concrete terms: When you are lying in bed in the middle of the night and get one of those painful leg cramps, you do not just lay there and think about what you should do. No, you jump out of bed in search of relief in any way possible. Extreme violence and dire poverty are the leg cramps that motivate people to jump up and literally run for their lives. You really do not have time to think about it too much, you just get up and move and seek relief in any way possible.
In the meantime, what can we do? As Pope Francis put it so clearly, in this Jubilee year, we are all being called to be islands of mercy in the world of indifference. Here in Tijuana, we are being offered an opportunity to extend God’s mercy to our refugee brothers and sisters in their great time of need. If you feel called to share God’s mercy in any way, please contact me by e-mail at [email protected].