September 8, 2006

Border Shelter Sees Population Shift

By Vicki Adame
Vida en el Valle

TIJUANA, Mexico — The statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe sits in a corner in the courtyard at Casa del Migrante. Placed on the concrete floor below the figure are candles, nickels, photos and a round medallion key chain with a single key and Ralph’s Club card dangling from it.

The items represent supplications from men who passed through Casa del Migrante in Tijuana on their way to attempt the dangerous crossing into the United States.

Casa del Migrante is a shelter for men who have been deported after being apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. But in recent months, the shelter’s workers have seen an overwhelming influx of men who have lived in the United States for years, some for decades, who have been deported.

The shelter is one of the Scalabrini missions named after Fr. John Baptist Scalabrini who is known as El Padre de los Migrantes (The Father of the Immigrants). There are currently seven Casas del Migrante throughout Mexico and Guatemala.

“We help immigrants as much as we can,” says Héctor Fierro, group coordinator for the shelter.

Tomás Goméz Reyes, 19, arrived at Casa del Migrante the day before after being deported for being undocumented. Reyes was part of a group of 10 on their way to New York for work. Originally from Morelia, Michoacán, Reyes crossed at Altar, Sonora. He spent four days walking before the Border Patrol stopped the group in Nevada and returned them to Tijuana.

“I’m going to get some money together and try to cross again,” he says.

He knows the dangers of crossing through the desert. More than 3,000 people have lost their lives since 1990, when Border Patrol enforcement began on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I don’t think about the fear,” Reyes says. “I think about what I can achieve. After the fear there is something better. If fear makes you weak, you will never become someone.”

Built in 1987, the shelter serves men 18 and older. Rules require the men to be up at 6 a.m. and leave the shelter by 6:30 a.m. They return by 5 p.m. for dinner.

The shelter’s volunteers register all the men who walk through the door.

Men can stay for 15 days on their first visit. If they return, they can stay seven days. Those returning for a third time are allowed to stay three days.

Typically, upon arriving at the shelter, the men have very few belongings. If they are planning to cross they’ll have two or three pairs of pants and two shirts, Fierro says.

“If they’ve been deported, it’s pretty common to only come with what they’re wearing,” he adds.

Besides meals and a place to sleep, the shelter provides medical care and weekly classes on HIV prevention.

When it opened nearly 20 years ago, the majority of the men who walked through the shelter’s doors were those with plans to cross the border.

Today, about 70 percent are men who have been deported. The remaining 30 percent are those hoping to cross, Fierro says.

Casa del Migrante has offices at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings and provides shuttles to the shelter for the recently deported.

Typically the shelter receives four new men per day. On the weekend, the numbers climb to 15 to 20 per day. Since May 1 of this year, the house twice has reached its capacity of 180 residents, Fierro says. The average age of the men is between 18 and 24.

“This shelter does not encourage people to go to America. But it’s happening and we’re here to help them,” Fierro says.

The number of people seeking help grows each year and they’re not just Latin Americans.

“These people are not terrorists. They are going to work to earn money. That’s it. The only thing these people are thinking about is getting a job. These people are not criminals,” Fierro says.

Sitting in the courtyard waiting for dinner on a late Wednesday afternoon, 33-year-old Tomás Alcantara recalls leaving his family and home in Toluca when he was 13. His parents told him he either had to work or study. He chose to go to work.

“A friend told me, ‘Let’s go to the other side to work,’” says Alcantara.

He and a group of friends set out by train to Chicago where he found a job. Over the years he traveled back and forth between Mexico and the United States. Eventually he returned to work in Dallas, leaving behind his wife and three children.

“That was the biggest mistake of my life,” he says.

While in Dallas he was in an accident which he claimed was the other driver’s fault. But because he was in the country illegally and had no license, Alcantara says he was convicted. He served a jail sentence before being deported.

Alcantara plans to stay in Tijuana.

“I’m planning to work here. There is a lot of work here,” he said.

When asked if he planned to return to the United States, Alcantara says, “ I don’t want to.”

Unlike Alcantara, Margarito Castañeda Rogel has every intention of returning to California where he has lived for 30 years and has a wife and four children ranging in age from seven to 18. He also owns a restaurant and bakery in Escon-dido.

He first crossed into the United States with the help of a coyote three decades ago. He found work in the fields and orchards that dot the landscape surrounding Escondido.

Rogel was deported after serving a four-month prison term for unpaid traffic tickets, notices he said he never received.

“I went through a lot to get what I have,” said Rogel.

He has no intention of leaving it behind. As soon as he can he’ll be going back home.

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