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Tijuana’s Haitian immigrants seen as a model for other newcomers

Tijuana’s Haitian immigrants seen as a model for other newcomers
Theresa Moise, left, with Kesmer Mollisoint, works as a cook at a Tijuana restaurant. Both are from Haiti. The city's Haitian community has been lauded by Tijuana officials for fitting in. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Julio Viaje, 30, had lunch last week in a Haitian restaurant in Tijuana and watched a European soccer game with friends while waiting for his bartending shift to start.

One of more than 3,000 Haitian migrants living in Tijuana, Viaje works at an upscale restaurant in the city called Los Arcos. When he arrived at the Mexican border two years ago, he worked in construction and slept in a migrant shelter. Today, he rents an apartment.

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Since more than 6,000 Central American migrants arrived in Tijuana in November, the city’s residents and politicians have lauded the Haitian community as an example of how to assimilate to life in Mexico.

During a news conference, Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum said the Haitians came in an orderly way and with a clear vision. They got jobs and did not cause problems.

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“It makes me proud that Mexicans speak well of us,” Viaje said. “We worked very hard.”

His advice to Central American migrants: Get a job.

“If they come to work, they will do well,” he said. “But if they do not want to work, they will suffer. How are they going to buy food? The people are not going to support them forever.”

Haitian migrants in Tijuana have gotten jobs as street vendors; cooks; security guards; mechanics; business owners or workers in maquiladoras, manufacturing facilities in Mexico that are under foreign ownership.

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Some have enrolled in university programs and married Tijuana residents. Others have become Mexican citizens, according to interviews with more than a dozen migrants and Tijuana residents who work closely with the city’s Haitian community.

Jeff Kenson opened a barbershop in Tijuana about 20 months ago. His customers include Mexicans and Haitians.

“It makes me happy to see Haitians with cars and houses,” said Kenson, 29.

One of the big differences between the Haitian migrants and the Central American caravans that have traveled through Mexico recently is that the Haitians had money when they arrived in Tijuana in 2016. Many worked construction jobs in Brazil building World Cup stadiums and left when its economy collapsed.

Kenson owned a barbershop in Brazil. He originally saw Tijuana as a rest stop on the way toward the U.S. but decided to stay when he thought the U.S. would deport him back to Haiti.

Although there are a number of success stories among Tijuana’s Haitian population, they aren’t universal.

Privert Prophete, a 52-year-old construction worker, says he struggles to make ends meet. None of his friends have bought a car or a house in Tijuana.

He has a Mexican work permit through a humanitarian visa and hopes to be eligible for a resident visa within two years. That will allow him to bring his wife and three children to Tijuana from Haiti.

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“I am alone here,” he said. “If I get sick, I have no one. If I die, I die alone.”

The Haitians’ assimilation has not always been smooth. A group of 11 people formed the Assn. of the Defense of Haitian Migrants a year ago to help people navigate various bureaucratic processes.

More than 500 people have joined, said Philocles Julda, 44, one of the founding members.

“We thought that if we didn’t unite,” he said, “there were things we wouldn’t be able to do.”

Initially, the association helped migrants secure documents and work permits, but the process hasn’t always been easy. Julda said he’d gone eight months without a work permit because of bureaucratic hurdles and missing paperwork.

More recently, the group has helped pregnant women secure access to local hospitals, Julda said.

The majority of Haitians in Tijuana would rather be back home, he added, but they know there are no jobs, so they do the best they can with what they have in Mexico. “We earn enough to live,” he said. “It’s better than not having anything. That is why people stayed here.”

There are about 70 Haitian migrants living in a church-run shelter, El Templo Embajador, according to Pastor Gustavo Banda.

Banda said most of them have work permits, and those who do plan to get their residential visas as soon as they are eligible so they can bring their families to Tijuana.

Banda credited the Haitian community’s success to their religion and said they should be an example to everyone.

“They have Christian principles, and that helped them behave in a more organized way,” he said. “I didn’t see any of them smoking marijuana or drinking in public.”

Word of Tijuana’s Haitian community has spread throughout Latin America. Eva Auguste, 24, moved to Tijuana from Venezuela three months ago.

Her plan was to go to the U.S., but when that didn’t work out she decided to stay. She earns about $70 a week braiding hair.

“The whole world wants to go to the United States,” she said. “But if I can’t go, I might as well stay here. This is better than Venezuela.”

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