San Diegans Tackle Quiet Crisis: Haitian Refugees in Tijuana Limbo

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Mathila and her baby, Mariana, feel safe in the shelter and may stay in Mexico because of the fear of deportation. Photo by Chris Stone

By Chris Stone

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It may be called purgatory, but for a 26-year-old Haitian immigrant killing time in Tijuana, it’s more like a living hell.

Border Angel volunteer coordinator Hugo Castro directs the distribution of items to a shelter. Photo by Chris Stone
“We have no beds, no water, no food,” said Dorvil, standing outside a shelter called Comedor Mama Yoly that houses 74 refugees. [First names only are being used to protect the subjects.]

He says he’s gone without food for as long as two days. His frustration and anxiety are obvious.

Behind him, Hugo Castro unloads 60-pound bags of oatmeal, 100-pound bags of rice, five gallons of cooking oil and 30-pound bags of sugar to make the oatmeal more palatable.

Castro is coordinator of San Diego-based Border Angels’ SOS Migrants program. He and fellow aide worker Gaba Cortes drove from shelter to shelter on a recent Saturday to “decrease the suffering of the immigrants,” Castro says.

“I want to bring more dignity to immigrants,” he told Times of San Diego, shadowing him on his Tijuana rounds. “We are fighting back with love and compassion against racism and a hate environment.”

Dorvil, who traveled from Haiti to the Dominican Republic to Chile and then on to Mexico, explains his life in limbo. He’s been in Tijuana for three months.

“Everything is so bad for us now,” he says. “I want to go to the United States. I love the United States so much…. I don’t find nothing here (in Tijuana). Every Mexican people know that we are immigrant people, but they don’t want to pay us.”

Women and children sleep in the makeshift shelter, while men sleep in tents. Photo by Chris Stone
He continues: “There is no job. I need a job. So I have a family and want to take care of my family. I got no money to send for (my wife).”

Therein lies the quandary for him and 3,500 other Haitians now in Tijuana. While American politicians debate a travel ban and immigrant deportations, the Haitians-in-Mexico crisis has been swept aside.

In the wake of the 2010 earthquakes, where homes and jobs were destroyed, Haitians traveled from South and Central America to Mexico to reach the gates of the U.S. border only to find them locked.

Sept. 22 marked the end of “temporary protected status, offered by President Barack Obama. Deportations resumed last fall when U.S. Homeland Security claimed conditions in Haiti had “sufficiently improved.”

What becomes of Haitians returned to their homeland?

“There is nothing in their future,” said Jean Elise Durandisse of the Haitian Methodist Ministry of San Diego, associated with Christ United Methodist Church.

“They have sold everything and spent everything (to travel in search of employment),” he said. “They will be homeless. I don’t know what they are going to do.”

Some mothers and their children help in the kitchen as others search for day jobs in Tijuana. Photo by Chris Stone
In Mexico, Haitians seek jobs to support themselves and their families, but they cannot receive work permits to secure a job. Permits require a company job offer or contract and various documents.

So they pick up day jobs in construction, taco shops and car washes.

Castro wonders aloud: “For the ones who want to incorporate themselves and wait for a while in Mexico, trying to kind of settle down and get a job, how can they improve themselves from being in a shelter to having their own place if the police don’t let them work?

In a word, he calls it “purgatory.”

Castro’s deliveries are part of years-long effort by Border Angels to bring aid to refugees from Central America, other parts of Mexico, Africa and most recently those fleeing the impoverished, damaged Haiti.

SOS Migrants responds to emergency calls for help and reaches about 5,000 immigrants, including 3,500 Haitians in 32 shelters south of the border. Also helped are Central Americans fleeing violence at home and those deported from the United States.

Castro, who holds a bachelor’s degree in international business from San Diego State University, said the relief effort started with one shelter — delivering donations gathered from Border Angel volunteers.

With the increase in community donations, the number of served shelters has grown to 20 — 18 in Tijuana and two in Calexico. Both are border cities where refugee populations are concentrated.

Hugo Castro (right) interviews an immigrant from San Salvador who was questioned by the Mexican police inside a shelter served by Border Angels. Photo by Chris Stone
The group hopes to begin an Adopt-a-Shelter program in which churches or other organizations supply funds to feed a particular shelter.

Castro, 45, makes his way three to four times a week through colonias such Zona Norte, Canon del Alacran, Canon de las Carretas, Colonia Libertad, Colonia Rio parte Baja, El Florido and near Cerro Colorado.

His loaded, low-slung 2005 Nissan Maxima — crammed with hundreds of pounds of chickens, rice, oatmeal, cooking oil and pasta — scrapes across speed bumps as he goes up and down hills.

Twice his tires have blown from the weight. He knows the group needs a truck, but he cannot afford to buy one.

Haitian immigrant Dorvil, eager to get the word out about his plight, continues his story: “There is no job in Haiti. I try to find a job to help my family… every day I go to the border and want to go to the United States. But the border is closed. I love the United States so much. Every day, every day I go, but I cannot go (to the U.S.). I’m going to wait.”

Also waiting is Renex, whose wife, baby and three other relatives wait at another shelter. Suitcases and backpacks line up along the walls, resembling lost luggage at the airport.

Renex traveled to Brazil because of the lure of jobs and later had to pay “coyotes” $1,000 to take his family across the mountains and through the forests of Nicaragua.

He traveled three months on foot to reach the Mexico-U.S. border in hopes of finding employment north of the border. He spent about $5,000 to get this far.

A Haitian refugee poses by a bare window at Comedor Mama Yoli, which houses 74 immigrants. Photo by Chris Stone
But rumors that young men seeking asylum at the border have been deported in recent weeks has made Renex and many others rethink their options.

“Now, they’re scared,” said Castro, a U.S. native born in Salinas but living in Tijuana.

For now, Renex’s family feels safe in the shelter while he finds day jobs. He doesn’t want to risk deportation.

Pastor Bill Jenkins of Christ United Methodist Church in Normal Heights said he has received reports of two deportation flights a week taking 270 Haitians back to their capital Port-au-Prince — a total of about 1,000 deported each month in the past six to eight weeks.

About 5,000 Haitian refugees knocked on doors of the Jenkins church in June, as his congregation worked to help them. He struggled to house and feed the masses, 90 percent of whom have since moved on to Florida, New York, Boston and Baltimore.

Jenkins estimates about 500 Haitians remain in San Diego and a “tremendous” need exists for food, transportation and clothing.

Uncertainty remains about whether some women and children are still being allowed to enter the country or if Haitian immigration has stopped completely. [A spokeswoman for ICE told Times of San Diego to contact Customs and Border Protection.]

His church donates to Haitians living on this side of the border and also at a shelter in Tijuana.

A Haitian immigrant sips freshly made oatmeal at Mejor Herencia that presently serves 105 immigrants. Phtoo by Chris Stone
After the devastating earthquakes, many Haitians found open doors in Brazil, Venezuela and Chile. But a downturn in the economy hit those countries. No longer able to find jobs, they hoped for a welcome and open door at the U.S. border.

Having been out of Haiti for two or four years, they will find it difficult to claim asylum, which requires an immigrant’s fear of persecution if they return home, Durandisse said.

Financial hardship is not a sufficient reason for asylum, he said.

Maria Galleta, who works in partnership with Border Angels, explained recent developments.

“They don’t know what to do anymore,” Galleta said. “They’re stuck in Mexico with no money. They’re afraid that if they go to San Diego, they will be deported back home.”

“They are confused. I’ve been seeing people crying because they have families. They say it’s really bad to go back to Haiti, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Maria Galleta, who runs Madres y Familias Deportadas en Accion in Tijuana, has gifts ready for children. Photo by Chris Stone
Galleta lives in San Diego and daily travels to Tijuana where she runs Madres y Familias Deportadas en Accion. Her office offers immigrant and military veteran services including English and Spanish classes, clothes, shoes, snacks and coffee. It is in Plaza Viva Tijuana, one block from San Ysidro’s PedWest Point of Entry, which also is a deportation zone.

“You see them walking around,” said Galleta, a retired case manager in San Diego. “They are staying in shelters and at 5 o’clock in the morning, some of the shelters kick them out until 7 p.m., so you see them out there all day wandering around.”

She said some work as maids or janitors, but aren’t getting better jobs for lack of a permit from the Mexican government.

“We just try to help with the little bit that we have,” she said. “We’re asking people to help us help them.”

While used clothing is considered contraband in Mexico, Galleta and Castro say they supply what they can. The shelters in Mexico are run by nonprofit groups, not by the Mexican government, Castro said.

Conditions at the shelters range in quality. While some refugees sleep in bunk beds (a standard Castro would like to see at all shelters), others sleep on pieces on foam atop wooden pallets, on mattresses on the ground, in tents and some on blankets on the floor.

While the shelters are clean, hundreds are packed on cold floors with their belongings piled beside them.
Some sleep or stare at cellphones to pass the time. Women work in the kitchen and watch after the young ones.

Border Angels is hoping to renovate a shelter near the border and install an office there.

A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits in the corner of a shelter. Photo by Chris Stone
Founded by Enrique Morones in 1986, Border Angels is an all-volunteer nonprofit advocating for human rights, humane immigration reform and social justice with a focus on U.S.-Mexican border issues.

Its activities include desert water drops, immigrant lawyer counseling, day labor outreach and binational activities at Border Field State Park including, Masses, Posadas and family reunification.

People interested in donating to the SOS Migrant program can reach Border Angels at its website or Facebook page or by calling their office at (619) 487-0249. Religious or community organization may also choose to “adopt” a shelter temporarily.

University students also are becoming active in the effort, Castro said.

Meanwhile, Castro said, the Haitian refugees hope that President Donald Trump will have a change of heart about immigrant entry.

A Haitian woman resting at shelter Comedor Mama Yoly asked a reporter: “I want to go to the United States. Please take me with you.”

Border Angel volunteer coordinator Hugo Castro directs the distribution of items to a shelter. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Immigrants carry 60-pound bags of oatmeal from Hugo Castro's car inside the shelter. Border Angels worker Gaba Cortes assists Castro. Photo by Chris Stone more
In a mostly dark room, mattresses and blankets are placed side by side to accommodate 105 immigrants. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Suitcases and backpacks belonging to refugees are lined up against the walls of Comedor Mama Yoli, which supports 74 immigrants. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Bunk beds are provided in a shelter near the border. Hugo Castro would like to see these beds available in all shelters. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Shelters are quiet during the day, and most residents stare at cellphones. Photo by Chris Stonemore
A Haitian refugee waits as oatmeal is served at Mejor Herencia, where 105 migrants are housed. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Maria Galleta, who runs Madres y Familias Deportadas en Accion in Tijuana, has gifts ready for children. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Rugs, blankets and mattresses serve as beds for a portion of immigrants at Juventud 2000, where most sleep in tents outside. Photo by Chris Stonemore
A Haitian immigrant sips freshly made oatmeal at Mejor Herencia that presently serves 105 immigrants. Phtoo by Chris Stonemore
A Haitian refugee poses by a bare window at Comedor Mama Yoli, which houses 74 immigrants. Photo by Chris Stonemore
A black trash bag serves as a blanket for one migrant in a primitive shelter near the Mexican border. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Looking a cellphones helps pass the time for those who can't get work permits to get a job. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Mathila and her baby, Mariana, feel safe in the shelter and may stay in Mexico because of the fear of deportation. Photo by Chris Stonemore
A Haitian immigrant looks out from his safe shelter in Tijuana. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Most Haitians in the Juventude 2000 sleep in tents while their clothes dry on clothes lines. Women and children sleep inside a building. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Women and children sleep in the makeshift shelter, while men sleep in tents. Photo by Chris Stonemore
A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits in the corner of a shelter. Photo by Chris Stonemore
A Haitian women prepares chicken as Border Angel volunteers bring in supplies for the shelter. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Border Angel volunteer Hugo Castro makes trips to 18 Tijuana shelters three to four times a week. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Immigrants sit in a covered area at Juventud 2000 shelter and put together a puzzle of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Chris Stonemore
A Haitian refugee sits on a mattress and checks his cellphone while children put together a puzzle. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Some immigrants sleep on cots and others on thin foam in clean but dim areas of the shelter. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Some mothers and their children help in the kitchen as others search for day jobs in Tijuana. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Hugo Castro (right) interviews an immigrant from San Salvador who was questioned by the Mexican police inside a shelter served by Border Angels. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Haitian immigrants carry in supplies brought by Border Angels workers Hugo Castro and Gaba Cortes. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Border Angel volunteer Hugo Castro speaks to immigrants at Comedor Mama Yoli, which serves 74 migrants. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Families say they feel safe at the shelter and may stay in Tijuana since the U.S.-Mexico border is closed to new immigrants. Photo by Chris Stonemore
A Haitian immigrant asks a reporter to please take her to America with her. She waits and hopes to cross the border. Photo by Chris Stonemore
Workers at Mejor Herencia serve hot oatmeal to immigrants staying at the shelter. Photo by Chris Stonemore
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