The past couple of weeks brought more new developments to the Tijuana border. Every day for the past couple of weeks, hundreds of single (and often young) adults from Venezuela (no children, no families) have been deported into Tijuana, many (or all?) of them from detention centers in Texas. They arrive with only the clothes on their backs and wearing flip flops—a change from people deported in the past who were likewise easily identified because they were all sent back wearing shoes with no shoelaces. (That made me so mad that I was ready to buy 100 pairs of shoelaces to give out until Javier convinced me that another group was planning to do that.)
You might wonder how Javier decides who to help when there is so much need. Over time, he has developed a way of organizing each day into a type of triage. Sick people needing to see a doctor always have priority. He tries to group people needing to get money and moms needing to pick up Pampers and baby wipes into groups on certain days and times. He may arrange to meet them outside the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and go from there using Ubers if necessary.
Here’s a snapshot of two typical days:
He wakes up about 4 a.m., stretches, does some yoga, meditates, and rides his bike to a park to work out on the outside equipment provided free. By 7 a.m. he’s already gotten five phone calls from people who need something (e.g., they need to go to the clinic, the bank, or a government office; or they need diapers, warm clothes, a place to stay, a way to receive money, or general information). On this day a man Javier helps each week called saying he needed to get money asap in order to feed his family for another week (his relatives had wired it to Javier’s account late the previous day). Another family from Guatemala wanted help so he agreed to meet them at Chaparral later in the day. He got the money quickly for the man and was headed to Chaparral to check on any new arrivals when he got a text from our friend Samantha in San Diego. She was walking across with a friend to deliver some donated warm clothes for kids, so Javier detoured to meet them at the border crossing. They walked back to the house via Chaparral where they ran into our friends from Michoacán, L and her teenage daughter.
Javier said it was nice to introduce everyone. For L and her daughter, I imagine it was a nice normal experience that reminded them they are more than “asylum seekers.” They had come to the border to say goodbye to someone they knew who had an appointment to cross that day. It must have been hard; they have been waiting to cross for such a long time, and the stress is beginning to take its toll on them both, physically and psychologically. Every day they try to get a date through the CBP One app, but they have not been lucky enough to get one yet. Spending time at the house is a way for them to relax, laugh, and talk about ordinary things for a time. It lifts their spirits and gives them renewed hope. Today Javier told me he’s worried about them both, that he’s seeing their health deteriorate from such a long time waiting in the shelter in such horrible conditions. We talked about bringing them back to the house to stay. We’ve had this conversation before. It’s a difficult decision for us. We created La Casa de Paso as an emergency, short-stay house and not a shelter, which is also our agreement with our landlord. It was easy in the beginning, because we knew the families staying with us would cross in a day or two when their number was called. Now there’s no way to predict how long someone might be there. Even so, we can’t simply watch the physical and mental health of these two wonderful people deteriorate before our eyes. So we are thinking about it. I tend to follow Javier’s lead on these things; he has excellent instincts.
After dropping off the donations at the house, Samantha and her friend invited Javier to go eat with them, but just then a man from Nicaragua called saying he was waiting for him in line at the bank, so Javier said adios to them and off he went on his bike. After he successfully got the money, Javier quickly rode back to Chaparral to meet two moms with kids from Guatemala who were waiting for his help in finding a place to stay.
After miraculously finding a shelter for them, he headed home about 6:30, taking time to cruise through Chaparral one more time before dark to see if there were any moms and kids wandering around with no idea what to do or where to sleep. On this day he didn’t see anyone. He’d been out all day and hadn’t eaten since he made a quick smoothie for breakfast. After listening to four messages on his phone and calling me, he took a shower, made a little dinner for himself (often it’s oatmeal or a cup of noodles with tuna added), turned off his phone, and settled in to watch a soccer game before falling asleep by 7:30.
The next morning after we talked on the phone, he was off to meet two moms, two kids, and a grandma at Chaparral to bring them back to the house to make breakfast. He always asks anyone he brings back what they would like, because often it has been a long time since they’ve been able to cook or eat something they want that sounds good to them. If we don’t have everything on their list, he sets off to buy the needed items. Meanwhile, he planned to make phone calls to every shelter he knows to find a place for them. If he can’t find one, he will take them to the border patrol at Chaparral around noon; sometimes they can find a shelter when he can’t. But as always, he will check back around 4:00. If the family is still there, he will bring them all back to the house for the night.
We also heard good news! Two days ago he got a call from two unrelated Venezuelan women he’d met the previous week after they were deported as part of one of the large groups. Over the next two days, he helped them replace papers they would need, and just a few days later, they had confirmation of a date to present themselves at the border. One of them has cancer, so perhaps that made a difference, or perhaps they just got lucky using the app (we hear that some people spend many hours dialing and redialing nonstop until they finally get through). Javier had them stay at La Casa that night so he could walk them safely over to the border for their 5 a.m. appointment the next morning. He watched them continue to walk in until he could no longer see them. They promised they would let him know when they arrived. WELL, this morning he got a call from them, thanking him over and over again! They were in a hotel in San Diego and would soon be on their flights, one to Orlando and one to New York City to be with their families. And now, another day later, one of them called from Denver, saying she was waiting for her connecting flight to Orlando. Later that day she sent a photo of her smiling self in Florida! Her friend is already in NYC!
These are typical days. It may seem hard to imagine for anyone who has not spent time with asylum seekers at the border, and yes, it’s hard work, but Javier and I agree that it is such a privilege just to know these beautiful people. We know we make a difference in their lives, but it is equally true that they make a profound and unforgettable difference in ours, and for that we will always be grateful.
Anyone donating to La Casa de Paso should be happy to see how their donations are being used. It takes money to do this work, and we could not do it without you. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Compassion is a verb.