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KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Volunteers Help Haitians Survive In Mexico

Hugo Castro, volunteer coordinator at Border Angels, plays with a Haitian child in Tijuana, March 16, 2017.
Matthew Bowler
Hugo Castro, volunteer coordinator at Border Angels, plays with a Haitian child in Tijuana, March 16, 2017.
Hundreds of Haitians stuck in Tijuana wait in immigration limbo
San Diego Volunteers Help Haitians Survive In Mexico
Hundreds of Haitians are struggling to eat and find work in Tijuana after their harrowing journey through Latin America ended with a surprising twist.

Hugo Castro pulled a wad of $100 bills from his wallet and ordered hundreds of pounds of rice, oatmeal, oil, spaghetti and cleaning bleach at Tijuana’s main wholesale market.

“We are shopping, trying to maximize the money,” he said, wearing a black shirt emblazoned with a cross and the question, “Who Would Jesus Deport?”

As the heavy boxes and bags filled his two-door Toyota Solara, the car’s tires sank an inch or two. Castro inspected them with a grimace.

“Sometimes, they burst with the weight,” he said. “They just explode.”

Castro is leading a project called S.O.S. Migrante Adopt a Shelter, which supplies 18 of Tijuana’s migrant shelters with food and other essentials. The San Diego nonprofit Border Angels collects donations and leads volunteers on supply drop-offs.

Tijuana has 38 shelters struggling to feed hundreds of migrants and refugees. Most are Haitians whom the U.S. started excluding from special humanitarian parole in September.

“They are trapped in Tijuana. For some of them, it’s like a limbo stage; for some, it’s a purgatory," Castro said.

Castro hopped into the driver’s seat of his car and drove carefully to the first shelter, Mejor Herencia. Upon arrival, he was surprised to discover it was empty of migrants except one: Carlos Pierre, a 30-year-old Haitian.

Pierre, in a black tank top and donated women’s sneakers without shoelaces, explained to Castro that the shelter director had told the Haitians they could no longer stay in Mejor Herencia.

“The pastor said before that this was a shelter, but now he says, no, this is a church,” Pierre said.

He said he is waiting for an appointment with immigration authorities to acquire legal status in Mexico. For now, he can’t earn money except in informal jobs on the street, earning maybe 200 pesos a day, or about $10. After paying for food and bus fare, he has no money left over for rent – let alone to support his son in Haiti, his priority.

“We have brothers. Sisters. Children. Everything,” he said.

Like thousands of other Haitians, Pierre trekked through Latin America’s most dangerous countries to reach the U.S. border. The Haitians had moved to Brazil after the devastating 2010 earthquake and started a northbound journey last spring amid political and economic turmoil in the South American nation. At the time, the U.S. was letting Haitians in under humanitarian parole provisions.

Last fall, prompted by the influx of Haitians, the Department of Homeland Security announced a policy change: Haitians no longer qualified for special humanitarian parole. Haitians without status at the U.S. ports of entry would thenceforth be placed in detention centers and deported to Haiti.

“I spent more or less 4,000 dollars to get here,” Pierre said. “In Haiti, I have nothing anymore. That’s why I’m staying here in Tijuana. If I can’t live in the U.S., I’m going to fix my papers here.”

Castro of Border Angels paced back and forth in front of the shelter, unsure of what to do with the donations in his car.

“I think it’s so wrong what is going on right now, I just, I wasn’t aware,” he said, gesticulating. “I’m going to ask the assistant director what’s going on because –” Castro stopped as the shelter administrator, Hector Lozano, approached from down the street.

“Buenas, buenas, buenas tardes …”

Castro shook Lozano’s hand and said: “I’m very disconcerted because I don’t understand what’s happening. We brought donations to give to the migrants. But they’re telling us you guys are kicking them out.”

Lozano listened with a serious expression, nodding.

“If the pastor says (the Haitians) must evacuate at a certain date, then that’s it, period … What’s happening is that the national instruction is to evacuate the shelters. It’s the federal Mexican government asking that,” Lozano replied.

The Mexican government stopped funding the shelters in February, Lozano said. Between September and February, government support comprised about 30 percent of total food and other essentials received by the shelters. The rest came from advocacy groups like Border Angels. Now the shelters are wholly dependent on donations, Lozano said.

Tents at a Tijuana migrant shelter house Haitian migrants, March 16, 2017.
Jean Guerrero
Tents at a Tijuana migrant shelter house Haitian migrants, March 16, 2017.

Castro became angry, telling Lozano that in his view, the Mexican government was acting like the new U.S. administration, with its hardline stance on immigration.

KPBS asked Mexico’s immigration institute, INAMI, about Lozano’s allegations. Mexico’s top immigration official for Baja California, Rodulfo Figueroa, said the Mexican government is offering Haitians the option to apply for temporary humanitarian status or permanent refugee status, which gives migrants the ability to work in Mexico. As a result, officials are advising migrant shelters to encourage Haitians to find jobs.

“There’s no longer a legal impediment for them to integrate into society,” Figueroa said.

Figueroa added that the Mexican state of Baja California has processed 651 applications for refugee status and 568 applications for temporary humanitarian status, mostly from Haitians. About 315 of the refugee applications and 485 of the humanitarian parole applications have been green-lighted.

“The shelters are free to do whatever they want, we don’t run the shelters, they can choose to ask people to leave or not,” Figueroa explained. “What we are telling them is that if somebody has acquired status, then they are no longer in our view subject to the aid through that mechanism.”

He said the government is still providing necessary support like health care for pregnant Haitian women.

After leaving Mejor Herencia, Castro distributed the donations in his car to various other migrant shelters that are still operating in downtown Tijuana.

One of the shelters was crowded with tents improvised from plastic bags.

“They prefer to be in these conditions than to be back in Haiti,” Castro said, pointing at the tents. “We are trying to improve the conditions of the shelters. That’s the reason we need all the help possible.”

Castro said the ultimate goal of S.O.S. Migrante Adopt A Shelter is to supply all 38 shelters in Tijuana and to expand to 12 shelters in Mexicali. He said volunteers from across California and parts of Arizona have participated in weekly drop-offs as well as donated through the Border Angels website.

He said the shelters can’t rely on Mexican or U.S. officials.

“I don’t believe in the (Mexican) leader. I don’t believe in the U.S. president,” Castro said. “But I do believe in the people. So we, the people, el pueblo, are the ones who are bringing the change.”

San Diego Volunteers Help Haitians Survive In Mexico
San Diego Volunteers Help Haitians Survive In Mexico GUEST:Enrique Morones, executive director, Border Angels

KPBS Midday Edition . I am Michael Lipton here for Maureen Cavanaugh. Many Haitian refugees have decided to stay in Mexico after being denied entrance to the US. Jean Guerrero tells us how some are starting over South of the border. Reporter: Hugo Castro spine hundreds of pounds of food and cleaning essentials at a wholesale market. He is a Mexican-American with cropped black hair. He is with border angels. The advocacy group started SOS migrant adopt a shelter. They supply shelters with donations. The 38 shelter struggling to feed hundreds of migrants and refugees. Most are Haitians who the US recently started excluding from humanitarian operations. It is like a limbo stage. For many of them is a purgatory. He stuffs his car full of boxes and bags with oatmeal spaghetti and cleaning bleach. We are headed to three shelters next to the border. The first shelter is empty of migrants. Explains that everybody is being kicked out at the shelter. The pastor said before this is a shelter. But now it is a church. They are offering refugee status and have advised shelters to encourage Haitians to go out and find jobs. The state of Baja California has processed more than 1000 applications this year mostly from Haitians. About 800 have been a curved -- approved. Peer is still waiting for his appointment. For now he says he has been searching for food and work all morning and has no idea where he will sleep. It is complicated. I am not finding anything. I am looking everywhere and finding nothing at all. The tractor Latin America's most dangerous countries to get her. He thought the US was letting them in. That was true until September. Now they are placed in detention centers and deported to Haiti. I spent more or less $4000 to get here. If I cannot live in the US I will fix my papers here. Outside I speak with Castro who cannot leave the donations that he brought because the migrants are being removed. I was not aware. I'm going to ask the system director what is going on because -- Hector shows up he is actually the shelter administrator. Castro tells him he is disconcerted by the news that the shelter is kicking at the Haitians. He replies that the Mexican government is no longer supporting the shelters. He is left asking the migrant to figure things out on their own. Simply put the pastor has plans that they can only be here until a certain date and that's it. [ speaking in a foreign language ] Castro gets angry and tells us that in his field the Mexican government is acting like resident Trump. He takes his stuff to various other shelters that are still taking things. One of them is crowded with tents. It looks like a miniature refugee camp Castro explains why they started.. I do not believe in the US President but I do believe the and the people so we the people are the ones who are being hurt. Castro says he would like to expand to include all 38 shelters and eventually 12 shelters in Mexicali. Joining me now and then we can run is executive director order angels. Welcome to the program. They describe a shelter with tents and children and said it looks like a miniature refugee camp. Are the many families among the people in Tijuana. They thought the US was still going to give them humanitarian parole status. Do you know whether US stopped giving them status? They were never given a lot of asylum to these Haitians although it has been -- misrepresented by a lot of media that it was taking place. The US does not give asylum to a lot of people so what happens is they think they are going to get a silent -- asylum and came into the United States only to be deported back to Haiti. Some of them did not realize that they kept coming and now they are caught in limbo because they are definitely not going to get a silent or any type of visa so they are looking for residency in Mexico. They're still in a desperate situation. There given refugee status to many of them but they have also stopped providing support to the shelters and it seems like a contradiction. What is the reasoning behind this move? According to those that I have spoke to they do not want them to stay in the shelters because they want to move on they are getting residency status in Tijuana and Baja California and cannot have them in San Diego but it's important to have a transition so is that at this program to help the shelters and Haitians and other refugees. There's a desperate need for this people on that coming from the poorest countries. The Olympics are over they have crossed through South Central and Mexico America and now they are at the border in Tijuana and Mexicali so they are in a desperate situation. Families children men and women so it is our duty as human beings to treat these people with dignity and with no other groups are already helping. The MoveOn to places from Mexico. For the listeners I compared to the situation in San Diego. People without homes cannot stay. They think it's the responsibility of the government to help these people in transitions. They have increased dramatically in Mexico that's why for the last 5 to 6 years there live in the United States heading to Mexico that are coming without papers. These are Haitians who were not expecting this type of situation and they do not necessarily speak Spanish although some of them do. Creole is the native language and speak French but in general the people have been very receptive and kind to these people. They earthquakes in poverty in Haiti we need to reach out and practice what we preach as a nation and treat the immigrant and migrant with dignity and respect. Is that the sense that you get from speaking to refugees in general It is a desperate situation. They sold everything they had and sacrificed a lot and crossed as much as 10 borders to get to the United States mostly with the goal of getting to the United States not many of them are happy to stay in Mexico are asking for residency they need to find work in order to survive. The borders organization is best known for providing bottles of water in the desert for migrants With order angels I have the honor of starting the organization when there was no wall and we had started by going into communities where people needed help. The canyons of North County San Diego. These were people that needed shelter as well and needed food and they were working the strawberry fields in San Diego. These are people that also need shelter. When we saw this situation our mission statement was give people things to eat and drink. We need to help them whether they are from Haiti Iraq El Salvador or Mexico let's treat them with love. Love has no borders and immediately said let's help them. What happens is we get students from all over the country to visit and with all of the students that come throughout the year let's start an SOS program to help them and help the shelters and people have been very responsive about adopting a shelter. If you want to adopt to shelter look on our website because some neat blankets or nonperishable food or toys from the children so join us. They will take you directly to the shelter over the migrants are to see the face of the child and the mom with needed supplies. I've been speaking with Enrique executive director of order angels. Thank you so much.