In recent weeks, Tijuana has seen an unprecedented increase in asylum seekers from Haiti and Africa. Likewise, hundreds of victims from the Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacán have also come to the busiest border in the world, fleeing violence and poverty.
Newcomers have stuffed the four shelters for immigrants in the border city, but what’s most outrageous is that they have taken up residence on the sidewalk entrance to the United States, at the San Ysidro border crossing, where they remain day and night exposed to the weather and — at times — to the insults of legal residents and U.S. citizens with visas or passports who line up to pass through the border.
They feed on the food that religious organizations or some people from Tijuana give them, moved by their unexpected presence.
Some Haitian and Africans immigrants have been able to access U.S. territory, admitted by the government in order to fight for political asylum.
La Opinion will be publishing a series of stories about the new crisis of immigrants trying to reach the United States through Tijuana.
“Nobody Knows What Will Happen”
Paulson Neston collapses, no longer able to stand, and starts a deeply and prolonged weep.
“The hardest part is not knowing if you’re going to get out alive from that trip in Panama, where many immigrants have died,” he says while covering his face with his hands, in attempt to hide the tears.
An hour ago this Haitian immigrant arrived at the House of Immigrants in Tijuana, a shelter for all migrants in the border town, and for the first time in a long time he was able to eat breakfast. On April 18 he began a perilous journey from Venezuela through Colombia, Central America and Mexico.
It was on June 11th when Neston arrived in Tijuana. He was extremely exhausted. He says his head hurt. For weeks he had not known what it was to sleep in a bed.
Poverty Leads to Emigration
Neston is 35 years old, he is father to two children, 11 and 2, and was born in Gonâve Island in Haiti. He says that, for many years, he was engaged in trade and was doing well for himself and his family.
He would buy clothing garments in Venezuela and sell them in Haiti. The catastrophic earthquake of 2010, that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians, obligated him to live on the streets. So he decided to go to Brazil where he took a class in construction.
“For a while I had a job because of the World Cup 2014. There was a lot of construction but once it finished, work ceased. Life in Brazil is very expensive and there are regions where there is a lot of discrimination, I decided to go to Venezuela to try my luck, “he says.
But in Venezuela, the political situation was complicated and he had no chance to work and send money home.
“A friend from Haiti offered me to take the trip with him to Tijuana to try to reach the United States,” he says.
Life on Tenterhooks
Neston could have never imagined the ordeal that awaited him.
“We left Caracas by car, we drove through Colombia to reach the border with Panama where we took a boat,” he recalls.
When arriving there, they joined a group of immigrants with a guide. “We walked for days through mountains, jungle, amidst very heavy storms and a tremendous panic to die during an assault,” he says.
In Costa Rica they had better luck because they found refuge and were there for seven days.
In Nicaragua they had to pay a smuggler $600 each to cross into Honduras.
“In one day we get to Guatemala… if I say that the police stopped us seven times all the way, I’d be narrating few,” he says.
Perhaps the journey through Mexico was the mildest.
When he arrived to Tijuana, he went straight to the San Ysidro border crossing, on the border of Mexico and the United States, and asked for asylum. “The American immigration agents threw me out. ‘Go away!’ they told me.”
Neston met a taxi driver who took him to the House of Immigrants, managed by Father Patrick Murphy.
Sitting on the bed assigned to him, his eyes almost closed by fatigue, Neston says that “his dream is to live in a place where I can have a job to help my family.”
Haitian Women Also Wait
Next to the House of Immigrants is the House Madre Asunta, a shelter for immigrant women. Haitian Marie Emise Leusson Jean Piurre sleeps on a bench in the courtyard.
Like Neston, she had just arrived to Tijuana. Both have a similar story.
“I lost my husband and two brothers in the earthquake. I have a 19-year-old son. I tried to work in Venezuela but that country is not fine. Everything is very expensive in Brazil. There is a lot of racism,” says Jean Piurre, who has worked as a waitress and who only speaks French and Creole, a creole language of Haiti.
Neston speaks French, Creole, Portuguese and Spanish.
A Haven for Immigrants
The House of Immigrants, that traditionally offers shelter for deported men, had to adapt itself for a wave of Haitian immigrants and Africans that began on May 26.
“At times, the House looks like the United Nations,” says Father Murphy.
He definitely believes that extreme poverty and violence is what motivated men, women and families to get to Tijuana in recent weeks, all seeking asylum in the United States.
“We are experiencing a real humanitarian crisis. I had never seen this. We fail to supply resources in the four shelters in Tijuana,” he says.
Jacqueline Wasilu, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says they have no official numbers but recognizes the recent surge of Haitians and Africans arriving to San Ysidro without status in the United States.
Wasilu says the priority is given according to the humanitarian needs of each case.
“We process them case by case. According to their situation, we put them in deportation proceedings or under custody,” she says.