What happens next to the Immigrants waiting in Tijuana?

Many have returned home on buses provided by the Mexican government, or accepted Mexican work visas and elected to stay. But others languish

Tijuana: Photograph by Megan Lau

Joshua Collins- 1/9/2019

Tijuana, Mexico- Shelters in some border towns in Mexico have become unsanitary waiting rooms for immigrants with pending asylum appeals as they languish in uncomfortable, inadequate and sometimes dangerous shelters. Local Mexican officials face a threefold pressure. Citizens in Tijuana and other border towns don’t want the refugee camps in their backyards, deeming them a nuisance or a health hazard. Secondly the Mexican Department of Health keeps resettling camps it deems unsanitary or dangerous, sometimes with pushback from the immigrants who have been living in shelters for weeks. And third and perhaps most critically, the Mexican Government in general is under enormous pressure from the United States to avoid further embarrassing clashes on the border and to deter immigrants from awaiting their asylum hearings. 

Thus, the camps are usually resettled further away from the border. This makes it more difficult to obtain information for those awaiting their chance to enter legally. It also puts pressure on already desperate people to attempt the crossing through black-market channels. Or walk across the border and turn themselves over to Border Patrol, where at least they won’t be subject to the hazards of the temporary camps. 

We spoke with Megan Lau, a medical volunteer in the shelters in Ciudad Tijuana. She describes her latest trip across the border.

“It was Chaos organizing the trip even before we crossed the border, because they kept changing the date and the schedule of our visit. The situation is changing rapidly day by day, per orders of the Mexican Government.”

“I went with a group called the San Diego Border Dreamers, a group of around 20 people. Doctors, nurses, translators and medical students... there are around 17 shelters in Tijuana, all full of immigrants. Not only Migrants from the Caravans (from Central America) but Migrants from other parts of Mexico as well. First, we went to a shelter called Joventud. It was a small shelter, made from metal walls and shipping containers. The people were living in tents, 4 people in each, in tents made to sleep two people."

Interior of "Joventud" a migrant shelter in Tijuana

When the first caravan arrived in Tijuana in mid-November, the city funneled 5,000 immigrants into a sports complex called the Benito Juarez complex. The temporary shelter was close to the U.S border. After heavy rains flooded the outdoor fields, Mexican officials cited a health emergency and relocated the inhabitants to various other shelters around the city. Almost all further away from the border. 

According to Frontera, a newspaper from Tijuana, and Lourdes Lizari, an immigration activist based in Tijuana, around 120 people still remain camped outside the stadium despite the closure. Preferring for a variety of reasons to stay near the border they sleep in the streets of notoriously dangerous neighborhood, Zona Norte, without light, bathrooms or trash removal.

Megan described their work to us in the shelters she visited. "Most of the children had colds, and there wasn’t much we could do besides alleviate the worries of the parents. And of course, the shelter was so small that if one person was sick, everyone else would become sick as well. We had some medicine, but not even close to enough. I was frustrated by our lack of resources and by the sensation of impotence."

"I saw a little girl with a tooth infection. But we didn’t have a dentist, and anyway we had no way to remove the tooth even if we’d had one. In the end we couldn’t do anything other than give her some acetaminophen to help with the pain and the fever."

"We also saw a 3-year old boy that hadn’t yet begun to speak, which is very uncommon. When we interacted with the child, we had suspicions that he might be on the autism spectrum. But that also was very hard to diagnose or treat. The resources and possible therapy that child will need simply don’t exist there.”

Activists and immigrants are asking federal officials to help provide more resources. With social media talking of another caravan of migrants due to arrive in Tijuana the 15th, they say that local and private resources are stressed to a breaking point.  Many migrants have returned to their home countries in frustration, or accepted Mexican work visas. But many simply languish in shelters, or here in Zona Norte as they await the long process of seeking political asylum in the United States.

They cite various reasons; fear that having a Mexican work Visa could hurt their chances of being granted asylum, distrust that Mexican officials will raid the more official camps eventually and deport the immigrants there, or simply a desire to stay close to the border to facilitate communication about the state of their appeals.

Despite the appeals for more resources, some shelters have announced closures.  The main federally-funded shelter in Tijuana, el Barretal, has announced plans to close. Having once housed over 3,000 people, the population is now around 700. The remaining immigrants await information and processing from American border officials. When the Center closes in a few weeks, they will lack options. They will face the decision that many immigrants have already made, accept transportation back to the violence from which they fled from or seek work in Mexico.

Lack of communication and definitive information seem to be more the norm than the exception here. And the problem is exacerbated by the current government shutdown. Although ICE continues to function and continues to accept applications, most immigration courts are closed. Anyone who has or had court dates scheduled will have their case postponed. And the shutdown is also making it harder to obtain information about cases in progress. Ironically, despite calling the historically low numbers of border crossers from Mexico to the United States a “crisis”, Trumps shutdown is only exacerbating the problem. 

Megan also mentions communication being a major difficulty in providing medical care to those still waiting. “I feel like we should analyze the shelters more to determine where our help would benefit the people most. There are many different groups from America and from Tijuana trying to help the migrants. But it’s a nightmare. And each day there are changes, they move the camps, and each day there are new regulations from the Mexican government. And I know that sometimes these changes are from the Department of Health, which has to control the situation somewhat to protect the citizens. But the chaos makes it hard to determine where help is needed.” 

She worries about long-term health problems that have gone untreated while the immigrants wait, and the possibility a flu outbreak

“We were treating acute problems, but we couldn’t help anyone with chronic illnesses. And that made me sad. I’m always complaining that we don’t have the resources we need in the clinic where I work, but in TJ it’s far worse. I just hope there’s not an outbreak of a grave illness like a serious flu. The conditions in the camps as far as sanitation are horrible. Something like that would quickly become a catastrophe.”

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