Migrants in Tijuana: Humanitarian Aid and Christian Responsibility

Today I am so excited to feature an article about migrants in Tijuana by Gabriel H. Pérez Duperou. Gabriel is a pastor in Tijuana, Mexico, a large city situated just across the border from San Diego, California. The city has experienced an influx of migrants and refugees recently, and Gabriel was confronted with their deep need for assistance and the Church's responsibility to serve those needs. In this article he covers a brief history of migrants in Tijuana, the recent challenges they have experienced, Scripture's mandate to welcome the stranger, and some practical ways his own congregation is putting that into practice.

Tijuana’s History of Welcome

Tijuana is a city in the state of Baja California, Mexico, which is in constant contact with migrants and transborder dynamics. The city is accustomed to receiving people from neighboring cities and countries, however it is not always tolerant of these visitors. Although intolerant practices and discrimination exist, against social groups such as indigenous, homeless, Central Americans and deportees, there also exists a strong Christian initiative that offers humanitarian help for these migrants in Tijuana.

From its foundation in 1987, La Casa del Migrante de Tijuana (Migrant shelter of Tijuana) founded by missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo (Scalabrinians), has provided shelter for migrant men, food, psychological assistance, medical attention, human rights defense, drug prevention groups and above all spiritual fellowship. Similar support groups, such as Scalabrinians Nuns, whose main concern focuses on migrant women with children, worked to install a shelter called “Instituto Madre Assunta”. In 1990 another group from the Federación de Asociaciones Cristianas de Jóvenes de la República Mexicana (YMCA) also installed temporary housing for migrant minors and provides clothing and psychological assistance for boys, girls and teenagers. The humanitarian attention that these organizations give differs based on the type of migrant in Tijuana and the particular needs and duration of stay of the migrant.

There are institutions and religious communities that make efforts to support people living on the streets. That is the case of Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava founded in 1999 as a community dining room. This organization serves over 1,000 breakfasts for migrants in Tijuana. Due to its location near the international border between Mexico and the United States and the increased deportations from the United States, the organization has expanded its support and gives shelter to a number of deportees with few economic resources and lack of family ties in Tijuana. Studies have found that deportation processes and fragmented ties have consequences on the mental health of deportees, sometimes resulting in drug addictions and growing precarity.

Additionally, some religious communities with Evangelical and Protestant backgrounds receive men and women who decide to stay in Tijuana for the purpose of staying close to relatives living in America.  Along with material assistance, these congregations provide spiritual resources that make it easier for these individuals to ground themselves in Tijuana. These institutions preach the Gospel despite the challenges and difficulties that deportees and other believers face. They function as shock absorbers from the trauma caused by migration, and as communities are working to integrate and reintegrate people “trapped at the border”.

New Challenges

As of May 2016 Tijuana has been witness to hundreds of arrivals from Haiti, Congo and other countries soliciting international protection from the United States. Locals began to notice the presence of foreigners at the crossing point in San Ysidro who were hoping that the American Immigration Office would accept them and begin the asylum process. The number of migrants in Tijuana began to increase on a daily basis and so did the humanitarian support from religious-based institutions such as the Casa del Migrante de Tijuana.

Many migrants in Tijuana began their trip at Tapachula Chiapas, and have traveled through the entire Mexican territory (see this map). Many have evaded organized crime, racism, police brutality, hunger, extortion and other life threatening risks. Even though most migrants say that Tijuana is not their final destination, many find it difficult to successfully claim protection from the United States and yet would rather not go back to their country of origin. This complex situation is dependent on many personal and structural factors and require strategies and a plan of execution for the short and long term.

The first to respond to the immediate needs of the migrants and homeless were the shelters. Images of migrants’ desperation moved the emotions of the general population and groups were formed to collect food, clothing and even provide medical attention. A Facebook page called “Comité Estratégico de Ayuda Humanitaria Tijuana” (Strategic Committee on Humanitarian Aid-Tijuana) functioned as a way to inform and recruit volunteer workers.

There is still no exact number as to how big the migrant population is in Tijuana, nor detailed information on their characteristics or socio-economic demographics. However, journalistic information and observation on the ground gives the impression that it is an increasing phenomenon. The current need has outgrown the solutions that local homeless shelters and government institutions can offer. With the intention to cross the border, most migrants in Tijuana find themselves living in the downtown area, in hotels, or renting apartments. Some Christian churches have also opened their doors to house migrants and offer them protection.  

Last September, the United States government declared that it would deport any Haitian citizen who does not qualify for asylum, a situation that will impact the population of Tijuana. Non-official information suggests that the there will also be an increase of Haitians moving into the city due to other causes like Hurricane Matthew. As the number of migrants in Tijuana has continued to grow, many local institutions are calling it a humanitarian crisis.

There are some who object to humanitarian action to help the migrants. They are a minority group with very little presence in Tijuana, but they demand the expulsion of foreigners and use national security as their central argument. There have not yet been any acts of aggression against migrants or restrictions on helping them, but there is a possibility that they may experience intolerance, segregation, and discrimination as they wait in Tijuana. It is these scenarios that call for our Christian churches and congregations to step in and get involved.

The Church’s Responsibility

The Word of God establishes what the believer’s conduct should be toward refugees and migrants, as well as what it should not be. ( For examples see Ex. 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:18-19; Jer. 22:3; Ez. 22:29; Zech. 7:9-10; Micah 6:8; Matt. 25:35; Gal. 5:14; Phil. 3:20; Heb. 13:1). The message of the Gospel includes the love of God towards His creation, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as a demonstration of that love, redemption and reconciliation with the Eternal Father if we confess our sins, the gift of eternal life, and harmony with God instead of separation from Him. The greatest example of compassion is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His ministry on earth was not marked by judgment and segregation, but by service and surrender. His attitude and words were always merciful and comforting, offering protection for the abandoned and the promise of loving communion with God.

As a teacher, Jesus left us instructions on how to love one another unconditionally. In fact, the Great Commission given to the disciples was to be a witness to ALL nations in regards to eternal life and reconciliation with God (Matt. 28:19-20).  Since the formation of the Early Church, God has called us to live in unity through communion with Him.  We are to identify the needs of the brethren and share without any pretension, members serving one another and edifying one another, without egotism or arrogance (Acts 2:41-47).

The Christian community has a responsibility to defend those who are vulnerable (Isa. 1:17). We can contribute to feeding, clothing and extending hospitality to migrants as an expression of our living faith, and as a testimony to the transformation that God has brought to our lives (James 2:14-26). We are not trying to earn God's favor or get to heaven by our works. Instead, our actions stem from the undeserved love of Christ in our lives (Eph. 2:4-10). The result of all this is that we produce spiritual fruit of kindness, gentleness, peace and love (Gal. 5:22-23).

Along with meeting the physical needs of migrants, our congregations also have the responsibility to give testimony to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, in the hope that some will believe in Him and have eternal life (John 20:31). Jesus’s promise to the Samaritan woman was, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). Food, clothing and hospitality, which last only for a little while, will never be enough for the migrants, but sharing the Gospel will meet their spiritual needs and give them an abundant life (John 10: 9-10).

As members of the Church, we should keep in mind that if one person suffers, then all the members suffer with them (1 Cor. 12:12-27). Many of the migrants in Tijuana are Christians who have left their own homes, churches and country. They have a deep need for comfort, prayer, good Biblical teaching, and spiritual counsel. They cannot receive any of those things if they are not invited into a community where they can worship God. Most of the recent migrants to Tijuana speak French, Creole, or Portuguese, and very few speak Spanish or English. This is an obstacle, but should not be a reason for us to hold back ministering to them and inviting them to worship with us. As a congregation we should pray that Christian migrants in Tijuana would be able to find a church home again.

I recently spoke with two Haitian Christians who left their wives and children in order to travel to the United States, but are now unsure of their decision due to the conditions they have experienced in Tijuana, the stress of traveling for five months, and depression caused by being separated from their families. They are not sure if they should cross the border, they have exhausted all their finances and are too tired to think of making any more decisions. I reminded them that God is in control in spite of how difficult it looks, and that my church will take care of them. The most important thing is that their relationship with God continues to grow through prayer and Bible reading. I assured them that we are their spiritual family.

Churches should consider activities or programs that share the love of Christ with foreigners, integrating them into our community, and offering the spiritual peace they need. These activities should transcend barriers that differentiate people like nationality, skin color, and language.  We should be connected through the one common factor - Christ (Gal. 3:28). David Platt says it this way: “The gospel calls us to celebrate our distinct ethnicities, value different cultures and recognize our diverse history...”.  When we think of or see legal or illegal migrants we should remember that they are men, women, girls, boys and teenagers created in God's image, and adopted by grace in the name of Jesus Christ.

Here are some of the ideas our church has implemented to minister to migrants in our city.

  • We organized a welcome meal to demonstrate that our church wants to welcome them as long as they are in Tijuana awaiting the completion of their asylum process or if they decide to stay here in Tijuana.
  • We want to identify groups that include women with children and create learning activities for them.
  • We want to use the church’s intimate relationship with a fellow Missionary Training Center that has student volunteers from Canada who speak and understand French, as a resource. We want to work with them to develop a weekly Bible study to share the Gospel.
  • We want to host informational meetings at our church for migrants on topics like life in the city, guidance in obtaining important documents, job and apartment hunting, medical attention, etc.
  • During our monthly prayer meetings, we want to lift up migrants’ prayer requests and pray for their tribulations, fears and agony.  

Further Reading - English

An NBC San Diego article about Haitians crossing the border.

San Diego Reader article about migrants in Tijuana.

The Miami Herald traces the 7,000 mile path of Haitians to the US.

The LA Times reports on the strain of migrants on Tijuana shelters.

This forthcoming book will feature an article co-written by Gabriel H. Pérez Duperou titled “Trapped at the Border: The Difficult Integration of Veterans, Families and Christians in Tijuana.”

Further Reading - Spanish

Historia de la Colonia Libertad by Bustamante Jorge

Estudio sobre los usuarios del Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava.

Ires y venires Movimientos migratorios en la frontera norte de México by Rodolfo Cruz Piñeiro and Cirila Quintero Ramírez  

Tijuana: Cambio social y migración by Victor Klagsbrunn

Reporte sobre dimensión, caracterización y áreas de atención a mexicanos deportados desde Estados Unidos.

Estimación y caracterización de la población residente en El Bordo del canal del río Tijuana. Reporte ejecutivo.