TIJUANA, Mexico — Behind a migrant center just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, hundreds of Haitian migrants wait their turn to shower. Inside, volunteers schlep eggs, rice, beans and assorted vegetables to the kitchen.
Valentino Lopez Guerrero keeps a sharp eye on the back door, a box in his arms. Organizers at the Salesian center, El Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava, have learned that they can only have about 20 people in the large hall, waiting for one of the five showers. It’s chaos otherwise. Guerrero shoots another glance at the back door.
In the line of 20, women wait with their children, standing before a giant depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Not a single child is older than 5. A young boy kicks a cheap, pink, bouncy ball, the size of a grapefruit, past his mother. He bounds after it, past a life-size wooden carving of the resurrected Christ.
After their showers, two Haitian women stroll to the back door, chatting in Creole. The door cracks and the banter of the hundreds waiting outside floods the hall. Guerrero slams his box onto a table and runs over.
“No, no, no, no!” he shouts. Six more had already made their way in, with 10 at their heels. He spreads his arms wide. “No, it’s not your turn! Not your turn!” They argue back and forth, but to no end. They don’t speak the same language.
Guerrero manages to stop the flow and shuts the door. He takes a deep breath. He picks his box back up.
“They’re too many to deal with,” he says. “It’s become dangerous. We’re tired. It’s a titanic battle. Breakfast, lunch, dinner…”
“They’ve been here a long while and their journey here was long,” says Rosa Virgen, another volunteer. “The ones that are in the street, they don’t have a place to sleep.”
The migrant centers in Tijuana have been inundated with Haitian immigrants for the last four months. They began arriving May 26, mostly from Brazil. There, thousands had worked construction to build structures for the World Cup and the Olympics. But there’s no more work there.
The Haitian migrants came to the border expecting to enter the United States by means of humanitarian parole, which grants temporary legal entry for certain individuals who face emergencies in their homeland.
On Sept. 22, the Obama administration announced it would no longer grant Haitian humanitarian parole, a policy that had been in place since the 2010 earthquake rocked the Caribbean nation. The administration announced it would resume deportations of Haitian immigrants who arrived at ports of entry without a legal path to enter.
“The situation in Haiti has improved sufficiently to permit the U.S. government to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis, consistent with the practice for nationals from other nations,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement, noting the policy change was “effective immediately.”
There’s no word yet from the administration on how Hurricane Matthew might change things. The hurricane, which struck Haiti Oct. 4, killed 1,000, has led to a cholera outbreak and has destroyed much of the southern part of the country.
Before the administration’s Sept. 22 ruling, at least 5,000 had already entered through the San Ysidro Port of Entry. It is the largest port of entry in the world, just south of San Diego. When the influx began, hundreds of migrants would line up at dawn to wait their turn. As the system proved unmanageable, U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement began giving Haitian migrants appointments.
Jacques Mitchel began his journey from Brazil a month before arriving in Tijuana Oct. 4. His appointment is set for Nov. 15.
“You have to sleep on the street,” he says, standing with a group of Haitian compatriots in front of a Tijuana supermarket. Women and children get priority at the five shelters, he explains, adding, “We have come to work.”
Margarita Andonaegui, who runs the Salesian center just south of the port of entry, explains that they normally house 88. These days, the center has more than 300.
“They arrive and they don’t leave,” she explains of the migrants’ long, and now perhaps indefinite, wait. Of the 300, 150 are women and 50 are children. Many of the women are pregnant.
“We don’t know if they will be deported,” Andonaegui says from behind a stack of government-issued documents given to the Haitian migrants. The documents serve as the migrants’ identification, and the Mexican government has asked the Salesian center to be responsible for them.
“They are bathing, they’re all eating,” Andonaegui says, “it’s an expense that we cannot maintain.”
On Jan. 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed more than 230,000 in Haiti and displaced 1.5 million. Later that year, a cholera epidemic struck the nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, infecting 720,000 and killing 9,000 over the last five years, according to the Haitian Ministry of Public Health.
Haitians began migrating to other nations like the United States, Venezuela and Brazil. Brazil’s then-booming economy drew as many as 45,000. Many found work in construction projects.
Yet, as Brazil’s economy began its downward spiral, Haitian immigrants began their exodus. Some estimate as many as 41,000 Haitians have migrated to Chile since 2013. Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana told Congress 40,000 Haitians were en route to the United States.
“We all thought this was temporary,” says Scalabrini Father Patrick Murphy, director of the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana. He thought it would be over in two or three weeks when the migrants began arriving in May. “And now we think there’s no end in sight.”
Over that time, Father Murphy has seen immigrants from 25 different countries, including some from Syria, Haiti and countries in Africa. The number sleeping at the shelter has doubled. About half are Mexican nationals deported from the United States and half are Haitians that began the journey in Brazil.
The Haitian migrants cannot fly directly into the United States because they don’t have visas. Also, the majority of the migrants are without passports, Father Murphy says. Smugglers often advise them to dump their passports on the journey.
That journey takes them across 11 countries. Migrants tell stories of stepping over the dead bodies of fellow countrymen — killed by venomous snakes or gunfire in the Nicaraguan jungle. Like other migrants traveling north, they are exploited along the way. Women are often raped and some are held for ransom.
Many Central Americans traveling through Mexico are robbed and sequestered, but Haitians who arrive at Casa del Migrante tell a different story. Once they arrive at Tapachula on the southern Mexican border, things are relatively easy on the way to Tijuana, a city whose 1.3 million residents rival San Diego in population.
That ease could be due in part to a company that has begun a new bus route border-to-border, from Tapachula to Tijuana, three times a week. Without fail, the bus is full of Haitian migrants. They arrive in groups of 10-12, and within each group, at least one Haitian person speaks Spanish.
“We’ve seen patterns. From all indications, someone is organizing this,” Father Murphy says of the Haitians’ journey from Brazil. “Maybe some genius saw the opportunity when [the economy] went south in Brazil. I don’t know. Who is it? I’m not privy to that information.”
The Haitian migrants report smugglers are charging anywhere from $3,000-$7,000 for the journey from Brazil. Even at $3,000 each, transporting 45,000 Haitians would net $135 million, a strong incentive for crime organizations that specialize in human trafficking.
Migrants pay along the way, often borrowing money from multiple relatives in the United States or elsewhere. The journey will cost many their life savings if not their lives.
“There is no doubt there are traffickers involved in this,” Pastor Bill Jenkins says. His community has provided shelter for Haitians arriving in San Diego since May through the Christ United Methodist Ministry Center. They have welcomed upwards of 3,500 of the 5,000 estimated to have entered.
While most have entered through Tijuana, some have gone to Mexicali, just south of Calexico. Some say the journey to border towns south of Texas is more dangerous.
Only men were arriving when it began, Jenkins said. At first, a Haitian minister, Jean Elise Durandisse, who leads a Haitian community in San Diego, drove out to meet 12 Haitian migrants who were living on the street. He brought them back to Jenkins’ church, gave them something to eat and let them sleep there.
“They just kept coming,” Jenkins says. While there are five shelters on the Mexico side, there were no shelters for the Haitians on the U.S. side, he explains. His Methodist community became a refugee shelter, sleeping 200-300 a night. “It really stretched us and tested our ability to cope with it.”
Women and children have been arriving, some reunited with their husbands. They’re now caring for 12 families with mothers and children. Three babies have been born in the last two weeks.
Hiram Soto, with the social justice advocacy group Alliance San Diego, believes word of successful entry spread via social media, especially Facebook and Instagram.
“They had formed communities of Haitians in Brazil,” he said. “They make the trip, post it online. Others believe it can happen for them, too.”
Whatever the initial motivation, it appears Haitian immigrants will not achieve their goal of entering into the U.S. after their long journey — unless the U.S. reinstates humanitarian parole for Haitians.
Alliance San Diego has been petitioning the U.S. government to reconsider its Sept. 22 decision. While recognizing the tragedy of Hurricane Matthew, Soto hopes it will change the discussion for the Haitian migrants in Tijuana.
The U.S. has been deporting 50 per month, the maximum deportees Haiti reportedly accepts from any given nation. At that rate, it would take more than eight years to deport 5,000 Haitians.
“Right now, their fate is that they will be detained indefinitely,” Soto says of migrants who present themselves at the port of entry.
Father Murphy isn’t shy to tell the migrants what awaits them should they seek to cross the U.S. border. Yet they are unabated. The migrants can’t see past the dissonance.
The Haitians who are arriving are young. The average age at the Casa del Migrante is 32, and half of the men have their wives with them in Tijuana. Some have begun to find jobs in the border town.
The recently arrived are well dressed and don new shoes. The clothes won’t hold up long sleeping on the streets, though. Migrants sit in groups on blankets, often lining the sidewalks of residential streets. Space has run out at the shelters.
On the road to Casa del Migrante, many of the Haitian migrants have smartphones, their white ear buds in place, watching videos. One digs an elbow into a friend’s side, laughing, then shoving the iPhone over to show what he’s just seen on social media.
They’re leaning against a brick fence, the front wall of a Tijuana residence. The woman who lives there is peering through her iron gate to observe the Haitian arrivals. Tijuana residents and the Haitians themselves share the same question: When will they leave?
Inside Casa del Migrante, a group of four migrants chat in Creole. They’re waiting for dinner, which will be served within the hour. Salad, pork and beans on plastic plates, bread in a basket and iced tea.
One member of the group speaks Spanish with a distinct Dominican accent. He used to work in the Dominican Republic, he explains, but won’t share his name. They’ve seen their friends misquoted, he says.
Yes, he came from Brazil. He came with the others but he says they met on the way. It took him two months to get here. “I didn’t think I’d be stuck here for a month,” he says. It was a difficult journey. They were pushed around and robbed along the way.
“The United States is a country that can help everyone,” he says, confessing that he’s worried he won’t get in after the Obama administration’s announcement. “The United States is such a rich country. We don’t understand.”
How could such a long, costly journey wind up in nothing? They see their friends cross and not return. They believe this means their friends have been accepted into the United States.
“They’re living on false hope,” Father Murphy says. “It’s still not clicking for them.”