They were robbed and at times beaten by smugglers. They held their newborn children above water when crossing rivers that flowed below their necks. All for the chance to reach the United States.
Their journeys lasted months across nine borders. Last year, more than 12,000 Haitians made it to the U.S.-Mexico border city of Tijuana after fleeing Haiti, a country devastated by a catastrophic earthquake and poverty.
In time, thousands of Haitians were allowed into the U.S. and for four months—between June and September 2016—an average of 33 Haitians arrived at a small church in Normal Heights seeking refuge.
“Some nights 12 would come in, other nights there would be 72 coming in,” Christ Ministry Center Pastor Bill Jenkins said. “We became a little refugee camp in the heart of San Diego. Before so many of them were staying on the street.”
In those four months, it became a normal sight for floors at the church to be covered with sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, and sleeping men and women. The one shower in the building would run day and night, Jenkins recalls.
In September, after the Obama administration announced it was tightening its immigration policy, the City of San Diego also paid a visit to the church. The once unprecedented intake of immigrants—something Jenkins continues to view as a humanitarian crisis—was limited to six people to honor city zoning laws. At one point the number of people staying there topped 300.
The church now gives priority to women and children. Some stay a night, others stay for a couple of months. Just this past month, 10 babies were born while staying at the church. Sandy Berialove Baptiste, who is six months pregnant and currently staying at the church in a small bedroom with two bunkbeds, could soon add to that tally.
The intake of Haitian immigrants has slowed down at the church, in part due to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents reinstating deportations to Haiti last September for the first time since the 2010. But shelters in Tijuana, dealing with the thousands of Haitian migrants who remain stuck at the border, continue to scramble. Most of these shelters have entered crisis mode, whether it for a lack of beds, blankets or food or simply for not having enough space to house dozens of people every night.
On January 5, the Christ Ministry Center announced a cross-border agreement with one of the places taking in the largest volume of Haitian migrants in Tijuana. The agreement was launched when a Santa Cruz man, Paul Johnston, sought to give ongoing aid to the Tijuana shelter but needed an American entity to act as a middleman, for tax purposes.
Coincidentally, the past situation at the Normal Heights church mirrors the ongoing state at Iglesia Embajadores de Jesus in Tijuana, but on a larger scale. Embajadores de Jesus shelters between 300 and 400 Haitians every day.
By word of mouth, Haitians slowly arrived by bus, taxi or on foot to this Tijuana church, which is tucked away in between hills sprinkled with jerry-built homes, goats, and dry brush.
Inside, hundreds of makeshift beds stretch over the floor meant to hold chairs for worshippers. Haitians in need of food, water, blankets and clothes are dependent on donations because the city of Tijuana does not give any monetary aid to this place. The city does donate bags of rice, Pastor Gustavo Banda Aceves said, but it’s not enough for the number of mouths they have to feed on a daily basis.
“A lot of them are children, but we take in everyone,” said Banda Aceves.
Banda Aceves said they are in desperate need of food. Chicken, rice, spaghetti, and tuna are among the most needed, he said.
Access to water, for example, had also been a problem there up until last month. Banda Aceves said it took the Baja California Public Service Commission, three months to install a water pipeline that will give the building access to running water.
In mid-December, Johnston visited the shelter. On that day, the main concern was how to help those stuck in Mexico.
“Not everyone is going to be able to cross and we need to do what we can to help those who will stay,” Johnston said.
So far, $700 have been donated and Jenkins says it will go directly to buy food across the border, pay for some utility bills at the church and other necessities.
“If you want to donate and trust us, we will use the money for good,” Jenkins said. “We were there, and we know what it’s like to have need.”