La Casa del Migrante home to suffering and hope

(Jorge H. Gutiérrez Neri/El Nuevo Sol)

(Jorge H. Gutiérrez Neri/El Nuevo Sol)

TIJUANA — It’s past midnight and a white van stirs up the street dogs while it parks to let out more migrants who arrive tired, hungry and some even dying at Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Baja California.

Pedro, one of them, is a migrant who lived 14 years in Van Nuys, California and prefers to hide his identity. Upon trying to return to California through Tecate, Baja California with a group of eight travelers his plans didn’t work as expected.

“They had guns, they even put a 357 up to my head … they wanted me to say I was the guide and I had to say it to stop them from hitting me,” he states.

When they tried to come across the Rumorosa pass, they were all kidnapped by a group of criminals. Pedro said they took their money and raped a young 23-year-old girl travelling with them.

The kidnappers let them go in the mountains, ordered them to run without stopping and to not look back because, if after 15 minutes they could still see them, they would kill them, he related.

In Tijuana, just a few miles from the U.S. border, is an institution to serve migrants. Founded in 1947, Casa del Migrante houses male migrants looking for a better future.

They accept migrants regardless of nationality or religion for a maximum of up to 12 days every six months until they go on their way.

This non-governmental Catholic institution receives minimum funds from the Mexican government; most of the contributions are voluntary from past migrants or volunteer foreigners.

“Some nights we are so full that I have only from five to eight minutes to interview each migrant. I would like to take all the time they deserve,” said Alejandra Gómez Casillas, the social worker for Casa del Migrante in a voice about to cry.

“My experience is long, educational, rich, tense, worrisome,” asserts Father Luiz Kendzierski. Father Luiz has been director of Casa del Migrante 11 years; it consists of a group of dedicated workers that include a priest, volunteers and employees who give their all to their work.

The worry comes from the fact that, according to Casa del Migrante data, the center in 2010 took in around 10,300. This is less than the 11,500 migrants in 2009. However, 90 percent of the migrants that arrived there were deported from the U.S. and only 10 percent were migrants travelling up from the south towards the north.

According to the statistics from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in fiscal 2009 of the 580,107 deported from the U.S. 80 percent were Mexicans and one third of all those deported had a criminal record.

Ivonne Cáceres, 44, is Salvadoran and she signed on as a volunteer for two years with Casa del Migrante. Cáceres doesn’t receive any salary as a volunteer.

“You have to put yourself in another’s shoes in order to understand their situation. The migrants who are deported have to learn to incorporate themselves into a society that rejected them in Mexico and in the U.S.,” she states.

Casa offers different humanitarian services, psychosocial, spiritual, and educational and human rights services.

The migrants enjoy prepared food, warm beds and hot water for their personal hygiene. They also receive clothing, shoes that are in good condition, access to a list of job offers, first aid services and receive help to contact their relatives.

Alex Gómez, 33, who arrived recently at the Tijuana center following a long trek from Central America, is a Honduran migrant who in the past has lived in Arizona and Florida and returned to his country.

“Having been nine years in the U.S. and then living in Honduras I found out the opportunities that I lost,” he states.

Although Gómez left Honduras with only 200 pesos, he isn’t discouraged from continuing on his way. Gómez has gotten to Tijuana with scars and bruises all over his body and shoes so worn out as to be useless. He has travelled by bus, received rides from compassionate truckers, and relied on his ability to catch trains without being detected. His purpose was to go to El Salvador and look for work there, but he saw an opportunity to reach Mexico by catching a freight train and took it.

He has suffered hunger and depended on handouts people gave him along the way to feed himself and reach Tijuana.

In the halls of Casa del Migrante you’ll hear stories of deportations, separated families, kidnappings, human rights and sexual violations, long roads and shocking experiences.

With scars on his face, Basilio Cruz Alvarez, 51, recently deported from Santa Ana, California, waits at Casa del Migrante until he has enough money to leave Tijuana. “Here you don’t worry about the criminals, you worry about the police,” he says.

The Mexican born man said that he went out for a walk in Santa Ana with a friend who had a warrant for his arrest and the police arrested them. He was held in jail for two days for absolutely no reason, he says. After doing his two days, he was set free and upon going through the doors of the building an officer asked him to go back inside to check his immigration status. He was deported without having any criminal record.

In Tijuana, B.C., Cruz Alvarez was arrested by the municipal police and was given the option of going to the police station or “taking care of it some other way.” He rejected the obvious inducement to bribe and was held for 12 hours at the station.

“Here at Casa del Migrante you’re treated well, you’re even given food. Too bad you can only stay 12 days,” he says. He is now waiting for help from his cousins to be able to return to his home in Guerrero.

Besides receiving first aid, the migrants also receive personal help such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, assessing those migrants who’s rights might have been violated, sex education talks, and spiritual support.

They are first fed and then interviewed to document the personal data of each migrant (citizenship, age, name) and they’re assigned a room.

Then they are given the rules of the house, including neither to return to the center with liquor on their breath nor drugged up, to help with the house cleaning, and respect one another, among other rules.

Before retiring to rest the migrants get their new clothes and shoes then go to another window for their pillow and blankets. The following morning the migrants are awakened at six o’clock by the smell of industrial cleaner on the floors.

Then they clean up and dress and go out to look for some job or wait for their relatives.

“I don’t plan on returning to the U.S. I will start all over again in my country, even though most of them are over there,” asserts Pedro.



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