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Volunteers bring gifts to migrant children stuck at the border in Tijuana

Christmas presents for migrant children
Sofia Nhanelii, 4, from Oaxaca, Mexico, opens a coloring book on Christmas Eve while her family waits for their turn to make an asylum claim. A group of volunteers known as PBJTJ handed out presents to children stuck at the border on Tuesday.
(Wendy Fry / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hoping to bring smiles to the faces of migrant children stuck at the border, volunteers handed out holiday presents Tuesday morning and tried to ease their growing discomfort when no asylum seekers were permitted to cross during the holiday.

Opening presents wrapped in bright Christmas wrapping paper brought a few moments of joy to the children, but those smiles slowly faded with disappointment when Mexican migration officials did not appear at the usual 8 a.m. roll call to allow some asylum seekers into the United States.

The group of volunteers also distributed sandwiches they bring daily to those waiting in line for their turn to make an initial asylum claim, under a U.S. immigration policy known as “metering.”

Tarina Yasmoothr, a legal fellow with Veterans for Peace, decided to bring presents for migrant kids on Christmas Eve because she wanted them to feel a little bit of the excitement and love that most children get to experience during the holiday season, she said.

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“It’s very little, but part of the Christmas experience is opening presents and especially for children,” said Yasmoothr. “For parents, it’s watching their children open presents.”

Sofia Nhanelii, a 4-year-old from Oaxaca, Mexico, grinned as she slowly and shyly opened some wrapped books and a coloring book. Her mother said she was very grateful for the little bit of holiday tradition that the volunteers provided.

Then, she began to cry as she explained fleeing violent threats and home intruders in southern Mexico.

Another mom, Yessica, who declined to give her last name, said celebrating the season in any small way was very important for her three children.

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“They gave us a little smile by bringing us this gift,” said the 23-year-old woman from Michoacan, Mexico. “I didn’t think the kids would open any presents this year.”

Yessica’s daughter Denise, 3, ripped open her gift with bravado and immediately began playing with it, along with her siblings.

“It’s very sad to be here. We’ve been waiting months and we don’t know if they’re going to call us in the morning or in the afternoon,” said Yessica.

She said every day that her number is not called brings major challenges in that she has to figure out where to stay another night and secure transportation to get back to the line the next day to check the list.

The list, or “la lista,” is how volunteers manage the federal government’s metering program, which limits the number of asylum seekers who can ask for help at ports of entry each day.

U.S. border officials tell Mexican migration officers how many numbers to call out, based on how much room they have in processing centers and holding cells in the port of entry, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Numbers are called out each morning at El Chaparral on the other side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. People from around the world gather there each morning to hear if it’s their turn to cross.

Many have already waited months in Tijuana. Human rights activists and immigration attorneys say the policy forces a growing backlog of asylum seekers into difficult, and sometimes dangerous, situations along the border. The practice is being challenged in federal court.

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The calling of the numbers usually begins around 8 a.m. and is usually over very quickly, by about 8:30 a.m.

After nearly two hours of waiting Tuesday, people slowly began to realize Mexican migration officials would not be calling out any numbers a day before Christmas. No explanation was given to the approximately 50 people waiting at the border by either Mexican or U.S. immigration officials.

Juan Roys, a mechanical engineer, said he fled Venezuela because he made enemies in his government by joining a political party.

With just two numbers ahead of his number, he waited hours Tuesday morning for Mexican officials to either start calling numbers or announce that no one would be crossing for the day.

“Someone arrives, waiting for their number and [the Mexican officials] don’t say anything. Some time passes without them calling any numbers and then more time passes, and it’s very strange. I think they need to put everything in order because there are children here. It’s very disorganized,” said Roys.

CBP did not respond to questions about whether they alerted Mexican officials that no one would be crossing Tuesday or whether they were at capacity or just not processing people because of the holiday.

CBP has previously said their agency processes those who are waiting in line as capacity allows. The agency did not respond to questions from the San Diego Union-Tribune about whether or not people are allowed to ask for asylum on holidays.

“When our ports of entry reach capacity, we have to manage the queues, and individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities,” a previous statement said.

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Yasmoothr said she began PBJTJ (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in Tijuana) in her hotel room a few months ago when she noticed “very many people waiting at the border without any food and some have been here since 4 in the morning, so it was a very simple thing for me to do.”

She stressed she wished she could do more, but realized the sandwiches she hands out are sometimes the only meal people waiting at the border receive all day.

The coloring books, crayons, books and other small toys the group handed out to children waiting were given con amor, with love, said Yasmoothr and two other volunteers.

“It’s a very small gesture and a part of me feels that this is happening because of U.S. foreign intervention policies that are driving families northward to seek asylum,” said Yasmoothr. “So, as an American, I feel that it is my duty to atone for our government’s conduct abroad and our brutality abroad.”

Yasmoothr graduated from law school in May and is working as a legal fellow advocating for deported veterans. Her grassroots organization PBJTJ now has a website and a Facebook page.

Another volunteer, Andrés Quevedo, who was born in the United States but spent time growing up in El Salvador, said he identifies with and feels badly for anyone far away from their family at Christmastime.

“I’m far away from my home, as well,” said Quevedo. “I see my countrymen suffering in everything just to cross and then on the other side, when they arrive, they have a difficult life. I just want peace and tranquility and opportunity for my fellow man.”


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