Who We Help
Imagine encountering a sobbing young mom with two young children ages three and five clinging to her. It’s about 5 p.m. They are all hungry, tired, and cold, and are huddled wrapped in a blanket behind the big TIJUANA letters at El Chaparral, prepared to spend the night. She and her kids traveled a very long distance by bus from their shelter to arrive at El Chaparral before 6 a.m. that morning, logically assuming their number would be called and they would cross the border that day (it would have been the second number called). However, only one number was called. With no time or money to return to the shelter, only to come back again the next day, she panicked at having no place to stay.
Javier and I witnessed variations on this theme often over our six months working at the border. It’s a dangerous place for moms and children alone at night. Children are abducted, and young moms, desperate for money, can be raped or lured into prostitution. In the past, if we couldn’t find a shelter for them, we paid for a hotel for the night just to get them off the street.
The great good news is that after a solid month of looking, we found the perfect place to temporarily house women and children in this situation for one to three days until their number is called and they cross the border into the U.S. We rented half of a duplex in late July to respond to this need, a need not being filled by any other group in Tijuana.
From initial donations we paid first/last month's rent and bought a refrigerator, bunk beds, and a few basics. (Imagine moving into a house with nothing!) We were still cleaning, drywalling, painting, and rebuilding a railing when we met our first family, a mom, her nine-year-old son, and her cousin at El Chaparral on July 30.
El Chaparral is the main pedestrian and vehicle border crossing in Tijuana between Tijuana and San Diego. Immigration designated this plaza-like space as the location where everyone seeking asylum in the U.S. would be stopped, stand in line to get a number (this four-digit number is written on a piece of paper the size of your thumbnail), and then return three to four months later when their number is called and they are allowed to cross into the U.S.
They needed a place to stay. How could we say we weren’t “ready” yet? We figured we’d make it work, and we did, thanks in large part to our friend Jill who dropped off a few essentials.
This family fled San Salvador due to terrible gang violence and intimidation aimed at the boy. The women told us many times how grateful they were to be in a safe place, that it was the first good night’s sleep they'd had in many months. In the shelter they slept in a small pop tent with five other people! The mom said someone used her stomach as a pillow every night.
While they were with us, we found we could do more. We urged them to go back to Al Otro Lado and have one last meeting with an attorney there. We discussed their plans once in the U.S. Where do they hope to live? Do they have family there to sponsor them? We explained that they will have a much better chance to stay in the U.S. if they have the name and address of a sponsor to give ICE once they are out of the hielera, or ice-box.
The hielera, for those who don’t know, is our country’s “Welcome to the USA” to asylum seekers who have done nothing wrong. It’s the concrete block cell kept at about 40 degrees where asylum seekers spend an average of six days immediately after they are driven across the border. People are required to take off all their clothes except the layer next to their skin, relinquish all belongings, and sleep on the cement floor with only a crackly Mylar sheet. A shared toilet in the corner offers no privacy. People are fed little, and much of it is disgusting, including rotten meat green with mold. Glaring overhead lights are on 24/7, and there are no windows. The hieleras are packed. One woman said hers held 21 people and if everyone had wanted to lie down there would not have been room. She said she was freezing and cried the entire three days she was kept there (and three days is the shortest period of time—we know parents with a three-day-old baby and a four-year-old who were kept in the hielera for six days. Some spend more than two weeks).
So back to the family. During their stay, they slept a lot. They got to take hot showers. We took them to the laundromat and gave them money to buy food to cook. The boy and I read a bilingual book together, and he proudly carried loads of old lumber safely downstairs after Javier rebuilt a railing. The women helped get the house ready by helping wash windows and floors. They fixed up the beds in their room but then all chose to sleep on the floor, as have our other families. Maybe they had not slept in beds before, we’re not sure, or perhaps it just felt good to sleep in a less confined space.
The first morning when fixing breakfast, I saw the boy’s face light up at the sight of grapes. It turns out grapes are pure gold to many of these families. They may have picked them, packed them, but few have gotten to actually eat them. He savored each one like something unbelievably precious. As we set off for El Chaparral the next two mornings, I tucked a little baggie of grapes in his hand to take along.
Now, at the end of just the first month, 28 people have come and gone. Like our first family, they were all exhausted; several literally fell asleep on the living room floor. We know there will be countless variations on this theme in the coming months. More desperate and exhausted moms and kids. More stories. People grateful for a safe place.
More than 10,000 people are currently in Tijuana waiting for their numbers to be called, and more new asylum seekers arrive every day. The need for La Casa de Paso will not go away any time soon.
And now we need your help. Many people have asked me how they can help asylum seekers in Tijuana. This is it! This is the time! We need to know we have the money to pay the rent for at least six months. We’ll have more data about our utility, food, and laundry costs as time goes on, and I will compile a Wish List of some needed items for the house. For now, though, knowing we have the money to pay the rent and keep the house open is the first priority.
THANK YOU for passing this on to your friends, family, church group, book group, neighborhood group, and coworkers! We are determined to fill these moms’ and kids’ last days in Tijuana with love and caring that we hope will help sustain them when they cross the border and head into the next arduous chapter of their journey.
Some people can travel; others can raise money.
Some can generate resources; others can spread the word.
No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,
and together we can do a LOT!