Families fleeing violence in Latin America and migrants from outside of it make up an unprecedented crisis of homeless people stranded just outside the US
They came from different corners of the world, a fashion designer from Ghana, a school teacher from Haiti, a brick layer from El Salvador, believing this city was their doorway to America.
They envisaged a few days, maybe a few weeks, while figuring a way to cross, then poof, they would be gone. Sayonara Tijuana.
But now many are stuck. “My goal was the USA but they’re deporting people. How can I cross now?” said Abdul Karim, 35, from Accra. He made a seven-month trek through south and central America, witnessing beatings and drownings, only to falter, defeated. “So I am here,” said Karim, with a wan smile, indicating a muddy yard of tents and tarpaulin which passes for a migrant shelter.
Under Barack Obama, the US made it harder for some migrants to enter legally and ramped up security to impede illegal entry. Donald Trump is expected to intensify both policies. Unwilling or unable to return where they came from, many migrants stay put. It is an unprecedented crisis of homeless people stranded just outside America but caught in its gravity.
Tijuana has long been a staging post for Mexicans headed north. In recent years families fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala added foreign accents to the mix. More recently, and unusually, Asians, Africans and especially Haitians have swelled the influx. An estimated 15,000 migrants from outside Latin America passed through Baja California last year, five times more than in 2015. It gives Tijuana the feel of a global waiting room. Or a limbo.
“They need to learn Spanish and learn about Mexico. About how things work, or don’t work,” said Soraya Vazquez, a lawyer who helps coordinate dozens of shelters set up by churches and volunteer groups. “I hope it’ll be a new dream for them and not a nightmare. But I’m worried,”
Migrants encounter a sprawling city of 1.7m souls conceived by a Latino Dickens. Luxury condominiums tower over gimcrack neighbourhoods. The boutiques and gourmet restaurants of Zona Rio give way to the taco stalls and brothels of Zona Norte. American day-trippers visit clinics and pharmacies for cheap medical care while gangs battle over illegal drug sales – over 900 people murdered last year, a record. A formidable concrete and metal barrier marks the city’s northern limit. Beyond it flutter US flags.
Thousands of homeless migrants are scattered across the city in crowded shelters, in conditions ranging from adequate to miserable, or in utter squalor on streets and under bridges. Instead of earning dollars in the US to send home, they discover a cruel irony: Tijuana prices, including rents, are high, reflecting proximity to a dollar economy, but local wages are in pesos – a dire poverty trap.
Karim used to design and stitch shirts in Accra before borrowing half a lifetime’s wages to fly to Brazil. He earns $10 a day cleaning a Tijuana restaurant. Not enough to move out of his shelter – where 200 people sleep on rain-soaked mattresses and share three toilets – let alone send cash to his wife and three children in Ghana.
It is a bitter reward for a trek through Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Crooked police and smugglers extorted and brutalized migrants, he said. The worst part was the jungle wilderness on the way into Panama. Migrants banded together for safety from animal and human predators, sometimes relying on indigenous tribes as guides. People disappeared trying to ford rivers. “No boats, no boats,” Karim said, shaking his head.
For one group of unwilling Tijuanans, there is a sense of a promise broken. After an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010 tens of thousands of its citizens flocked to Brazil, where work was plentiful. When its economy soured a trickle headed to the US, because a humanitarian exemption allowed undocumented Haitians to stay for three years. But in the waning months of the Obama administration, the policy was curbed.
Through WhatsApp, Haitians in Tijuana track those who entered the US only to end up on a plane to Port-au-Prince – the worst fate. Jackson Blusen, an electrician, echoed many at his shelter when he said he would forgo his appointment with US officials rather than risk deportation. “I’m afraid.”
Mexican authorities, citing limited resources and other challenges, have not opened any shelters for Tijuana’s Haitian contignent, estimated at 4,000 and growing. Churches and volunteer groups have filled the vacuum, expanding existing shelters, opening more than 30 new ones.
A tour with Vazquez and Adriana Reyna, members of the coordination committee, showed the relentless pressure – requests for chicken, tarpaulin, coffee, medicine, translations, footwear, legal advice. Without donations it would all collapse. “Tijuana was founded by migrants,” said Vazquez. “Most people have shown solidarity.”
“I think I’ll stay in Mexico,” said Christopher Faustin, 34, at a shelter just outside Tijuana. “Mexico does not offer what we were seeking. But it is better than Haiti.” Deeper inside the shelter men kneeled before an altar, praying to God in Creole.
By the time they reach Tijuana many migrants are broke, and some are broken. Jose Grandes, 27, sat at at a shelter, alone, gazing intensely at nothing. He was gay and had fled Honduras after his boyfriend was tortured, he said. “But they don’t know my power. I have magical power.” Asked if he had plans to find accommodation, or enter the US, he smiled. “If you knew my power you would be afraid.”
Migrants in Tijuana are always pondering their route north, if they have one.
Crossing hidden in a vehicle, or with false documents, can cost more than $20,000. Those without such means – many of the homeless migrants in the city – could try to borrow the cash, or haul drugs, or cross solo, which typically ends with Border Patrol capture.
Or they could simply forget the US.
But even the people in the most desperate straits are unable to do that: the street dwellers and drug addicts who haunt alleys and underpasses lining a mile-long stretch of sewage and debris known as El Bordo, which abuts the border. Most are Mexican, many deportees. They pass their days on sidewalks sharing bottles, needles and stories.
Juan Cevalles, 38, and Orlando Perez, 29, both with families in California, sleep under a bridge. They light a fire and drink mescal to stay warm. They did not begrudge Haitians getting beds. “It’s OK. Their country’s been hit bad; they need help,” said Cevalles.
He had, in any case, a “plan” to return to the US. “Go to the mountains. Or the beach, you know.”
“Wait till it gets foggy.”