Lourdes Lizardi Lopez, José Maria Garcia Lara, and Bonifacio Lopez Valdéz. All three are migrant-rights activists and involved with or work at the Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter.
  • Lourdes Lizardi Lopez, José Maria Garcia Lara, and Bonifacio Lopez Valdéz. All three are migrant-rights activists and involved with or work at the Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter.
  • Image by Mael Vizcarra
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Tijuana is no stranger to desperation. Vagrants, junkies, and deportees are ubiquitous in the streets. Stopping at traffic lights often means shooing away a sinewy street-twitch, scheming to wipe down your windshield with a filthy rag in hopes of a peso or two. The community of the have-nothings is so established that I’ve even seen a street vendor — a man of the street himself, mind you — catering specifically to this demographic with his peddled wares: a light bulb, blankets, old shoes. These unfortunates are embedded in the Tijuana urban landscape.

Migrants waiting in front of the Desayunador Salesiano “Padre Chava” shelter for a stamp with an appointment date to meet with U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement

Migrants waiting in front of the Desayunador Salesiano “Padre Chava” shelter for a stamp with an appointment date to meet with U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement

But the current migrant crisis has even the most hardened tijuanenses wringing their hands. Over the past few months, people have been streaming into Tijuana from all over the world, all hoping for a chance to achieve refugee status in the United States. Current estimates place the total at around 7500 people. That’s 7500 people without money or housing, filling the sidewalks and shelters to a capacity never before witnessed.

The volume of people alone is enough for pause, but there is also the fact that they are all obviously so far from their homes. Black men and women speaking French on the streets of TJ is not the kind of thing that blends into the homogeneous demographic tapestry. Even the local volunteers working closely with the migrants are fuzzy at best when it comes to their places of origin; rarely going into anything more specific than Haiti or Africa. Speaking with the migrants, I’ve found them to be predominantly from Western Africa — Guinea, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone — and Haiti.

The government and the local newspapers are clinging to the narrative that the majority of the migrants flooded to Brazil as hired labor to help prepare for the Olympics, and now, left with nothing but expired Brazilian visas and the occasional Brazilian-born baby, trudge north in search of more prospects. While this is certainly true of many of the Haitians, the Tijuana government’s proclamations should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. As recently as Monday, September 19, Carlos Mora Àlvarez, president of the Executive Council for Migrants, said that a migrant crisis does not exist — “No existe una crisis migratoria.”

The Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter

The Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter

Not everyone is strapping on the blinders, however. Local nonprofits such as José Maria “Chema” García Lara’s Movimiento Juventud 2000 — part of the coalition Alianza Migrante Tijuana — are doing everything in their limited power to provide food, safety, and shelter for as many of the migrants as they can. “They have nothing,” says Chema. “When they got to Tapachula,” — a city on the Guatemalan border — “the Mexican government gave them a ‘transit permit.’ Here in Tijuana, they received a stamp assigning them a date where they can enter the U.S. to have their asylum case reviewed. Until then, they are stuck here, waiting with nothing.”

And waiting is almost all that they can do, given that they have no money. During the day, they venture out from the various shelters in Zona Norte and Libertad to stroll around town, often returning to the shelters to seek respite from the sun during the hottest parts of the day. The strip of Segunda (Second Street) and Melchor Ocampo, by downtown Tijuana’s Smart & Final, is a hotbed of activity twice a day, where locals and volunteer organizations hand out food to the hundreds of migrants who flock there for food. Idle hands have some locals and authorities concerned, however, as they are concerned about Tijuana’s criminal element exploiting the situation. Indeed, migrants have loaded into pick-up trucks for a day of manual labor and scratched out deals with “friendly” locals to have money sent to them. Swindling has not been in short supply.

It was on Movimiento Juventud 2000’s back patio, in the heart of Zona Norte (Tijuana’s red-light district) that I met Amadou. He was seated in a plastic chair in the shade of a canopy, surrounded by colorful tents propped open atop bare mattresses. Leaning against a thick wooden support pillar — the creaking of which gave the odd sensation of being at sea — he was unhurriedly writing in a notebook I saw to be full to the margins with neat handwriting. As with all of the migrants to whom I spoke, Amadou was wary and distrustful of me at first. But once he discovered that I was only interested in hearing his story — apparently the first person in his long journey to make such a request — he warmed to me; though he still requested I not use his name, specific dates, or his country of origin. And so, over the yowling of the in-heat cat prowling around fruitlessly hunting pigeons and the fever-pitch fire-and-brimstone screeching of a sidewalk preacher, Amadou told me how he came to be in Tijuana.

“I was a French teacher and director of an elementary school in [a West African country],” he begins, carefully selecting each word and chewing on it a moment before speaking. “In the presidential elections in October 2015, my school was a place of voting, and because I was the director, I was placed in charge of the ballot box. Before the election, government officials made me swear to God that I would accurately report the results of the vote, no matter who won.”

We pause to clarify the translation of “ballot box.” Amadou only speaks French, and he and I are able to communicate solely through the sieve of my wife, Mael Vizcarra, whose French has not been dusted off for close to a decade. Despite this obstacle, nothing remains lost in translation for long. He was a French teacher, after all.

“When the election results came in,” he continues, “our district had chosen the opposition candidate by a large margin. The government officials came to me again, and this time they told me that it was my duty to my government and my country to lie and report that the sitting president had won. This violated my morals and the promise I had sworn to God, and so I reported the truth. Then I was arrested.

“They tortured me,” Amadou says through embarrassed tears. “They accused me of being a militant in opposition to the government, and they tortured me. After a month in jail, a group of us were able to escape. I had to leave in November 2015 and went to Bamako in Mali.”

As Mael relays his words to me, he stares into my eyes with such a vivid intensity that I can conjure the memory of it with little to no effort. I break from his gaze, and he notices my eyes drift to his wedding ring. “I have a wife and a four-year-old daughter. They are still there.” I don’t ask him anything more, and he says nothing else. He just wipes his eyes and continues with his story.

“In Mali, it was impossible for me to find work. My government had stripped me of my credentials, and every potential employer in Bamako was distrustful of an instructor from another country who was labeled as a militant. Nobody would hire me. I stayed in Bamako for five months, trying to find work and make money, but in May of this year, I flew to Quito, Ecuador, on a Turkish airline, because they do not require a visa.”

I ask him if his intention all along was to make his way to the United States, and he tells me that it was. When I ask him if France was ever an option, he tells me that he needs a visa to get to France, and with his credentials in turmoil, a visa is not available to him.

“From Quito, we had to walk through the wilderness of Colombia. We walked across mountains and through jungles. It was hard. All of us that were traveling formed into groups of 20, 40, even 60 people. Everyone was from all over. At first, there were only two of us from my country, but I met more along the way. Crossing into Panama, it was really bad. Many people died. Many, many people. In my group, only seven people died, but in some groups it was almost everyone. I know because we would come upon them. Whole groups of people dead in the jungle.”

At the Colombian-Panamanian border, he had his first encounter with locals preying on the desperate. Local versions of “coyotes” would guide them at five dollars a person, veer them off course, and set them to walking through more swampy jungle where more people would die, until they would come across another “coyote,” and the entire process would start over.

They ran into more trouble at the Nicaraguan border. “It was the worst part of the entire journey,” Amadou says. “The border was closed and the military was patrolling it. They would let none of us through. They were persecuting us. We were stuck there for three months, always being robbed with guns and machetes. Many more people died from exposure. We tried to cross twice but were beaten back each time. Finally we found someone we could pay, and they helped us cross.”

At Guatemala’s southern border, they paid $100 for a bus ride to Mexico. The man who took their money was never to be seen again. Determination somehow unfaltering, another bus was tracked down, and Amadou and 82 others rode through Guatemala to the northern border with Mexico. There, they were sharked yet again by the men pulling the tiny boats across the narrow river into Tapachula, Chiapas. One thousand five hundred Mexican pesos (about $75) and a four-day bus ride later, Amadou was in Tijuana. It was September 11, 2016; almost a full year since his arrest.

Now, he awaits the day when he will plead his case to the United States in the hopes of achieving refugee status. Amadou, like thousands of others, is stuck in Tijuana with no home, no food, and no money. All he has is time, his story, and the charity of those willing to offer any help that they can.

If you would like to offer assistance, Movimiento Juventud 2000 is accepting donations of food, money, clothing, tents, blankets, et cetera at Avenida Constitucion No 205, Zona Norte, Tijuana, BC. Email: [email protected]

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Ponzi Oct. 5, 2016 @ 8:29 a.m.

If they are in Mexico, it's THEIR immigration problem.


justinoconnell Oct. 5, 2016 @ 2:24 p.m.

This definitely has implications for US border operations, and thus taxpayer dollars, not to mention the many thousands of US citizens who find themselves amid an unstable situation at the border crossing everyday. Also, many migrants have family in the US already.


jnojr Oct. 5, 2016 @ 12:29 p.m.

All we have to do is say, "No." If Mexico wants to support them, great! But I have a feeling that Mexico's definitions of "humanity" and "compassion" aren't the same as what they demand of the US...


SalULloyd Oct. 7, 2016 @ 2:38 p.m.

No, we destroy first then try to "re-build."


swell Oct. 6, 2016 @ 6:27 a.m.

It would be a refreshing change if US aid to foreign countries went to the people who needed it instead of the dictator who doesn't. In many cases, the money goes for weapons that are used by that government against the citizens who are starving in the streets. The US war machine has created and supported more corrupt governments than Russia or China and US citizens are too distracted to notice.


AlexClarke Oct. 6, 2016 @ 7 a.m.

We have too many non productive citizens we sure don't need any more immigrants or refugees. Illegal immigrants do not get welfare but if a person is classified a refugee they get a whole banquet of taxpayer funded benefits.


Ponzi Oct. 6, 2016 @ 8:48 a.m.

Mexico needs to build a wall and have Haiti pay for it.


Matingas Oct. 6, 2016 @ 3:55 p.m.

"Black men and women speaking French on the streets of TJ is not the kind of thing that blends into the homogeneous demographic tapestry."

TJ is homogeneous? I've heard Chinese, English, all sorts of Spanish, Spanglish, different Native Mexican dialects, Persian, German.... seen people from all parts of the world.


Ponzi Oct. 6, 2016 @ 4:27 p.m.

Well guess what TJ, a lot of people in the United States would like to keep a few shreds of what's left of our "homogeneous demographic" too. The U.S. can't be the Noah's Ark for the overpopulated planet.


SalULloyd Oct. 7, 2016 @ 2:41 p.m.

**** Ponzi, he's arguing that it is NOT homogenous


Ponzi Oct. 6, 2016 @ 8:17 p.m.

Some proponents of out-of-control immigration cite the Statue of Liberty and that "immigrants built this nation..." Well times have changed since millions of migrants came through Ellis Island. Back then, America needed labor to grow its economy. Unskilled labor was needed for operating factory machines and other low-skilled jobs.

Today, America does not need unskilled labor. Particularly unskilled labor that can't even read in their native language and have high birth rates. America outsources to low-wage countries, we automate what we can here. Being flooded with unskilled, uneducated, illiterate, third-world migrants damages our economy because it stresses the welfare state that was created for citizens, not for refugees.

Churches, non-profits (that actually profit for every nose they can bring into the country) don't continue their support. They unload them onto our social safety net. This reduces the amount of services that veterans, disabled citizens, homeless and other can use because it is being diverted to people who have no history of employment or service in the United States.

We have to turn our back of THEM because for everyone of them that we accept, we are turning our backs on one of our OWN.

Mexico needs to protect their borders because the time is coming when the U.S. is not going to accept this flood of undesirables come hell or high water. It's Trump this election cycle, but if he doesn't win, mark my words there will be people to fill his shoes to stop this insanity once and for all. Even if it means a bloody revolt.


SalULloyd Oct. 7, 2016 @ 2:45 p.m.

Cardwell, get your facts straight first.

1) Although Haitians may well speak French, they commonly speak CREOLE, NOT French. Especially the rural people.

2) The "Zona Norte" is a section of the city that borders the US border. It is NOT synonymous with their "red light district," accurately called "Zona de Tolerancia." This smaller "zona" is WITHIN the Zona Norte. There dental offices in the Zona Norte as well as an AM radio station.


Ponzi Oct. 7, 2016 @ 8:57 p.m.

Hey Mexico! How does it feel to be invaded? They are your's to keep. We don't need ny more uneducated, unskilled, illiterate migrants. Have fun with them because we are not accepting any more. Make sure to tell them we are going to deport them. Because they may decide to stay in your welcoming country and work. Haven't they been watching the news? Oh, that's right, they don' understand English. But whether Donald Trump gets elected or not, we are SHIPPING THEM ALL BACK TO HAITI.


Rocket_J_Squirrel Oct. 8, 2016 @ 3:32 p.m.

Exactly when did feeding, clothing, housing, providing medical care, etc. ad nauseum fall onto the wallets of the US Taxpayer?

Should we hold the gates open for the other 6 billion on the planet?

Where are the resources?

How many billions can we absorb without collapsing the economy?

Isn't being $20 trillion in the red enough?

Am I asking too many questions?

Do you really think so?

What can I do to stop being so annoying?

Should I kill myself?

How should I do it?

Do they speak french in Haiti?

Is Kanda Bongo Man amongst them? (I love that guy!}



JohnERangel Oct. 9, 2016 @ 5:20 a.m.

If you look at history you'll see that all empires come and go. Rome could not stop the 'barbarians at their gates (Germanic tribes)," and the US will not be able to prevent what is coming from happening. A few angry words in cyberspace will not keep the 'Anglo experiment' in the new world (Manifest Destiny anyone?) from experiencing the same fate as other aggressive cultures. You reap what you sow and karma es una perra.


Rocket_J_Squirrel Oct. 9, 2016 @ 11:04 a.m.


Interesting US government website.

I thought I heard on PBS Radio today that only if Haiti agrees to take them back they can then be deported. Otherwise, they stay.


Rocket_J_Squirrel Oct. 9, 2016 @ 11:30 a.m.

Temporary Protected Status

Find on this page:

What is TPS? Countries Currently Designated for TPS Eligibility Requirements What to File When and Where to File Application Process Maintaining TPS Automatic Employment Authorization Document (EAD) Extension Filing Late Travel Change of Address Help Filing an Application TPS Granted by an Immigration Judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals Appealing a Denial

What is TPS

The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country's nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately. USCIS may grant TPS to eligible nationals of certain countries (or parts of countries), who are already in the United States. Eligible individuals without nationality who last resided in the designated country may also be granted TPS.

The Secretary may designate a country for TPS due to the following temporary conditions in the country:

Ongoing armed conflict (such as civil war) An environmental disaster (such as earthquake or hurricane), or an epidemic Other extraordinary and temporary conditions During a designated period, individuals who are TPS beneficiaries or who are found preliminarily eligible for TPS upon initial review of their cases (prima facie eligible):

Are not removable from the United States Can obtain an employment authorization document (EAD) May be granted travel authorization Once granted TPS, an individual also cannot be detained by DHS on the basis of his or her immigration status in the United States.


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader