The afternoon was dry and hot, but at night temperatures dropped. The buzzing sound of cars along the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing became so familiar, it no longer seemed like noise. For three days, Pablo Ruiz, set up a makeshift bedroom for him and his family, including his three-year-old son, just steps away from Tijuana’s pedestrian border crossing. They used flattened out cardboard boxes to cover the rough asphalt. Thick blankets were hung along a wall to give them shade. Other families were there as well, waiting. They all had one thing in common: They hope to receive political asylum in the United States.
“We’ve been here for days now. Some of the refugees have been here for weeks,” said Ruiz, as his toddler laid out next to him. Ruiz and his family fled the Mexica
n town of Zamora in the state of Michoacan because of the ongoing violence.
“Family members back home told us that if we made it to the border, the United States could give us political asylum,” says Silvia Ruiz. “If our petition is denied, we can’t go back to Michoacan. We need to escape the violence.”
Over the last month, close to one thousand people have made their way to the Tijuana border crossing. Once they reach Mexico’s border limits, they wait for an asylum interview with U.S. border officials. The wait can go on for days. With no place to go, hundreds of refugees have camped out at the border. With the arrival of more refugees, local asylum centers opened their doors to accommodate them. Tijuana’s Casa del Migrante, a humanitarian aid shelter for migrants, has received hundreds of them. The refugees come as far away as Senegal, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Armenia, Central America and even Mexico.
They all have different stories, but most are fleeing from violence and persecution.
A 22-year-old woman from El Salvador who didn’t want to share her name said she fled her town because of ongoing threats from local gangs. They would follow her to work and even school, she says. When she ignored them, they started showing up at her house, threatening to kill her.
“When I told my mother I wanted to leave, she told me, ‘I don’t want you to go, but for your own good, you can’t stay here either.’ The only thing I brought with me, is my faith in God,” says the young woman as she overlooks the pedestrian border crossing. “Whatever happens happens, but I’m not going back to El Salvador.”
Tijuana’s Casa del Migrante, has welcomed hundreds of refugees since the massive arrival began at the end of May. The director of the shelter, Father Pat Murphy, addressed the issue in a letter sent to the Center for Immigration Studies. “Just like the leaky faucet in the kitchen that someday you plan to get around to fixing, the constant drip of refugees continues to arrive in Tijuana at the pace of about 80 to 100 per day,” added Father Murphy. “At present, the largest group arriving at our doors is from Haiti but rumor has it, we should be prepared for people from India, Nepal, and African countries.”
This type of scene has become somewhat familiar in Europe, where millions of refugees from the Middle East have, and still are, seeking asylum from their war torn towns in Syria and Iraq. However, this is a relatively new phenomenon along the Tijuana-San Diego border, at least on the massive scale currently seen. Over the last two years, reports of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children making their way to the United States through the desert made international news. Once the children were detained by U.S. immigration officials, their case was filed to see if they qualified for asylum or not. Showing up at the militarized border crossing however, is a new approach.
“It is not an exaggeration to say we have a legitimate refugee crisis at the border, but no one seems to realize it,” added Father Murphy. “It is not enough to wish this problem away; U.S. authorities must respond to all aspects of the challenge. The Mexican government also needs to offer a better response.”
While governments still need to sort out a concrete humanitarian plan, the reality of this refugee crisis had led many to tears. Karla, a 38-year-old mother of two, left her native El Salvador to escape the violence. The says local gangs use extortion and threats to impose fear. One day, she decided she’d had enough.
“I came with my two sons. One is ten years old, the other is four,” says Karla, as she wipes away tears. “But we were separated in Mexico City. There wasn’t enough room for us in the trailer. The traffickers told us we would reunite again here in Tijuana, but I haven’t heard from him and I’m very worried.”
She wiped away more tears, as strangers tried to console her. They told her everything would be alright – that she would hear about her son’s whereabouts soon enough. But there was also a deafening silence that followed. A silence that spoke volumes. It was a moment when the group realized that despite its words of comfort, it didn’t have the answers. Much less, the answers of what the future has in store for them.