Fed up with lack of space, migrants build their own shelter in Tijuana
By GUSTAVO SOLIS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: September 7, 2019
TIJUANA, Mexico (Tribune News Service) — There aren't enough migrant shelters in Tijuana for the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers waiting to enter the United States. So a group of Central American migrants is building their own.
Dubbed, "Casa Hogar del Puente," this will be the city's only migrant-run shelter specifically for women and children asylum-seekers enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols program, more commonly known as Remain in Mexico.
"This house is for the people that the United States is sending back to Mexico," said co-founder Michael Rodriguez, 23. "We want to support those people who come back and don't have a place to go."
Rodriguez and fellow co-founder, Douglas Oviedo are both Honduran migrants who came to Tijuana last year with the Central American caravan. They've lived in overcrowded shelters, have been on the receiving end of xenophobic insults, and faced multiple obstacles while waiting to legally enter the United States.
They wanted to make life in Tijuana easier for newly arriving families.
"What makes this special is that this is migrants helping other migrants," Rodriguez added.
With the help of American donations, volunteer construction labor, and a rent-free location in the outskirts of Tijuana, they plan to open Casa Hogar del Puente on Saturday.
Part of the reason behind making the shelter only available to people in the Remain in Mexico program is because they often lose housing when they report to immigration court in the United States, said Oviedo, 35.
Under the Remain in Mexico program, asylum-seekers wait for their immigration court hearings in Mexico. On the day of their hearing, they present themselves at the border and are transported to an immigration court in downtown San Diego.
The majority of migrants in the program end up having multiple hearings until their case is decided – Oviedo has had three court hearings.
So they end up going back to Tijuana. However, migrants don't know what will happen in court so they pack their bags every time they have a hearing. While they are gone, some shelter operators rent their beds to other migrants.
"In the shelters when someone leaves they give the space to other people," Oviedo said. "That won't happen here."
The group's biggest challenge to opening a migrant-run shelter was finding the space.
Activists with experience working with migrants in Tijuana have noticed that local landlords are reluctant to rent their property to groups associated with Central American migrants.
"There's very few landlords who will work with you if you are working with migrants," said Anna, a member of Hecate Society, a grass-roots activist collective that has helped open two migrant safe houses in Tijuana – one for LGBTQ migrants and another for men.
The collective is helping the migrants with volunteer labor to build the shelter and supplies donated from friends and members in San Diego.
Anna declined to share her last name because she is an American citizen who works with migrants in Mexico and feared being placed on a government watch list that has prevented some lawyers, activists, and journalists from crossing the border.
After receiving several rejections from Tijuana landlords – including one who accepted a $200 deposit and then backed away from the deal – Rodriguez and Oviedo found a place with the help of a Mexican lawyer and activist named Soraya Vasquez.
Vasquez met Oviedo through her activism and was particularly impressed with how he was able to organize a benefit concert in Playas de Tijuana. She describes Oviedo as a charismatic leader who is capable of pulling off a project like Casa Hogar del Puente.
When she heard about their plan, Vasquez called a friend who owns a vacant house on top of a canyon in the outskirts of Tijuana. He offered them a five-year lease. The migrants don't pay rent but they are responsible for taxes and utility payments.
Vasquez views this project as an example of what can happen when Mexicans support Central American migrants.
In this case, the migrants are rebuilding an abandoned house in a dangerous neighborhood. They are opening a vegetable garden that neighborhood kids could use, and they have been talking with city officials about paving some of the dirt roads that turn into mud during winter storms.
"If we give these people opportunities, they will grow and our communities will grow with them," Vasquez said. "I hope this demonstrates that we should not be afraid of migrants, that they are not delinquents. They are resilient people who have suffered a lot but have been able to turn that suffering into energy."
When it is complete, Rodriguez said the shelter will have enough space for 30 women and children. The space will have an outdoor garden for children and a chicken coop that migrants can use to sell eggs. There are also talks of training the migrants to build pinatas that they can sell.
Additionally, the shelter will provide migrants with transportation to the border whenever they need to go to immigration court, and try to provide them with access to legal services, he added.
"I never imagine I'd do something like this," Rodriguez said. "It makes me happy to know that I helped build something that is going to help a lot of people."
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Michael Rodriguez, from Honduras, points up while looking at what will be a kitchen area as he and other volunteers work to renovate an abandoned home and the surrounding property for the purpose of housing migrant women and children on Tuesday, September 3, 2019 in Tijuana.
HAYNE PALMOUR IV/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/TNS