When a bullet cracked the front window of a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, earlier this week, coordinator Paulina Olvera Cáñez immediately thought of the children inside.
“When the families heard the gunfire, they threw themselves to the floor,” she said. “Many here fled violence. One woman couldn’t stop shaking — she said it felt like home in Cameroon.”
In the past month, Olvera Cáñez said, shelter residents at Espacio Migrante have been attacked and robbed, express-kidnapped and extorted by police. None of that is unique in Tijuana, where crime has soared over the last 12 months.
In this case, the stray bullet came from a group of police officers opening fire during a sloppy downtown car chase, which was caught on tape by the shelter’s security camera. But no one at the shelter was hurt. The bullet hit the window of a vacant office; most staff were at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That stroke of luck is one of very few these days for migrants staring down the pandemic in Tijuana, where refugees from around the world already face daily dangers. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has only made it worse. The government’s stay-at-home orders mean many people facing crowded shelter conditions and limited medical resources are now effectively immobile. Others can’t find shelter at all, as facilities take in fewer people so they can maintain physical distance. And there’s nowhere else to go: The U.S. closed its border to asylum-seekers, Mexico suspended refugee processing, and many migrants are afraid to go home to their native countries, even if it were safe to travel.
That leaves many migrants stuck near the U.S.-Mexico border, vulnerable to both the coronavirus and other dangers.
“Refugees already have limited access to health care here,” said Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director for the Tijuana-based legal nonprofit Al Otro Lado. “If doctors have to choose who gets a ventilator, it’s not going to be them.”
The Mexican government is failing to protect migrants, according to a scathing report released earlier this week by Refugees International. The advocacy group denounced Mexico’s lack of “the most basic safeguards” to mitigate COVID-19’s spread, noting border closures have prevented critical humanitarian supplies and workers from reaching the country.
“The [Mexican] government continues to accept the return of Mexicans deported from the United States despite inadequate health screenings prior to deportation,” the report noted. “Grim conditions and the absence of healthcare and other services in the informal camps where they often stay are perhaps of greatest concern.”
Baja California’s first virus-related death was announced on March 31, and two more people have died since in the Mexican state just south of San Diego.
Life has changed dramatically in the past week as the city of Tijuana and its shelters prepare for the pandemic’s full onset. Donations are drying up for shelters, and many are pleading for help on social media. Shelter residents have no choice but to remain in place, with multiple families packed into single rooms. Capacity is also being limited as shelters try to enact some semblance of physical distancing in tight quarters.
Espacio Migrante now houses 30 people instead of its maximum of 40. At the city’s oldest shelter, Casa del Migrante, which has 160 beds and is usually full, there are just 50 people.
“Since the city says no more than 50 people can be in one place, we’re limiting,” said Father Pat Murphy, the shelter’s director. “People keep trying to go outside. No one sees the news, so there’s no sense of how serious this is.”
Since Baja California instituted its stay-at-home order last week, authorities began roving patrols aimed at keeping people off the streets. Tijuana’s municipal police also set up checkpoints to interrogate drivers.
For the past three weeks, Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava has ceased serving sit-down hot meals, which typically feed 7,000 every week. Instead, a straggly line now snakes outside for over a block. Hungry people file through a makeshift lobby, where semi-masked and gloved volunteers dish food into small Styrofoam containers.
Back outside, on the curb, recipients sit shoulder to shoulder to eat.
“A lot of people thought news about the virus was exaggerated,” Olvera Cáñez said. “Mexican authorities weren’t doing anything.”
Tijuana’s shelters only hold a fraction of the city’s vast migrant population. Most live packed into short-term apartments and single-room rentals. For those who still have jobs, the question of whether to show up doesn’t feel like a choice.
“All the call centers are still open,” Murphy said, noting that Casa del Migrante’s new preventative measures mandate that only 25 residents leave the shelter at a time to work, while the remaining 25 stay locked inside.
“Even more guys are in the street now, washing cars,” he said. “Fifteen of our guys are still working security, guarding construction sites and empty buildings.”
Deciding Whether To Stay
The idea of fleeing the city is tempting for some migrants. One woman who previously resided in the Casa Arcoiris Albergue LGBTI shelter simply packed up and moved to a city down the Baja coast ahead of the pandemic. “I didn’t want to risk my health,” she said, noting that it felt safer the farther she was from the city’s center. More than 1.7 million people live in Tijuana’s sprawling metro region.
But for most migrants, there’s no clear way out. Mexico’s migration agency, the Instituto Nacional de Migración, is still advertising repatriation flights on Twitter, but the borders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador ― the countries most migrants in Mexico came from ― have already been closed. On March 31, the agency returned 67 Nicaraguans to their nation’s capital, saying it was somehow “a solution” to border closures in Central America.
In other northern Mexican border towns, federal authorities have supplied buses to transport migrants seeking to return to Central America, reportedly upon request from the migrants ― something that Pinheiro is skeptical about.
“It’s not exactly informed consent,” Pinheiro said. “People still don’t fully understand what’s going on.”
Further complicating matters is the new U.S. rapid expulsion program, which returns would-be border crossers to Mexico in less than three hours. They join the more than 60,000 asylum-seekers the U.S. already sent back to Mexico over the past year to await immigration proceedings as part of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico.”
Despite the near impossibility of being granted asylum in the U.S., an estimated 15,000 asylum-seekers were still waiting in 11 border cities in Mexico as of February 2020. The most recent data update issued by the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego found that at least 9,520 asylum-seekers were waiting in Tijuana.
Now, some recipients of the new “express” deportations have ended up in the Carmen Serdán Centro Integrador Para el Migrante, a highly unpopular 3,000-bed wraparound service facility that opened in the city in December. It was created to serve those returned under MPP.
Almost from the start, migrants forced to wait in border cities due to MPP were frequently kidnapped for ransom, trafficked and killed. As of Feb. 28, Human Rights First had identified 1,001 publicly reported cases of “rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent assaults” against those forced to return to Mexico. Among the victims were 228 children. The number of unreported incidents is likely much higher.
Now, as of March 23, MPP hearings have been suspended and will be rescheduled sometime after May 1 due to the pandemic. In new formal guidance updated on April 2, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security instructed migrants to present themselves in person at the border. That means defying the Mexican government’s shelter-in-place order and risking arrest.
“CP]BP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] is still telling people to go to the Port of Entry to get a new hearing date,” Pinheiro said. “That means leaving shelters, going to stand in a huge group of people, then returning to shelters. The spread of COVID-19 is inevitable.”
Activists have been working to inform migrants that they can call in or go online for new dates. But many of those needing help don’t speak English or have internet access.
Struggling To Provide Aid
Pinheiro’s legal services organization, Al Otro Lado, initially wrestled with ethical questions related to the pandemic before pivoting to focus on direct-service humanitarian aid.
“Our initial thoughts were to try to get the most medically vulnerable people out of Mexican shelters ahead of COVID-19 through parole into the U.S.,” she explained. “But out of the initial 20 applications submitted, CBP only accepted two. They didn’t respond to the rest of our requests.”
Then, she said, her colleagues realized helping clients with their immigration cases meant sending them to almost certain exposure to the virus in U.S. detention centers. So Al Otro Lado plucked their most medically vulnerable clients from shelters and preemptively installed them in prepaid hotel rooms.
The organization is now fundraising for the Refugee Health Alliance and helping distribute “COVID boxes” filled with Tylenol, albuterol and safety gear. With help from a Cuban asylum-seeker, eight portable hand-washing stations have been built for shelters. Donations have already allowed the purchase of new oxygen tanks and oxygen concentrators to offset scarcity at the public hospital. The health alliance has also secured a commitment from the Los Angeles-based sewing cooperative Suay LA to sew 50,000 masks, 2,000 of which are for migrants.
Dr. Hannah Janeway, a Los Angeles-based physician and board member for the Refugee Health Alliance who still crosses south to volunteer, recently treated a patient who’d been stabbed in the arm and was turned away from Tijuana’s public hospital.
“This was two days ago,” she said. “Tijuana simply doesn’t have capacity. Even without the pandemic.”