And still new asylum seekers arrive at the El Chaparral border in Tijuana daily, hoping to cross. Javier goes there several times a day, seven days a week, to see who there is in need of help. Why do they still come? you might ask. They must know by now that the border is closed, that COVID infection rates are sky high (now the highest in all of Mexico), that morgues are full and cannot handle any more bodies. And yet they come.
They come because family members continue to be kidnapped, raped, or killed by the cartels. They flee their homes in order to survive and protect their children. They know all too well the real danger they face where they were living. They’ll take their chances with COVID and the unknown dangers of waiting in Tijuana.
It’s a terrible choice, made more traumatic without any idea of what is really going on. Javier gets six or more phone calls every day from asylum seekers he knows in many places waiting for their numbers to be called. Can you tell us what’s happening? When will they call numbers again? Is it safe to come back to Tijuana? Can I get a job there? We are running out of money! What should I do? Javier tries not to be too negative, because he knows people cannot live without hope. Yet, they deserve to know what it’s like in Tijuana now. No one knows what’s happening, when numbers will be called again. Most shelters are closed. There are few jobs. New COVID cases continue to rise.
Javier meets new arrivals almost every day at El Chaparral. He tries to find places for them to stay. Last week he saw a young woman who’d been badly beaten and needed medical attention. The free clinics were closed, so he paid a private doctor he knows to see her. He pays for food, medical bills, and transportation if necessary. He loads people up with supplies we have at La Casa when needed (e.g., blankets, baby formula, diapers, etc.).
Thanks to La Casa donations, Javier buys and delivers food to six shelters. Sometimes he takes his bike, buys an amount he can carry, and delivers it himself.
Other times our wonderful neighbor drives him to the mercado, so he can buy large quantities of vegetables, fruits, eggs, rice, beans, and milk. He divides it up at home, piles it back into the car, and off they go to deliver it to shelters.
Javier is still making masks as well as distributing finished masks dropped off at La Casa by an essential worker who occasionally crosses the border. He got more than 400 masks delivered last week. Besides supplying shelters with needed masks, this time he plans to focus on asylum seekers who are part of Trump’s MPP “Remain in Mexico” program. These people waited months for their number to be called, crossed into the U.S., but instead of being allowed to go to their sponsor or family to await their court dates, they were instead bounced back to Tijuana to wait. Even with the high COVID infection rates on both sides of the border, they are required to keep their court dates. They come to El Chaparral, walk across in a group at a certain time, and hang around in San Diego only to be told that the courts are closed. They are given another court date and sent back across again. Javier said most of them have dirty paper masks or none at all. Now they will all have clean masks.
I think we correctly decided not to have people staying in the house and risk bringing COVID there. Yet, things happen. About three weeks ago Javier called me in the early evening to say, “We have a little situation here.” He’d just gotten a call from a young woman (“L”) we both know and love. We met L about six months ago in El Chaparral early one morning, just two days after her husband had been shot and killed by the cartel. She was still in shock, not knowing what to do now that she’d fled her home in southern Mexico with her six-month old baby boy and seven-year old daughter, and also her sister and her eight-year-old daughter. L’s daughter was so traumatized she couldn’t speak. We took the family back to La Casa and made them breakfast. The kids played and the moms had a place to rest and to cry. L showed me photos of her husband on her phone and played for me a video of the family singing in their minivan that broke my heart. They found a place to stay with distant relatives, but we kept in contact with them. This time L called Javier in tears, petrified because the cartel had found them and knocked on the relative’s door asking for her. She asked Javier if they could come and stay at La Casa until they found another place. Of course it wasn’t safe, but how could we say no? They came later that night and stayed for a week. We don’t know where they are living now, which is safer for them, but L texted me to say “Don’t worry,” that they “have the basics” (which means almost nothing, sadly), but that she “feels calm again.” Javier bought them air mattresses before they left, and we gave them some books, games, and art materials for the kids. Still, the constant worry about the cartel as they wait to reunite with their sister in the U.S. must be terrible for them. And yet she is always thankful. I feel thankful to know them.
I will end with TWO pieces of happy news: Our friend Alberto, a Nicaraguan man with a wife and young daughter still there, was released from detention in Louisiana several weeks ago after being detained in some of the worst detention centers for almost 16 months. I met him in February 2019, a week before his number was called. He protested Daniel Ortega’s government, making him a marked man. Up until the moment of his release, he assumed he was being deported, which would have been a death sentence for him. And suddenly, BOOM, he was released. He had never been on a plane before. It took a full 24 hours and five plane changes to get to WA state, but he made it! He texted me the night he arrived. It made me so happy to see his face! He spent the first two weeks in quarantine in a trailer on his sponsor’s property. At present he’s doing a lot of work on his sponsor’s property and studying English 2-3 hours a day. It has to be difficult, being an adult professional man, and a husband and father besides, living in someone else’s house under their rules, yet he does it with grace and gratitude. Today he texted me to ask if I would send him my picture. “I’m making an album of friends,” he said. He’s an amazing man with incredible skills and such a big heart who has so much to offer this country. I hope we can one day be deserving of him and so many others like him.
My friend Carla, someone I met in Tijuana when she, her husband, and their 10-year-old daughter Vivi were waiting to cross, was released from detention about two weeks ago and days later had a happy reunion with her daughters.
To bring you all up to date, after they crossed, Vivi, an American citizen, was separated from her parents, since she by law could not be held in detention. Dari, her 19-year-old sister living in the U.S., had 24 hours to raise the money and then get halfway across the country to get Vivi before she was put into a foster home. A lot of people stepped up to make that happen.
Meanwhile the parents were put in separate detention centers. The dad was deported back to Mexico several weeks ago, but Carla is now free and with her daughters, thanks to some really awesome work by her attorney. I am so, so happy at this. Vivi missed her mom terribly, and it was so stressful for Dari to envision being responsible for parenting Vivi. Imagine. Now Dari can resume her life and return to college. Next up: Finding a way for the dad to rejoin the family.
So that’s it for now. My hope was that I could return to Tijuana on July 1 for at least a couple months, but sadly I canceled my reservation last week. COVID is so bad there now that it seemed irresponsible to add one more person to the city. I’m not entirely sure I could have crossed anyhow. So I’m going to try for August 1. Meanwhile, Javier and I are so thankful for donations we receive. He describes how grateful people in the shelters are when he delivers food and masks. You can’t see their faces or hear their voices, but please know you are making a huge difference. We could not do it without you.