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What Life Is Like for Haitian Refugees in Tijuana

Despite Trump’s proposed wall, Haitians living in the shadows of Tijuana plan to risk dangerous journeys to make it to the U.S.
A Haitian migrant seeking asylum in the United States is seen through a window in Tijuana, Mexico.

A Haitian migrant seeking asylum in the United States is seen through a window in Tijuana, Mexico.

In Tijuana, Mexico, the wall is omnipresent — more than ever before, people here say. Though the word “wall” is also a bit of a misnomer.

It actually comprises multiple layers of walls, which seem to snake across the city neighborhoods, around the shacks and gated mansions that dot the hillsides. The wall imposes itself on so many conversations here, especially now; conversations on the wall can be overheard in cafes and marketplaces, and there’s resounding talk of what Donald Trump promises will be another — this time bigger, even more impenetrable — wall.

At night, looking over the wall into California, one can see American immigration vehicles parked, their headlights blaring. One can watch these vans for long stretches of time as they sit idly.

Locals claim CCTV cameras could serve the same purpose as these immigration officials’ vehicles. But CCTV cameras wouldn’t offer as potent a message as those vans.

Tucked behind an office space in Tijuana’s underserved Zona Norte — an area that’s home to many drug dealers, sex workers, and, yes, tourist attractions — is an encampment of tents and other makeshift homes for these migrants. This shelter is predominantly Haitian, although some here are also from as far afield as Ghana. The smell of fish, being prepared today by the Ghanaians, wafts from the outdoor kitchen throughout the ramshackle encampment.

Many say they are here to make the dangerous trek across the border before Trump’s wall is constructed. Some refuse to speak, for fear that authorities in Mexico or the United States might find their testimony and use it to target them. Of those who did agree to be interviewed, their voices carried with them a clear frustration. All criticized the U.S. Mexico is a poor country grappling with problems of infrastructure and development, they say, but it has welcomed Haitians where Washington has not.

In September, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti. The nation was still reeling from the 2010 earthquake, which preceded an ongoing cholera epidemic.

“The Haitians are suffering. Why not show the Haitians a little kindness?”

Since the hurricane, thousands have arrived in Tijuana. Many are eager to reach what they see as the land of opportunity to earn funds to support families and friends back in Haiti.

The majority at this shelter are Haitians who’ve made their way from South America — often on foot, traversing jungles and sleeping in the wild. These people must pay coyotes thousands of dollars, often borrowing from friends and relatives, to cross through South and Central America.

Many have walked by the corpses of their dead compatriots on the intercontinental road to Mexico, in the wilderness of countries like Nicaragua. Their desperation and the sheer number of people relying on them back in Haiti means they continue the trek, regardless of the occasionally insurmountable risks that present themselves along the way.

Some people at the shelter talk about friends who’ve made it all the way to the other side only to be deported back to Haiti. “These people got deported, they were friends. They are friends,” says one man in his late 30s who asked to be called Pierre.

As Pierre speaks to Pacific Standard, sitting just behind the gate of this encampment, the man beside him, who declined to be interviewed, looks on. A toddler approaches — the man hoists her up, stands her on his knees and kisses her face, swaying her side by side. This baby has survived the harshest wilderness, getting to this point, and her future is as yet uncertain.

Nothing will stop Pierre from continuing on to the U.S.

“I am going to ask Donald Trump to let us enter. I am going there to work, not to make violence,” he adds. The authorities here have offered Haitians the chance to stay and find work, but with many people to support back home, he has to at least try to make it across the border.

“There are jobs [in Tijuana], but they don’t pay,” he says. “I will go to the border. See if there’s a possibility [of making it to the U.S.]. If there’s no possibility, I will stay.”

Moments later, Sarah, a young woman in her early 20s, approached Pacific Standard to talk. Like Pierre, she lives in this crowded shelter — men, women, and children crammed together. Some sleep under an awning, others in tents and makeshift shelters made from tarp and other materials.

“I am afraid to cross the border. I am afraid of coyotes, but there is no choice,” she says.

Sarah — who, like Pierre, agreed to be interviewed on the condition that she use a pseudonym — has trouble understanding how the U.S. could block people in her situation. She calls Trump “disgusting”: “The Haitians are suffering. Why not show the Haitians a little kindness?”

Pierre is “not afraid” of making the often dangerous journey over the border, however that will happen for him.

“The Haitian is always strong, even until now,” he says.

But even if Sarah and Pierre do make it to the other side, their futures will remain uncertain.

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it detained almost 700 undocumented people in raids across the U.S. The majority of those detainees, ICE said, had criminal records. By their count, at least 170 did not.

Many of those new deportees will arrive in Tijuana, where shelters like these are already overcapacity — as Mexican authorities struggle to cope.