Javier and I together started La Casa de Paso, an emergency house for women and children, in June 2019. He and I met at the border in February 2019, when I came down by myself from Eugene, Oregon to volunteer. After that initial meeting we continued to talk, and I made many more trips to Tijuana. When the border closed last February and COVID arrived almost simultaneously, we had fed and housed almost 200 moms and children (and a few dads) at La Casa de Paso.
Because of COVID, we cannot safely keep the house open for people to stay there for the time being. But there is still plenty to do. Javier is at El Chaparral (the border crossing) in Tijuana several times every day, continuing to help people, finding shelters for new arrivals, making and distributing masks, paying for transportation to shelters, taking people to the clinic, buying prescription medicines when needed, paying for emergency dental work, and regularly buying and delivering food to about six shelters. (For more information, see www.lacasadepaso.com.)
These four stories provide a snapshot of what happened this month.
I. Getting Proper ID
Nearly every day Javier meets asylum seekers who ask if he can help them get the ID everyone needs to work legally in Mexico. Such was the case for a family of seven from El Salvador and Honduras whom Javier met at El Chaparral several weeks ago. I asked how these seven unrelated people came to consider themselves family. He said both families had been in Guanajuato for a time but didn't know each other. When it became too dangerous there, both families fled at the same time, joining a caravan headed for Tijuana.
It's extremely difficult and especially dangerous for families to travel in a caravan. Children are lost; women are molested. After many conversations and planning, the two families decided to leave the caravan and make their way to Tijuana together. They both left behind families in Honduras and El Salvador. At some point they told Javier they made a conscious decision to create a new family together.
After arriving safely in Tijuana a few weeks ago, they faced a new obstacle. Without proper ID in Mexico, you can't receive money, open a bank account, work legally, rent an apartment, or get a number to cross into the U.S. Valid IDs are crucial to surviving.
Javier took them to the Consulado Honorario de Honduras (and El Salvador) in Tijuana to request official IDs. It is a complicated process, and Javier advocated for them on more than one occasion. Finally, last week they believed they had obtained (with family members sending some) all the documents they needed. On Sept. 28, the day the sent documents were to arrive via fax at the Consulado, they all headed there together.
Javier waited with them for five hours in the hot, cramped building. The papers finally arrived at the very end of the day. The officials looked them over, interviewed the families one last time, and gave them the papers they needed.
Javier said they all were extremely tired and hungry at the end of a very long day. He bought dinner for everyone so they could all relax a little before they parted ways. I asked how they responded to his help. He said they thanked him many times, but added, "They didn’t need to say anything. I could tell they were grateful just by looking in their eyes and feeling the huge relief in their bodies."
II. Receiving Money
For asylum seekers without proper ID, there is no way to receive money, even though many have family members back home waiting to send money. They come to Javier for help, and often he offers to let them use his account. They call and give their relative Javier’s bank info needed to wire it to him at his bank. (Imagine the trust in him it requires on the part of the asylum seekers to enter into this arrangement with him, someone they scarcely know.) And, it is not easy! It's not like they call their cousin in Guatemala, she wires money, they walk with Javier to the bank for him to withdraw it a couple hours later, and he hands it over. Far from it!!
More often they go their separate ways and make arrangements to meet up later. He checks with his bank later in the day to see if it's there. It might take a couple of days. Often for inexplicable reasons he has to check three or four branches, because the first one doesn't have it but "the one eight blocks down might!" (I've experienced this firsthand more than once with him when we had to check five or six banks.) A few days ago it was a wild goose chase for Javier over six hours and many miles' worth of banks to finally get the money. The money in hand, he then has to find the family! Often they just show up the next day at El Chaparral and he gives it to them there.
III. The Sweet Children
Last week at El Chaparral he met a multi-generational family of 13 from San Salvador. He said they had no idea what to do now that they had finally arrived and realized they couldn’t cross the border. He took them all to a day shelter to rest while he looked for a shelter for such a large group. He knew they would want to be together, since they will be waiting a long time and often the shelters are far from each other. He said there were many little kids in this group, so he first walked back to La Casa and got some of the large paper and crayons we had to do art with the kids at La Casa de Paso and at El Chaparral every morning. He spread it down on the floor and, seeing the kids were a little shy, he told them he'd give a prize for the best drawing! Suddenly, they were on it! "Señor, look at this!" "Señor, see what I did!" "My name is not señor," he told them, laughing. "My name is Javier." "Javier, look at my drawing!" HAHA And so it continued! After a little while he knew the kids and adults must all be hungry, so he left and came back with all the makings for chicken burritos to cook for everyone. That was the prize. He said the kids were quite content with that.
IV. Helping in a New Way
A couple weeks ago Javier chose to help a mom and her two sons, ages 7 and 13, in a way he had not done before. We both first met this family when they arrived at the border almost a year ago. He gave her then the dedicated phone number he gives many asylum seekers in case they have questions.
She called him one night about two weeks ago, desperate for help. She told Javier she tries to work, but it’s hard with the two kids, because she must rely on the older son (I call him “A” to preserve his anonymity) to watch his little brother. She explained that a “group of men” latched onto her older son. They made friends with A on the street and offered to help him. How could any 13-year-old say no? They told him what a “man” he was. They gave him money and bought him some cool new clothes. Next, they gave him drugs, to which he is now addicted. Now the group requires payback from him, and it is never a choice. She correctly fears for her son’s life and for the safety of all three of them. Adding to that, the younger son looks up to his older brother and wants to be just like him. Please, could Javier help?
Javier said he tried to talk to A that day, but he was high and wanted only to sleep, so he took them to a place A could safely rest while he talked to the mom. He told her that he believed the best option for her son was to get him into a rehab facility. He would get off drugs there. He would be protected from the group of men. He could receive counseling and would go to school. Meanwhile, Javier could help find a safe place for her and the younger son and get him into school so she would be able to work. She agreed, although she understandably didn’t want to let go of A.
Javier called around and finally found a rehab facility with a specific treatment program for kids. Meanwhile, he paid for a hotel for them that night and arranged to meet the three of them for breakfast the next morning. Afterwards he talked with A alone.
He said A didn’t want to answer many questions, so Javier offered to tell him how he thought it all went down and A could say if he was right. He proceeded to describe in great detail to A exactly how the group of men began interacting with him, what they said, the money they offered him, how they plied him with things that made him feel important, and what they were now asking of him, including the very real threats if he didn’t comply. He looked at Javier with new respect and quietly acknowledged that he was 100% right.
At that point Javier said bluntly, “They don’t care about you, A. You mean nothing to them. You are simply an investment, and now it’s time for them to collect on their investment. Next, you will be asked to deliver and sell drugs for them, and eventually you will be asked to kill people. Continuing on this path is guaranteed to end in one of two ways for you: You will go to prison or you will die on the street, either from a drug overdose or from a bullet. Is this what you want? If not, then the best option for you is to go into rehab. It will protect you and your mom and brother.”
After getting A’s reluctant okay, he paid for a taxi to take them all to the rehab facility on the outskirts of Tijuana he had contacted earlier. Javier said when A saw it he didn’t want to get out of the taxi. It is not a pretty sight. The man in charge came out and talked to A, and several boys his age also talked to him. Finally, he said an emotional goodbye to his mom and brother and walked in. Javier paid the entry costs. Once inside, the government pays. A understands that if he leaves, the police will be notified, and he will not be able to return.
A will not see his mom and brother for about four months, or when he is ready to be discharged. Javier said he urged the mom not to contact A for a while. He explained that A has to believe that the life he had with her and his little brother is no longer an option for him at present in order for him to seriously work to create a healthy life for himself.
I pray for A every night. He has to feel so scared and alone. Hopefully at some point he will understand what a gift he was given. Meanwhile, the mom and younger son will stay in a shelter for a few weeks until they feel they are safe from the group actively looking for them. At that point she hopes to find an apartment somewhere outside of Tijuana for herself where the two of them will live and hopefully reunite with A at some point in the future.
A Final Thought
Thousands of asylum seekers have been waiting in limbo in Tijuana for close to a year now, with the trauma of leaving their homes, the deaths of family members, and the continuing threats to their safety adding to the terror.
Many of us in western Oregon were confined to our houses with the threat of fire and the reality of smoke for about two weeks. In the midst of “BE READY TO EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY” alerts, many wondered: Where will we go? How can I keep my family safe? What route is safest? What should we take with us? What about our animals? What must we leave behind? What will we do if we lose our home and/or business? How will we start over?
Be safe out there, and remember those that are still seeking a safe refuge.