Inside Tijuana’s Migrant Shelters

The Mexican Migration Field Research Program at UCSD allows students to participate in groundbreaking research on migrant communities.

Many UC San Diego students have ventured across the Mexican border to Tijuana in search of delicious food and wild nightlife. In the midst of the city’s alluring tourist attractions, however, are migrants living with no food, money, or homes.

Coming from Mexico or other nations south of the U.S., these people have been turned away from the border and left with nothing. Many of them were escaping the suffering they experienced in their homelands, be it gang violence, persecution, or poverty. Some were part of the Central American migrant caravan that has seen recent media attention.

Once deported, migrants can either travel back home or settle in Tijuana as they seek asylum. Those who choose to stay often have nowhere to turn to but migrant shelters. Partially funded by the Mexican government, these shelters provide meals, living spaces, and legal and social services to residents.

UCSD’s Mexican Migration Field Research Program gives undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to work closely with these migrant shelters. While the program has another research track focusing on students at the border, the track focusing on asylum seekers in Tijuana migrant shelters is brand-new for the 2018-19 academic year. The research examines the effects of deportation and exclusion on the lives of migrants, drawing on in-depth interviews with deportees and Central American asylum seekers.

Headed by Dr. Abigail Andrews, an assistant professor of sociology at UCSD, the nationally and internationally renowned program consists of 25-30 students and spans three quarters. For each quarter, the students enroll in a specific course on immigration or research methods with the sociology department. It’s during Winter Quarter that they spend time at the shelters volunteering and conducting interviews as part of an eight-unit field research course.  

As it centers on the experiences of migrants, the MMFRP offers a refreshing break from the politician-dominated media representations of the immigration debate. It is easy for arguments over immigration policy and the opinions of government leaders to drown out the actual experiences of migrants. Their suffering throughout the immigration process too often goes unnoticed.

“I always make sure to ask my interviewees if there’s anything they would like for me to bring awareness to so it gets out there,” Frieda Orbach, a third-year sociology major from Sixth College who is a participant in MMFRP, said. “As a student researcher, I feel like I’m a medium between them and the UCSD community, an outlet to give them that voice. You can research something, but if you’re not giving people their voices then what’s the point?”

In addition to the unique opportunity for undergraduates to conduct hands-on research, MMFRP also warrants an experiential learning experience: as part of the program, students spent a week living in Tijuana shelters among migrants.

Orbach found that staying in the shelters gave unique insight into the migrants’ perspective.

“We stayed there for a whole week, sleeping in the same place where they slept, eating the same food that they ate, being a part of their schedules and seeing how their days went, what they’re feeling,” Orbach said. “Seeing the circumstances for myself and listening to people about what needs to change helped me understand what exactly is going on.”

A day at the migrant shelter starts early. Many people wake up at 5 a.m. for breakfast. In some shelters, men cannot be in the shelter for certain hours of the day. The men at Casa del Migrante, for example, must go look for jobs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oftentimes, the shelter will help men find work in construction or other fields.

Women’s schedules are less enriching; many of them have nothing to do but watch their children, who spend most of the day attending classes.

Orbach commented on the shelters’ gendered living environments. Beyond having discrepancies in the activities available to men and women, the shelters also tend to be more organized in providing resources and services to men.

“The men have more of an actual system in their shelters,” Orbach said. “They had social workers, a lawyer, computer classes. The women’s shelter was not as structured. It’s a lot harder for women to find jobs because they have their kids with them. Sometimes they can’t even enroll in school because they’re not from Mexico; they’re from Latin America.”

Besides women being placed at a disadvantage, migrants must also endure poor living conditions since the shelters receive inadequate funding — many of them are dependent on volunteers and donations. With new migrants coming in every day, it is increasingly difficult for shelters to meet the needs of every resident. Life at these migrant shelters is therefore far from perfect.

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Yet more devastating than the shelters’ living conditions is the considerable trauma of the migrants living there.

For deportees who have established new lives for themselves in the U.S. in particular, the forced separation from their jobs, homes, and families is devastating. Deportees may be considered foreigners by U.S. government standards, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Mexico is their home.

“I’ve interviewed people who had barely gotten to the shelters, maybe a day or two in, and they’re just confused because according to the government this is their country, but it’s not,” Orbach said. “They don’t know anybody; they don’t know the city. It’s a foreign country to them, especially if they’ve already been socialized in the U.S. and grew up there.”

Once they’ve arrived on the other side of the border, deportees struggle through the process of starting from scratch.

“In the case of deportees, they have recently been cut off from their families and are attempting to rebuild their lives from a place of often intense social isolation,” Andrews said.

Deportation can also endanger migrants as they are forced back into the harmful environments they sought to escape by coming to the United States.

“Almost all [Central American deportees] are fleeing violence in their homelands, including extortion, threats, and murders of family members,” Andrews continued.

Orbach shed light on one woman’s experience with gang violence, which drove her from a town in Mexico to the U.S. in search of safety.

“She was scared her daughter, who was 11, was going to be sexually abused, and that her son would be forced to join a gang, so she fled from Guerrero,” Orbach said. “She’s here now and trying to seek asylum.”

Unfortunately, since the majority of migrants are escaping gang violence, it is difficult for them to make a strong case for asylum. Moreover, recent limits on asylum laws mean that migrants may have to wait months to even apply to seek asylum.

Amendments to asylum policies have heavily impacted San Diego in particular. Before U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement terminated its safe release procedures in October 2018, it would ensure that families without legal permission to stay in the U.S. who were seeking asylum were matched with sponsors in the U.S. upon release from detention centers. The sponsors would then provide a home for families as they awaited asylum.

Citing an influx of families entering the U.S. illegally, ICE no longer coordinates release plans for migrant families. Instead, the families are dropped off outside and left to find their own means of surviving.

“Families aren’t allowed to stay in the detention centers for too long, so ICE agents will drop them off at a random McDonald’s or Starbucks,” Orbach said. “It’s very sad and also very frustrating the way they’re treated.”

The San Diego Rapid Response Network was established to assist immigrant families living in the San Diego border region without documentation, providing shelter and basic necessities for them. Orbach volunteers with SDRNN as part of their International Migration Studies minor. As a result, they have a unique perspective of migrant life on both sides of the border.

“I decided I wanted to get experience from what it’s like on this side because here, families stay together, and over there, families don’t stay together,” Orbach said. “Women and children go to one, men go to another one.

It’s a little easier here, maybe. Families here do get more attention in comparison because when they arrive, they’re checked by a doctor and given medicine if they’re sick. Over there, there’s a doctor, but they don’t get checked immediately.”

Though these differences exist, the fact that both San Diego and Tijuana house migrant shelters speaks to their interconnectedness as immigration hubs. Further, San Diego’s proximity to the border demands its residents to be aware of what challenges migrants are facing.

Orbach reflected on the necessity for people in San Diego, especially UCSD students, to be mindful of the immigration crisis happening just south of them, and to look for ways to serve.

“These migrant shelters are only 12 or 15 minutes away from where people are going out and partying in Tijuana,” Orbach said. “It’s not far. I would really hope people get out of their bubble and understand there’s a whole different side of Tijuana that you don’t know about. The people there really need help.”

You can donate to the San Diego Rapid Response Network and Casa del Migrante through their websites.

Photo courtesy of Frieda Orbach.

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