In March 2017, approximately two months ago, we accompanied representatives of a funding organization to the city of Tijuana to learn about the impact of Haitian immigration in the area. Tijuana, an industrial city located on the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, California, is well known as a last stop for migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries before trying to enter the United States, legally or otherwise. Our colleagues at the foundation had provided funds for local organizations assisting the Haitian migrant community and they wanted to see how the money was being spent. What we found was truly remarkable.
We had been to Tijuana many times before and we knew its location on the California border was fundamental to the area’s culture and economy. We also knew that there was a steady flow of migrants to the region, but we were unaware that a flood of Haitian migrants had begun to arrive during the past year and were now faced with a crisis situation with regard to food and shelter. Why Haiti, we wondered – Haiti is a Caribbean country much closer to Miami, where there is already a large community of Haitian immigrants. We spoke to numerous support providers as well as migrants themselves, and they told us that many of the Haitians arriving in Tijuana had come from Brazil, where work had dried up after the World Cup and Olympic games events. Unable to cross into the United States, growing numbers of these migrants began camping out on the streets of downtown Tijuana as they arrived in late 2016 and early 2017. In the absence of a government response to the increasing humanitarian crisis, religious congregations began to take in the migrants and provide them emergency shelter.
We visited eight temporary shelters during two days in Tijuana, and we were astonished by what we observed. Perhaps the most striking aspect was that the Christian congregations that were taking people in were not intended to be refugee shelters. They were spaces created for religious worship that had been pressed into service unexpectedly to house – and feed – up to several hundred migrants in some cases. The migrants generally slept on mats on the floor in large open spaces, and worked in teams with their hosts to prepare large amounts of simple dishes such as chicken and rice. Bathing, toilet and kitchen facilities were strained mightily.
Viewing the enormous volume of resources required for an emergency effort of this type, we had to wonder how these modest congregations could provide for so many people, in some cases for months. In addition to emergency support from non-government agencies and foreign aid foundations such as the one we accompanied on this visit, our hosts told us that the local community has been very supportive in donating food, clothing and other materials to assist the migrants. Area corporations as well have donated food and material assistance. We observed that the local pastors coordinating the assistance were clearly contributing from their own limited resources as well.
The most remarkable thing we learned on our visit to Tijuana was how much some human beings are willing to give of themselves to help others in need – a lesson we all could benefit from re-learning from time to time. But the stranding in Tijuana of large numbers of Haitian migrants due to shifting circumstances in Brazil and the United States provides a stark, real-life example to how the migration of human populations impacts the evolution of local communities. A steady flow of Central American migrants pass through Tijuana every year, but most of these people speak Spanish and generally are more similar in physical appearance to the local population, in contrast to the French or Creole-speaking Haitians who are mostly of African descent. This may make it more difficult for the Haitians to assimilate into the local population, however at the sites we visited our hosts reported that substantial numbers of the Haitian migrants had found jobs in the community and in one case, a migrant had married a local resident and moved from the temporary shelter into an apartment. The migrants we spoke with had already learned Spanish well enough to converse without difficulty, demonstrating language facility and the initiative to adapt to the local environment. A recent article published by the Reuters news service reported that the Tijuana area maquiladora manufacturing industry is hiring Haitian migrants who hold work visas (temporary visas are being furnished by the Mexican government) in order to meet labor force demand. According to anecdotal evidence reported by our hosts in Tijuana, some entrepreneurial migrants as well as locals are already starting small businesses to provide products and services specifically targeting the Haitian market, such as food and hairdressing. On a side trip to the nearby city of Rosarito, locals there reported that Haitian migrants were cropping up in the local workforce as well.
Why are there so many Chinese restaurants in Mexicali, a city 90 miles east of Tijuana? It might seem like this is a completely unrelated question, but here’s how it’s relevant: From the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, large numbers of Chinese immigrants arrived in northwestern Mexico to work as laborers in railroad construction, agriculture or in some cases to escape anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. Over time some departed for other destinations but many remained to make a home in Mexicali, congregating around the city’s well known “La Chinesca” Chinese neighborhood and in many cases, opening Chinese restaurants. Like the Chinese, although on a smaller scale, the Haitians migrated in search of a better life first in Brazil, then in the United States, and now unexpectedly they find themselves in Tijuana, Mexico, getting jobs, marrying locals and opening businesses. And future generations of Tijuana residents may come to consider Haitian luncheonettes just as much a part of their local culture as Mexicali residents think of Chinese restaurants as part of theirs.