Immigration news reports in the United States frequently focus on the processing and detention centers while also attempting to explain the existing policies and positions of politicians, federal judges and advocates lining up on both sides of the issue.
Lost in the coverage, however, is what happens to the tens of thousands of people who find themselves back across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, after unsuccessfully crossing into what for them is their longed for promised land.
Since the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — informally called “Remain in Mexico” —began in January migrants crossing the southern U.S. border and seeking asylum have been deported to Mexico to wait for their immigration hearings. Many of them — men, women, children and infants — are from countries other than Mexico and wind up living on the streets because they have no resources on which to live.
While this also is true in other Mexican border towns Tijuana is particularly hard hit because it is the site of the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere.
Tijuana now faces a humanitarian crisis as some 40,000 people find themselves stranded there, according to the San Diego Southern Baptist Association (SDSBA). SDSBA supports a number of migrant ministries across the border. Across the street from “The Jesus Tree” — a large, whitebarked tree emblazoned with the blue-painted name of Jesus — is the Movimiento Juventud 2000 (Youth Movement 2000), a mission serving men, women and children in need of shelter and food.
When a delegation from The Alabama Baptist (TAB) visited there recently families were living in about 40 colorful pup tents taking up every available square inch of concrete floor space in an open-air metal warehouse in Tijuana’s Zona Norte just yards from the U.S. border.
Telling a story The tents are the homes of migrants fleeing Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua and El Salvador as they wait for their appointments at the U.S. Immigration Office where they could apply for visas or asylum. And while the reasons behind why these particular families traveled to the border are varied a peek into each tent told similar stories. It told the story of families traveling as many as 2,000 miles with as many possessions as they could carry. It told the story of parents doing their best to provide a good life for their children. It told the story of children smiling and laughing as they played with siblings and new friends. Many of the immigrant refugees were Haitian a few years ago, the mission’s organizers said. These days they are mostly from Mexico, Central America and South America. “This used to be a parking lot,” said mission coordinator Yesenia
Ardor, gesturing to the pup tent area. “Everything was out in the open.” Donated labor and materials built the metal shelter, she said. A new washer and dryer serve as a major advance in caring for the refugees living in the cramped quarters. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday breakfast at the shelter is provided by SDSBA church planter Juvenal Gonzalez and Gamaliel Lopez, pastor of Iglesia Bautista el Calvario (Calvary Baptist Church), and his wife Mayra.
“We saw the need of the people,” said Mayra. “It’s not easy for them to be here. If there’s no one to feed them, we must.” And this feeding ministry all started with the Lopezes’ children.
“My children wanted to start serving others so we started handing out sandwiches at bus stations and on the streets,” Gamaliel said. Eventually they couldn’t make enough sandwiches. As a family they made a decision: “We need to start doing more.” So Lopez contacted Gonzalez and together they started serving breakfast at the shelter. Lopez prepares breakfast each morning in his church’s kitchen and carries the food across the city to the shelter.
The TAB team helped Lopez serve breakfast for the migrants staying at the shelter.
“It was a humbling experience as we walked past the 40 small camping tents set up on the cold concrete floor to the kitchen to serve breakfast,” said TAB director of communications Debbie Campbell. “Seeing the spark of hope in the eyes of many of the migrant families brought tears to my eyes. Many smiled at us when they came through the serving line so grateful for breakfast and a simple smile. It seems like such a small ministry but you can tell it makes a huge impact.”
Like other faith-based missions Movimiento Juventud 2000 does not accept money from the Mexican government. And while it does receive donations of material goods such as food and clothing and a few dollars from those who can contribute while staying there, Ardor says it’s a stretch to pay for the monthly utility bill, which often runs more than $1,000 per month in U.S. dollars. Several churches also are doing everything they can to help the hurting while sharing Jesus.
Salvation Way In a small courtyard festooned with laundry flapping on crisscrossed clotheslines 22-year-old Marina Andrea Vargas watches over 6-month-old Angela Sophia and 5-year-old Jaqueline Naome while her husband works a day job in the city. At night the family of four sleeps on a mattress on the floor in a small, windowless room at the En Camino de Salvación (Salvation Way) mission. For the Vargas family the quarters there are pure luxury. About three months ago the family had spent 15 days hitchhiking from Guatemala in an effort to cross the U.S. border and apply for asylum. “My husband was in a very bad situation in Guatemala,” Vargas said through an interpreter. “I didn’t want my children to have to live in that situation.” The trip through Mexico was dangerous, she said. “This trip has marked my daughter for life. She fears the Mexican police will send her back home.”
‘Grateful for the mission’ The Vargas family crossed into the United States illegally on a raft that floated across the Rio Grande into Texas. When they were deported from San Diego into Tijuana they slept out in the open for a time. The family eventually found its way to the mission and will stay there while waiting for their U.S. immigration court date. Vargas is hopeful her family will be allowed in the U.S. so they can go to live in Miami, where a friend is willing to sponsor them. “It’s hard to be here,” she said. “I don’t know many people. But my main goal is to have a better future for my daughters.” Meanwhile the wait is not wasted by the people of faith who work to share Jesus with and take care of the migrants. “I am very grateful for the mission here,” Vargas said. “I have security. We never go hungry. I am encouraged by the church people and grateful for their prayers.”