In Tijuana, deportees find a place to call home

Father Pat Murphy, director of the Scalabrini-run Casa del Migrante shelter, washes his hands during a symbolic washing of feet for migrants on Holy Thursday April 13, 2017, in Tijuana, Mexico.(CNS photo/David Maung)Father Pat Murphy, director of the Scalabrini-run Casa del Migrante shelter, washes his hands during a symbolic washing of feet for migrants on Holy Thursday April 13, 2017, in Tijuana, Mexico.(CNS photo/David Maung)

As the Trump administration more or less throws aside any pretense of only deporting undocumented migrants who have committed serious criminal offenses, I decide to visit Tijuana to assess the current situation across the border. I’m on my way to meet with Scalabrinian Father Pat Murphy, who helps run Casa del Migrante, a shelter and social service center for migrants heading to the border and deportees from the United States who find themselves deposited in Tijuana. It is my first time in the city, and as I cross the border, I am surprised to find myself feeling anxious.

I have been to a number of foreign countries as a Jesuit, and I have spent the last eight years in Los Angeles, where Mexican immigrants make up a very significant part of the population. I have learned enough Spanish to put sentences together.

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And despite all the border security, there is very little obviously different between Tijuana and its American counterpart, San Ysidro. I wonder, to my embarrassment, “Had I somehow bought into the Trumpian narrative of Mexican people as dangerous?” I hope not.

The taxi driver in Tijuana is about as friendly a guy as you could hope to meet, someone who enjoys the banter as I stumble through Spanish and he does the same in English. He takes me past his favorite restaurants near the Casa and reacts without any frustration when I offer not cash but a credit card, something I had been told erroneously was acceptable in Tijuana.

“You can just pay for my gas,” he says, offering what appears to me a reasonable compromise. When the bill comes and it says I have just handed over $370, I freak out. Rather than being offended, he explains that translates to only $20 in U.S. currency. Seeing how mortified I am for having accused him, he assures me I should not feel too bad, he completely understands.

Then I get to the Casa, which from the outside looks like a homeless shelter during its off-hours—men standing around outside, some asking for money, the rest just watching as I approach the gate-like door that serves as its entrance.

“About 40 percent of the people who come here speak English better than Spanish,” Father Murphy says. “They’re all Mexicans, but they got deported after being in the states 30, 40 years.”

As I wait for Father Murphy, I tell the Casa’s employees how embarrassed I was at my behavior with the cabbie; how I had accused this very congenial man of ripping me off.

“How much did you pay?” they ask me.

When I tell them, they laugh. “Yeah, that trip should have cost you about $3,” they say.

“And if you think that’s bad, imagine what they’re doing to migrants, who have nothing.”

The Scalabrinian Congregation was founded in 1887 by Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, with a charism focused on helping Italian migrants in the United States. In the 1960s the order expanded its mission; it now assists migrants and refugees around the world. Almost 30 years ago, it began Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, a four-story shelter with an internal courtyard that can house upward of 150 male migrants at any one time.

Father Murphy, a New York native with a face like St. Patrick and a soft-spoken, seen-it-all-and-take-it-as-it-comes demeanor, walks me around the site. Here is the phone where guests can make a five-minute call anywhere in the world (the gift of a benefactor); here is the office where a lawyer helps clients six days a week; the psychologist’s office and nurse’s office and the office of the social workers, who do intake, explaining the procedures of the place and making sure the clients are legitimate. People smugglers try to get coyotes in the Casa, Father Murphy explains.

“They look for clients here.”

There are classrooms where recent arrivals can learn technical skills and, believe it or not, Spanish. “About 40 percent of the people who come here speak English better than Spanish,” Father Murphy says. “They’re all Mexicans, but they got deported after being in the states 30, 40 years. Sometimes they’ll come up and ask, ‘Do you speak English?’”

The Casa also offers workshops on parenting and relationships and hosts Alcoholics Anonymous groups. “A lot of times guys get deported because they messed up as a father,” Father Murphy explains, or they had D.U.I.s or were convicted of domestic abuse. The Casa will soon open another building five blocks away dedicated just to the education of migrants, with everything from its current workshops and Spanish classes to Mexican certification programs for deportees who had been working for decades as plumbers, electricians or other skilled labor in the United States.

As Father Murphy and I talk a van pulls up outside the shelter. Someone emerges, offering food and water; the van is swarmed. “This lady thinks she’s going to be feeding migrants,” he explains, “but none of these people [live] in the Casa.”

The Casa is located in a poor neighborhood that is home to many drug addicts, who are pouring out to grab the food, bottled water and clothing being offered.

“It’s okay,” Father Murphy tells me, “but it’s nothing to do with us.”

Father Murphy reports that 90 percent of the Casa’s residents are Mexican nationals deported from the United States. Some will stay just a few days here, some up to a month, using the Casa’s services while they seek work and find a place of their own.

Tijuana is situated outside the busiest immigration portal in the United States, and the city itself remains remarkably tolerant of migrants. Everyone I spoke to, from Father Murphy and his staff to the taxi drivers who took me to and from the Casa, took pains to describe Tijuana as a “city of migrants.”

“If you’re over 50,” Father Murphy says, “you probably weren’t born in Tijuana.” The city, he says, “really has the spirit of hospitality.”

“Trump has all these detention centers packed,” Father Murphy says. “Obama would do catch and release; [Trump] wants to do away with that. So he’s catching and keeping.”

Tens of thousands of Haitians arrived in Tijuana in 2016, hoping to enter the United States. They had found a temporary home in Brazil after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. But the Obama administration had suspended any more applications for temporary protected status and the newcomers had to settle in Tijuana. Of course, many of them came to the Casa.

It was a situation that really tested the community, but Father Murphy noticed locals lending the temporarily stateless people chairs, tables and decks of cards, so they could have something to do while they waited to hear the results of their asylum applications. “It was something unbelievable. And we never had more donations than at that time.”

The Casa even has a strong relationship with the local government. Mexican border officials direct migrants with no place to stay to the Casa and to the doors of five similar organizations.

Despite its comparable compassion to migrant people, Tijuana had more than 1,700 murders last year, and two days before my visit there was a shooting during a drug-related dispute just a half block away from the Casa. “It’s one of the most violent cities in Mexico, but it’s kind of a quiet violence,” Father Murphy says. “You won’t hear about it in the papers.

“And so one of our goals at the Casa is to provide safety to migrants, who are very vulnerable. Most of them don’t know Tijuana.”

Over its 30 years, almost 260,000 people have come through the Casa’s doors. “A city has passed through here,” says Father Murphy.

He has spent the last five years here himself. Father Murphy lives in a room in the main building. It is the kind of job where you are always on call; he mentions an African resident who needed an ambulance just minutes after the nurse left one night; a disagreement to be mediated between residents in one of the rooms another.

The Casa’s volunteers give him life, Father Murphy says. And on weekends he does supply runs in parishes in San Diego. “It’s my break on Sundays,” he says. “I help them keep their faith, and they help me keep mine.”

Over its 30 years, almost 260,000 people have come through the Casa’s doors. “A city has passed through here,” says Father Murphy.

Much of the ministry depends on the generosity of strangers. During my visit there seems to be bottled water everywhere; I assume at first that this is a standard feature in a community where microbes can make drinking tap water a risky idea. But no, it turns out they are just a recent donation.

The Casa’s walk-in freezer has a wall filled with packaged lettuce. Not long before that the place was flush with pillows and blankets. Now they need more, but a single comment to one of the San Diego parishes will take care of it.

“What do you need?” he says, they ask him every time he comes.

“This one guy, who lives somewhere in Southern California, he and his wife put us on his charity list; they send us a $500 check every month,” Father Murphy marvels. “I have no idea how they found out about us. Looking at the zip code, I don’t even know what part of California this is.”

One San Diego parish alone gives over $10,000 a year. Posts on the Casa’s Facebook page can likewise generate immediate assistance.

As the Trump administration’s actions toward migrants and undocumented people have gotten more draconian, the numbers that have been coming to the Casa have been going down. Father Murphy believes that is because men who in the past may have ended up with him in Tijuana are now being detained in the United States.

“Trump has all these detention centers packed,” Father Murphy says. “Obama would do catch and release; [Trump] wants to do away with that. So he’s catching and keeping.

“He thinks he’s punishing them by keeping them in jail. We’ll find out in two or three years if it’s a deterrent.”

Father Murphy notes, even after fleeing their homes, some residents here continue to get calls from cartel members who want to kill them. “If they’re cutting off heads in your hometown, heck, [you] might move away too,” Father Murphy notes.

As I leave the Casa, the numbers in the interior plaza are increasing. It is only about an hour until dinner, and savory aromas have begun to waft through the building. Someone is playing a guitar while others continue to wait in line to meet with a social worker.

“You’re going back through customs; that’s good, it’ll be an interesting experience for you,” Father Murphy tells me as I leave.

I wonder what he means until I come upon a line which circles up and around, helix-like, through the customs complex. The whole idea of walking into Tijuana rather than driving was to avoid the big wait, but after an hour it becomes clear that I am still 20 or 30 minutes from getting through.

“It’s like Disneyland,” Father Murphy says, of the border passage. At first the comparison seems a little off—there is no fun ride at the end of this line and no material for a great family story.

But when I finally make it through to the other side, I do feel the strange sense of having passed into another land, one that likes to imagine itself as the happiest place on earth even as it separates children from their parents and, Father Murphy points out, has begun to deport 80-year-olds just for being undocumented.

Meanwhile in Tijuana, the second largest city on the West Coast of North America, a violent place where cabbies prey on the naïveté of newcomers (well, they do that everywhere), migrants find welcome and a chance at the kind of fresh start on which the United States once prided itself.

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