Meet the people working tirelessly in Tijuana to bring sustenance, support, and hope to migrants

Hugo Castro, Border Angels Director in Mexico, stands in front of a migrant shelter in Playas Tijuana in view of the border wall. He is currently renovating the shelter to become a co-op and café for deported migrants. Photo credit: Tina Shull

Two weeks ago, CIVIC staff member Jan Meslin and I visited Tijuana, Mexico, for a few days to visit migrant shelters and meet some of the people working to sustain them.

Walking across the border (left), a huge sign in English advertises legal help for people who have been deported (right). The information provided in the ad is false, signaling the predatory practices aimed at migrants. Photo credit: Tina Shull

As we walked across the border, we were greeted by a huge sign advertising legal help for people who have been deported. The sign falsely claims: “Any person deported from the U.S. who once had resident’s card/green card can legally return to the U.S. within 10–18 months. Any Felonies, No Problem.” In English and with a Los Angeles-based phone number, this ad reveals the predatory practices aimed at migrants.

Border Angels

Deported migrants have scant resources available to them when they arrive in Tijuana. The humanitarian aid organization Border Angels reports that taxi companies frequently overcharge people picked up from the bus turnaround where deportations take place, often late at night. They also say that a trailer offering government services such as internet access for deported migrants is always closed. However, there exists a network of organizations and individuals working to ensure that migrants find their way to shelter and safety.

Services for deported migrants? This government office is always closed, according to advocates. Photo credit: Tina Shull

We were picked up by our host, Johnny Rodriguez Magallanes, who grew up in Stockton and was deported in 2011. His wife is a U.S. citizen and professor in San Diego. Together, they run a non-profit in Tijuana to pay children’s school fees, and Johnny volunteers with Border Angels, at orphanages, and hosting groups of Americans who travel to the border town to learn about the impact of U.S. immigration and deportation policies.

Our first stop was a storefront shared by Madres y Familias Deportades En Acción and Deported Veterans of America, a waystation for deported migrants and for disseminating food and clothing donations to shelters. The Facebook page for Madres says: “This is a grassroots effort to assist the migrants and deportees that are not being cared for by authorities and nonprofits.” Madres also refers people to support groups for migrant women and children.

Left: Mary Cookie in the center with Hugo Castro and Gaba Cortes on the left and the right. Right: Madres y Familias Deportades En Acción and Deported Veterans of America. Photo credit: Johnny Rodriguez Magallanes and Tina Shull

Maria de Jesus Cardenas Lazaritt, known as “Maria Cookie,” leads the operation and works closely with Hugo Castro and Gaba Cortes, Directors of Border Angels Mexico. Mary and other volunteers provide coffee and pastries for newcomers, sort food and clothing donations, and coordinate shelter deliveries each day. Hugo, Gaby, Jan and I loaded up Johnny’s car and we set out to make our deliveries.

We first visited a community center run by Doña Yolanda. Before Haitian and African migrants began arriving in Tijuana in greater numbers last year, Yolanda’s community center provided meals for local school children in need. When an urgent need to house Haitians arose across the city, Yolanda added a second floor to her home to take them in. Now, she accommodates both groups. Refugee arrivals in Tijuana have been decreasing as Haitian deportations have resumed in the United States and as word spreads of the Trump administration’s intent to curb admissions. However, there are still around 30 Haitians living at Yolanda’s, stuck between a rock and a hard place — to attempt to enter the United States now as a refugee means almost certain detention and deportation, but there are very few work and housing options in Tijuana.

Many still dream of making it to the United States, and many families are broken by the border. We met a man named Joseph whose wife and baby made it through and are now at her mother’s in Florida, but he remains. We told him our opinion that he is better off in Mexico than in detention in the United States. Lawyers and advocates are working to spread the word about Trump’s new policies and discourage people like Joseph from attempting to come to the United States, but at the same time, who are we to crush people’s dreams?

Left: Doña Yolanda on far left; second floor recently added to her community center to accommodate Haitian refugees. Center: Johnny with a Haitian child staying at Yolanda’s. Right: A bulletin board reads “Now it’s time to get USA” with postings of refugees’ appointment times with U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement. Photos: Tina Shull

Yolanda’s community center, running entirely on donations, is one example of many makeshift shelters, perhaps dozens, that arose out of great need but are not registered non-profits and do not receive government aid. Hugo says that the federal budget for all migrant shelters in Mexico is $350,ooo a year, and government aid only covers about 10% of the operation costs of the 5 or 6 official migrant shelters in Tijuana. The need is overwhelming. Yolanda showed us her water bill for one month which amounted to nearly $500 USD. Last month, donations came through at the last minute from a sponsor church in Ohio.

The U.S.-Mexico divide. Photo credit: Tina Shull

Clothes hang to dry outside the second shelter we visited, the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús church in Scorpion Canyon where around 150 Haitians are living. We had to carry donations for almost a mile along a muddy stream after heavy rains washed away the road. See more images in a KCET photo essay. Photo credit: Tina Shull

**Al Otro Lado**

We also visited the Tijuana office of Nicole Ramos, a U.S. citizen and attorney. She works with a cross-border advocacy organization called Al Otro Lado that provides pro bono legal advice to refugees in Tijuana. Now, they are working to warn people about the inevitability, and hardships, of immigration detention. Nicole told us she also documents abuses by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents, as they are now searching cars going into Mexico, and routinely tell asylum seekers from Mexico they are not allowed to apply for asylum. It is unlawful for CBP agents to operate as asylum adjudicators.

Nicole Ramos in her Tijuana office, preparing fact sheets on U.S. immigration policy changes for refugees. Photo credit: Tina Shull

**Playas Tijuana**

After visiting shelters for Haitian refugees heading towards the United States, we drove to Playas Tijuana to visit a shelter for deported migrants in the shadow of the border wall. Along the way, Hugo, a U.S. citizen who grew up in El Centro, California, told us that he sometimes works in the fields there. It would pay enough to live on with his wife Gaba Cortes and their baby along the free road to Rosarito. But, he prefers working and volunteering for Border Angels for half the income, “as long as I can help people.”

“No one should have to live this way,” Hugo Castro says as he passionately describes his vision for renovating the shelter. Photos: Tina Shull

View of the border wall from one of the beds inside a shelter for deported migrants in Playas Tijuana. Photo credit: Tina Shull

This beachfront location in the northwest corner of Latin America is the stuff of dreams, or nightmares. Most men staying here suffer from PTSD and have other medical needs, and many have been deported just days or weeks ago. We entered and spoke with the men, taking photographs with permission. Hugo told us the owner of the building was offered half a million dollars for the location. She declined, wishing it to continue being used to help migrants. Hugo outlined his vision to us, already underway — he is renovating the shelter to become a self-sufficient co-op and café for the public. Hugo’s wife Gaba, a filmmaker and artivist, is documenting the progress on her Facebook page.

Art decorates the Mexican side of the border wall; initiatives by artist Enrique Chiu, Deported Veterans of America, Acción Poética, and Unitarian Universalist Association, among others. Photo collage: Tina Shull

Ruben Robles. Photo Credit: Nestor Torres Lupercio

Ruben crafts his message in camouflage. Photo credit: Tina Shull

Ruben brings a message of peace to a home for children in Rosarito: “It’s not an orphanage,” says operator Jose Navarro, “because it’s a family.”

**Deported Veterans**

We were then joined by Ruben Robles, a U.S. army veteran honorably discharged and deported 20 years ago—and “severely punished,” as he says. Ruben is one of a growing group of deported veterans, working to raise awareness of the fact that military service to the United States does not guarantee a path to citizenship.

Ruben runs his own Help Bring Ruben Home campaign and supports himself in part by crafting accessories “always from camouflage.” He is also helping with Hugo’s shelter renovations in Playas Tijuana, planning to have a role in its operation.

Watch “***Deported Veteran is Still Waiting for Benefits***” by Fusion.

After Playas Tijuana, we visited three more shelters in the city for those coming to and from the United States. As the sun set on one church on top of a hill housing about 30 Haitians, a man named Carlos asked us, “Why do you want to help us?”

We gave a long answer, about resisting U.S. foreign policy, jails and prisons, colonialism and racism. Carlos said in response, “We need a washing machine, and sheets.”

He told me he had an interview with U.S. immigration the following week, but as of yet he had decided not to go. I asked him if he has a message for people in the United States. “I wish them strength, and love.”

Migrant shelters in Tijuana. Photo credit: Tina Shull

Carlos and the sunset. Photo credit: Tina Shull

Consider making a donation to Border Angels, Madres y Familias Deportades, and Al Otro Lado.

Authored by Tina Shull, Editor-in-Chief of IMM Print.