Part one in a five-part series. Originally published on Al Jazeera on March 2, 2017
Tijuana, Mexico – Alfredo lives in a shelter for deportees on Tijuana Beach, a stone’s throw from the border wall that bars him from the United States. That wall – not to be confused with the bigger one US President Donald Trump plans to build – has existed for decades.
Alfredo’s is among the most physically emblematic of these shelters. There are many others. In fact, there are more shelters and migrants here than ever, since Trump launched his campaign to keep Mexicans and other immigrants out of the US, activists say.
The shelters are struggling to cope with what people familiar with the border-crossing industry – people-smugglers known here as “coyotes” – tell Al Jazeera is a wave of migrants and deportees coming to and from the US since Trump made calls to heighten deportations of undocumented people and signed an executive order calling to build the newer, stronger border wall.
The new wall won’t do much to keep people out; many here say with confidence and often a cheeky sense of humour. Still, its imminent construction is taken as a sign that people who have acted as a driving force of the American economy – not just Mexican Americans but immigrants generally – are no longer welcome there.
“America was built with Mexican hands,” Alfredo says in a low, sober voice. He emphasised to Al Jazeera that this is what he wanted to tell English-language readers around the world.
After six years as a construction worker in the southern US state of Mississippi, immigration officials rounded up Alfredo and several other undocumented American workers and deported them to Mexico. “Instead of at least treating us as humans, we are treated as animals. For them, we are animals,” he says.
‘We’re family, we’re brothers’
In a small shack crammed with around 30 deportees originally from Mexico and El Salvador, Alfredo, 54, who asked to go only by his first name out of a mistrust of authorities common among deportees, spoke to Al Jazeera in the dark, his face obscured in a lampless, unheated sleeping area. Gusts of wind burst through a broken window as he spoke, holding back a severe cough shared by his roommates.
For Alfredo, whose struggle to earn a livelihood has taken him thousands of miles from his native Mexico City, he hopes his last stop will be this dilapidated shelter – his thin mat bedding among many on a cold asphalt floor under a crumbling roof.
He won’t make the dangerous, gruelling trek to the US again, he says. He’s one of many migrants in Tijuana without dreams of America, but there are many more who do, in these shelters – packed with new deportees and migrants hoping to make it to the US before Trump tightens controls of what continues to be a porous border.
In the next room, Ramon, one of the co-organisers of the shelter, has fallen severely ill with a flu. He also suffers from what his roommates describe as a mysterious limpness in one leg.
His friends have prepared him a tonic – a broth with cinnamon. The warm smell perfumes the shack, the size of some walk-in closets just opposite the border.
“We are a family. We are brothers,” Alfredo explains. Like many US migrant workers struggling to survive, Alfredo has no wife or children. After years of building in the US, which he says he still “respects”, he says the real separation between the US and Mexico is “we have love for human beings here. It doesn’t matter your colour or religion – Catholic or not. We help how we can, even though we aren’t a rich country. Because we know we might be the ones suffering tomorrow.”
Tijuana’s people are scrambling to meet new challenges posed by Trump’s plans to bolster the existing border walls with a larger wall and also to drastically ramp up deportations of undocumented Americans. Many come from across Mexico and Central America but also faraway Haiti and even Africa. They have rushed to Tijuana and other Mexican border cities, attempting to pay the coyotes thousands of dollars to smuggle them across. Activists also complain of a heightened rash of deportations since Trump’s inauguration.
Al Jazeera counted at least 30 shelters for migrants in Tijuana; some are shacks, others are spare rooms in private homes or repurposed churches. Most house migrants free of charge – some charge 20 Mexican pesos, about $1, a day to cover maintenance. Of those,19 have opened in the past seven months, according to Hugo Castro, director of Angeles de la Frontera (Border Angels), an organisation dedicated to helping deliver resources to and raising awareness of migrants attempting to enter or who have been deported from the US.
Non-migrant Tijuana residents have noticed a significant change in their city’s make-up in recent months. “There are many more people suffering here than even before,” said Rosario Corona, 19, at the city’s signature cathedral Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe). Corona works with a church youth group that administers aid to migrants and others in need.
Corona waits in a line at the cathedral for a priest to administer the Catholic sacrament confession, where one seeks absolution for sins. She is flanked in the pews by migrants, some of whom sit in church not only for prayer but for lack of anywhere else to go. One tells Al Jazeera that he’s going to enter the confession booth not to ask the priest for forgiveness but for charity. Moments later, he leaves empty-handed – with so many in this city in need, it remains unclear whether he got what he came for.
“Unity and respect is what makes a place strong,” says Liliana Vasquez, 26, one of Corona’s fellow youth group workers, as their group leaves the church.
The sudden surge in the number of shelters and the influx of new migrants that prompted it, Castro says, happened amid mounting fears that Trump might win and make good on promises to build a wall and ramp up deportations.
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