International Migrant Crisis Hits a Breaking Point in Baja California
They come from many of the war-torn, economically pillaged and environmentally devastated corners of the globe, principally from Haiti and the Congo but also Eritrea, Senegal, Ghana, Pakistan, and other nations. In their thousands, men, women and children now wait in the northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali on their last, hopeful stopover in epic journeys to the United States.
But with the United States only admitting several dozen people a day for entry interviews, before dispatching asylum seekers to immigrant detention for possible deportation, the local Mexican migrant support network that shelters and feeds people has hit the breaking point.
In Tijuana, for instance, the Padre Chava shelter, one of ten in the Baja California city that receives migrants, housed 271 people on a recent day, including pregnant women and 34 children. Tensions boiled over as many were forced to bed down on the floor without mattresses.
“We are overwhelmed, completely overwhelmed,” said Margarita Andonaegui, the shelter’s administrator. “We lose control when we have more than 200 people.” With no shelter readily available, hundreds of others have been forced to sleep in the streets. Other migrants possessing money have been able to rent rooms in hotels or private homes, giving parts of Tijuana the aspect of a Little Haiti, according to one local news account.
Mexican authorities, both in Baja California and in Mexico City, pledge that assistance to the refugee/migrants will be increased in the days ahead. But for many on the ground, time has run out.
In Mexico City, Wilmer Metelus, president of the Citizens Committee for the Defense of Afromexicans and the Naturalized, called the drama in Baja California a “humanitarian crisis” that requires the intervention of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, civil society and the government.
Both governmental and non-governmental human rights and migrant advocacy organizations are weighing in on the issue. In Tijuana, the Pro-Migrant Defense Coalition demanded that the Mexican government refrain from making statements that “downplay the problem” and expedite a response to the crisis.
The activists also criticized the U.S. policy of forcing migrants to wait a few weeks on the Mexican side of the border before getting interviews, thus plugging the pipeline and overwhelming the capacities of migrant shelters.
With an estimated 300 Haitians and other foreign nationals arriving in Baja California every day, the new migrant flow is also making it difficult if not impossible for the existing shelters to assist the ongoing arrivals of deportees from the United States as well as Mexican migrants coming from the south, including possible asylum-seekers fleeing violence in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero, according to the Coalition.
This past weekend, Mexico’s official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) requested that the federal Interior Ministry, the Secretariat of Foreign Relations and the Secretariat for Social Development implement rapid and concrete actions to resolve the crisis. The CNDH urged the Peña Nieto administration to materially aid the shelters, provide health care, and offer psychological services to the newcomers on the border. On the diplomatic front, the federal agency appealed on the Secretariat of Foreign Relations “to reach agreements with U.S. authorities so there is a focus of shared responsibility” aimed at accelerating the reception of asylum applicants so waiting times are reduced and migrants receive “adequate humanitarian attention.”
Baja California Governor Francisco Vega de la Madrid sounded a similar note, saying he requested in a meeting last Thursday with Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu that the Peña Nieto administration ask Washington to speed up the border processing of asylum applicants. According to Vega, Ruiz Massieu replied that she would bring up the matter in an upcoming meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
The Baja California crisis took shape last May, when Haitians who had found refuge in Brazil in the wake of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in their own nation began heading north after political and economic conditions soured in the South American nation. Some of the Haitians reportedly had worked on constructing the infrastructure for the World Soccer Cup and the polemical 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Since last spring, an estimated 13,000 Haitians and other foreign nationals have arrived in Baja California, with varying estimates of anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 more on the way. Paying thousands of dollars to traffickers, many of the new migrants enter Mexico via the port of entry at Tapachula, Chiapas, on the country’s southern border with Guatemala. Mexican immigration officials grant the migrants 20-day permits to remain in the country as they travel north in their mission of seeking admission into the United States.
Similar to the experiences of Central Americans, reports of the new migrants suffering robberies, extortion, rape and death in Mexico are surfacing. While Mexico has shown generosity, Black migrants in particular have also encountered racism, xenophobia and instances of sexual harassment, Metulus lamented.
Although all the new migrants in Baja California face difficult prospects, the situation of the Haitians is especially pressing, both because of their preponderant numbers and a new crisis in their homeland. On September 22, the Obama Administration discontinued a program that granted temporary stays to Haitians because of the 2010 earthquake. The administration announced it would expedite the removal of Haitians without the proper immigration papers.
In justifying the decision, Secretary Johnson said the overall situation in Haiti had “improved sufficiently to permit the U.S. government to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis.” Two weeks later, Hurricane Matthew struck the Caribbean island nation, leaving hundreds dead and a new swath of devastation in an already environmentally and economically challenged entity. Haiti’s national election, scheduled for October 9, was indefinitely postponed and three days of national mourning declared.
“How will Haiti receive us as deportees?” Haitian migrant Wilfred Jean-Luis was quoted in Tijuana. “They are not in any condition to do so.”
Likely a harbinger of things to come, Matthew displayed the power of a hurricane strengthened by a warming ocean that scientists say will become a more frequent occurrence in an age of climate change. Predictions are that more Haitians will have but no choice to flee their homeland.
The September 22 U.S. policy change prompted criticism from Haitian migrant advocates. “Once again the administration has decided to criminalize migrants seeking sanctuary, refuge and opportunity in the U.S., said Opal Tometti, executive director of the U.S.-based Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
In an October 7 statement, President Obama affirmed U.S. officials would carefully monitor conditions in Haiti, but did not indicate whether last month’s discontinuance of the temporary stay policy would be reversed. Meanwhile, Central Americans, who also cope with issues of violence and environmental degradation in their own nations, continue trekking across Mexico for the U.S. in large numbers.
Observers have noticed some shifts in the northern migrant route in Mexico away from the state of Tamaulipas, infamous for the 2010 San Fernando Massacre of 72 migrants and other atrocities, to the state of Chihuahua.
Juliana Galvan, member of an evangelical Christian church in Chihuahua City, said more Central American migrants are looking for food and supplies than last year, with the size of groups increasing from about ten persons to 30 or 45. As always, the Central Americans risk life and limb to reach the U.S. border.
On October 2, a Guatemalan woman was run over and killed by a motor vehicle as she attempted to cross the Rio Grande with her two children in Ciudad Juarez. The children, 12 and 14 years of age, were placed in an Integral Family Development shelter in Juarez, where the girl was reported recovering from injuries inflicted by the vehicle. The family had reportedly paid a smuggler $7,000 to reach the United States.
In Tijuana and Baja California, it remains to be seen if the new migrants/refugees will make a permanent economic, linguistic and cultural mark on the landscape, winding up like other migrants before them from the interior of Mexico or farther south who arrive to the border with the dream of entering the United States but remain in Mexico. Already, some restaurants in Tijuana are modifying their menus to include Haitian-style rice and chicken.
Reports are emerging of some migrants obtaining work in the construction and services sector. Leveque Charles said he found a job that pays up to 350 pesos a day moving boxes in a market. The Haitian migrant said he and his compatriots expected to be in Tijuana for a short time but in the meantime “need money to survive.”
With more migrants headed to the border, the Baja California crisis smolders as one more regional expression of what Amnesty International calls the greatest migrant/refugee crisis across the globe since the end of the Second World War.
Additional sources: El Sol de Tijuana, October 7, 8, 9, 10, 2016. Articles by Yolanda Caballero Jacobo and Daniel Angel Rubio. NPR, October 5 and 9, 2016. El Diario de Juarez/El Universal, October 8, 2016. Associated Press, October 7, 2016. Proceso/Apro, October 3 and 6, 2016. Articles by Mathieu Tourliere and editorial staff.
La Jornada, September 30, 2016; October 6, 8 and 9, 2016. Articles by Antonio Heras, Blanca Juarez, Notimex and DPA. Nortedigital.net, October 6, 2016. Article by Miguel Vargas. El Diario de Chihuahua, October 2, 2016. Lapolaka.com, October 2, 2016. New York Times, September 22 and 30, 2016. Articles by Kirk Semple.
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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico