Somewhere in the jungle between Central and South America, a 34-year-old Haitian woman collapsed of thirst and exhaustion, frightened she would die.
“Our throats were dry,” said Guerlyne Mevil of her group of Haitian migrants. “When we wanted to drink water to quench our thirst, we had to lick the sweat from our bodies.”
Mevil summoned the strength to stand up, determined to reach the U.S. and send money to hungry relatives in Haiti. She had already tried finding work in Brazil, in vain. But others who fell failed to get back to their feet.
“So many people died,” Mevil recalled. “On the way, you have two options: life, or death. I was so lucky. There were huge, strong men who didn’t make it.”
Mevil is a tall, full-figured woman with a singsong voice and curly brown hair, who describes the last two months of her life as a harrowing journey through Latin America by boat, plane, car and foot. She said a seven-day walking stretch proved deadly for some of her companions. Mevil is no stranger to death — she lost family in the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
In Tijuana, Mevil is staying at a women’s migrant shelter, Madre Asunta, awaiting a chance to speak with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.
“I eat well, sleep well, and they give me clothes,” Mevil said of the shelter.
She is one of hundreds of Haitians flowing into Tijuana since late May with plans to enter the U.S., mostly due to a dire economic outlook in Brazil, where many moved after the 2010 earthquake. Worldwide demand for commodities was then buoying the economy of Brazil, with its diversity of natural resources. But employment opportunities have since evaporated due to plummeting oil prices and a political crisis tied to Brazil’s suspended president, who is facing possible impeachment.
“They weren’t giving jobs to foreigners,” Mevil said.
Now, those migrants are coming north to the U.S.
Overwhelmed San Ysidro customs officials are relying on Tijuana’s migrant shelters for help while they catch up processing the rising tide of migrants, many of whom sleep on the sidewalk just south of the port of entry. Some seek political asylum. Some are from Africa. Most are Haitian migrants fleeing grim economic prospects.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that the agency will process these migrants on a “case by case” basis. While migrants await their turn, Tijuana's shelters offer food and a place to sleep. At Madre Asunta, the Haitian women made friends with women from Central America and southern Mexico, who were also staying at the shelter. Their children played together as they communicated in a mix of gestures, smiles, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
“We’re a family,” Mevil said.
She told a Mexican woman about her difficult journey through Latin America, concluding, “I have more lives than a cat.”
The Mexican woman responded, “That means you have six more,” and they giggled together.
Footsteps away from Madre Asunta, a men’s migrant shelter called Casa del Migrante is accepting Haitian men as well as some women and children, because there aren’t enough beds at the women’s shelter.
Director Pat Murphy called the influx of migrants a “crisis” and “an emergency.”
“People here have told us, ‘there are thousands of people coming behind us,’” Murphy said.
During an especially busy day last week, Casa del Migrante slept 56 Haitians in addition to about 150 migrants from southern Mexico and Central America.
In less than two weeks, Murphy said his shelter received migrants from 11 different countries, mostly from Haiti. Murphy said he considers them refugees.
Although these migrants seek to enter the U.S., Tijuana must address the surge during the immigration backlog.
Casa del Migrante and three other Tijuana shelters are offering the migrants food and beds. Mexican immigration officials let the shelters know when U.S. Customs and Border Protection is ready to process a few more people.
“When their place in the line is ready, they call us, and we transport them right to the front door of immigration,” Murphy explained.
But he said Tijuana officials are relying too heavily on the shelters, which depend on donations.
Haitian migrants came just as the shelter was seeing a spike in Central Americans and southern Mexicans fleeing violence, Murphy said. Some had to sleep on the floor.
He said he thinks Tijuana should open a shelter of its own, like those opened during heavy rains tied to El Niño.
“They have to just admit that this isn’t a temporary problem, that this is going to continue for a while,” he said.
In the meantime, Tijuana residents are bringing food, clothes and other donations for the Haitians, Africans and other migrants.
“The best news of all this was the generosity of the people, just showing up at the door, saying, ‘here’s food for 50 people,’” Murphy said. “Even though they’re not rich themselves, they realize, ‘I may have a little bit more to share.’”
Twenty-five-year-old Haitian Jeff Son Pascal arrived at Casa del Migrante in early June, also by way of a two-month journey departing from Brazil.
Like hundreds of other migrants, he slept on the sidewalk just south of the San Ysidro Port of Entry for the first few days. Then he was redirected to the shelter while awaiting his turn to see a U.S. immigration official.
He said he is grateful for Casa del Migrante, where he and other Haitians take turns helping with domestic duties, such as washing clothes and serving food.
“The Casa is very good, very good,” he said in broken Spanish.
Son Pascal embarked on his journey alone, without friends or family, but he said he has made many friends in Tijuana, both Haitian and Mexican.
He said he dreams of a better life in the U.S.
When asked how many people are coming behind him, Son Pascal sighed and said: “Many, many, many, many, many.”