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Haitians, Africans, Asians: Mexico’s border cities are getting overwhelmed with migrants headed to America

Haitian migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, wait in line to get appointments with American immigration officials.
Haitian migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, wait in line to get appointments with American immigration officials.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

One morning in January, five men from Nepal showed up at the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, looking for a bed for the night.

That’s odd, the shelter’s director, Father Patrick Murphy, remembers thinking.

This border city has been a gateway to generations of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Mexico and Central America, people dreaming of a better life in the United States.

But Nepal was 8,000 miles away. What were they doing here?

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Within months, Tijuana would be teeming with migrants from across the globe — from Haiti, India, Bangladesh and various parts of Africa — all hoping to reach the U.S.

In a surge Mexican officials are calling unprecedented, some 15,000 migrants from outside Latin America passed through Baja California this year — nearly five times the number seen in 2015.

More than a third of the detainees being held in California immigration holding centers in September were from outside Latin America, U.S. officials say.

As they traverse a circuitous and dangerous path up the spine of South America, Central America and Mexico, they have strained resources along the route and presented new challenges for securing America’s southern border.

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They have opened a dramatic new chapter in the long story of immigration to the New World. While earlier generations arrived on ocean liners from Europe or on small boats from across the Caribbean, these would-be Americans are tapping networks long used to funnel drugs and migrants overland into the U.S. from Latin America.

Unlike the millions who have traveled over the years from Mexico and Central America, many of those now arriving at America’s southern border are flying across oceans and launching their journeys from deep in South America, across terrain of unimaginable difficulty.

Many say they attempted their trips — by foot, bus, boat and donkey across up to 10 international borders — because they felt unwelcome in Europe and hoped for better luck in the U.S.

By the time they reach America’s door, they have navigated jungles populated by poisonous snakes and narco-traffickers, highways patrolled by corrupt police and borders overrun by predatory smugglers. They whisper stories of robbery, murder, rape and drownings. Many finally reach the U.S. after months of hardship, only to be loaded onto planes and sent back home.

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The number of long-distance migrants arriving here in Tijuana pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans who pass through each year. But the surge is challenging authorities on both sides of the border, who face difficulties accommodating so many people, languages and cultures.

By the fall, the bottleneck at the border had stretched the wait time to see an American immigration official from days to weeks. Today, 4,000 people from outside Latin America are languishing in Tijuana and Mexicali, hoping to enter the U.S.

The biggest number in this new wave of international migrants are from Haiti. More than 5,000 Haitians have shown up at California ports of entry without visas and been deemed “inadmissible” since October 2015, a huge increase over the 336 who arrived the previous fiscal year.

The impoverished island nation was devastated by two major disasters in the last six years: an earthquake in 2010 that killed at least 220,000 people and left more than a million homeless, and a hurricane in October that leveled up to 80% of some coastal areas.

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But the large numbers of Haitians showing up in California were a surprise. For decades, those seeking to reach the U.S. negotiated 700 miles of ocean on rickety boats, most often landing in Florida. Why, officials wondered, choose a route that is 10 times longer?

The sounds of French and Haitian Creole now mix with Spanish and English in Tijuana’s shelters, which only a year ago were filled mainly with migrants from central America and Mexicans recently deported from the U.S. The influx has overwhelmed the capacity of local nonprofits to help.

“We’re at breaking point right now,” Murphy said. “We never imagined it would go on for more than two or three weeks.”

Thousands more migrants are said to be on the way.

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Emmanuel Ngunyi arrived in Tijuana on a flight from Mexico City, where he had spent a few days recovering from a tortuous journey that began with a flight from Cameroon to Ecuador and continued overland through half a dozen countries.

A member of Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, the 25-year-old had been jailed twice for supporting a banned secessionist movement. The second time was the worst, he said. His jailers tied him from a ceiling and raped him with a candle.

If he could make it to the U.S., he was convinced, “My life will be secure.”

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Some countries were easy to get through, even without a visa. Officials were issuing permits to transiting migrants giving them a few days to cross their territory. But other places — Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama — had closed their borders to the migrants. He had to enlist the help of smugglers to cross vast stretches of jungle, swampland and mountains on foot.

In all, it took Ngunyi two months to reach Mexico and cost him nearly $10,000. It was mid-May when he landed in Tijuana, and the early morning chill made him shiver.

He tried to hire a taxi from the airport to the border, but got into an argument with the driver, who he said grabbed his phone and pushed him out of the car. So he decided to walk the last few miles.

There was a long line of people waiting to use the pedestrian crossing at San Ysidro. He walked to the front and told the first police officer he saw: “I want to request asylum in the United States.”

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“Do you see people like you here?” the officer barked at him. He was sent to the back of the line.

When he made it to the front, he was escorted into the port of entry to wait for an interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The wait lasted most of the day, and he fell asleep on the tile floor.

At last, it was his turn to be questioned. An official asked his name, what country he came from, his address.

Then another official burst into the room. “No, no, no, we don’t have space for them,” he recalled her saying. “Back to Mexico. All of them back to Mexico.”

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It was past midnight when Ngunyi found himself once again in Tijuana, the gate to America swinging shut behind him.

Ngunyi spent his first night in Tijuana on the pavement outside San Ysidro, next to a shuttered mini-mart called “La Linea” — The Line.

In the morning, shopkeepers directed him to a Salvation Army shelter, where he was told he could wait for an appointment with the U.S. immigration authorities.

Six days later, he was still waiting.

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Wrapped in a puffy white jacket that shelter workers had given him, Ngunyi leaned against a courtyard wall and stared blankly. Nearby, several men from Senegal kicked a soccer ball around. A volunteer passed around cookies.

Ngunyi managed a wan smile.

“They do take care of you well,” he said. “But this is not my destination.”

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While officials here are sympathetic to the migrants’ plight, they do not hide their frustration at some of their neighbors to the south for not doing more to stem the flow that is diverting time and resources needed to help Mexicans deported from the U.S. and Central Americans applying for asylum in Mexico.

Many of the migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East begin their journey by paying smugglers thousands of dollars to arrange passage to countries such as Ecuador and Brazil, where it is easier for them to gain legal entry than the U.S.

“There are a couple of countries in the hemisphere, South America specifically, who have very lax immigration policies,” said Rodulfo Figueroa Pacheco, who heads the Mexican government’s National Migration Institute office for Baja California. “That gives some a foothold on the continent to move north.”

Many of the Haitians showing up here say they made their way to Brazil after losing homes and livelihoods in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. At the time, Brazil’s economy was booming, and the country needed cheap labor to prepare for the World Cup soccer tournament in 2014 and this year’s Olympic games.

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But Brazil is now in the midst of its worst recession in 80 years. Some Haitians have been laid off and are finding it impossible to make rent and support desperate family members back home. So they set their sights north.

Until recently, most Haitians who made it to the U.S. border were given permission to remain at least temporarily on humanitarian grounds. The Obama administration stopped deporting Haitians after the earthquake, unless they were convicted of serious crimes or were considered a security risk.

But that decision was reversed in September, after U.S. officials learned that thousands of people were streaming toward their shores. More than 200 Haitians have been deported from the U.S. in recent weeks, spreading panic among those who thought they were just days from being allowed onto U.S. soil.

Philonise Alfreide, a 30-year-old single mother, said she can’t go back to Haiti. Her family sold everything they had there — land, cows — to pay for her trip with the expectation that she would support them when she reached the U.S. Along the way, Alfreide said, she was extorted by corrupt police and held up by armed bandits who took everything she had.

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“The family has placed all their hope in me,” she said, as she settled her 1-year-old daughter for another night at the Padre Chava Desayunador Salesiano shelter in Tijuana. “If we are deported, what will happen to us?”

Tijuana’s shelters are overflowing.

At Padre Chava, an 88-bed shelter and soup kitchen, Haitian women and children spread blankets on the floor in between the dining room tables to sleep at night. Movimiento Juventud 2000 has pitched dozens of tents outside its 33-bed facility to accommodate more migrants.

Those who can’t find space in a shelter are bedding down in church halls, renting rooms in private homes and filling cheap hotels in the red light district, amid strip clubs and bars touting “beer morning and night.”

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Despairing migrants often seek out Murphy for advice. The priest tries to be realistic. Only those with a credible fear of persecution or torture are permitted to apply for asylum, and he does not think many of them will qualify.

Two men from Cameroon cornered Murphy after a mass celebrated in Casa del Migrante’s atrium. Their appointments with U.S. border officials were coming up. Could the priest give them a blessing?

“May God guide and protect you on your journey,” Murphy intoned. “And may you find a kind person there to listen to you.”

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More than 200 people were waiting outside a trailer one fall morning when Mexican officials arrived at their makeshift office next to the Padre Chava shelter. Many had slept in the street so they would be first in line for an appointment to be processed at the border.

U.S. officials can handle only about 120 undocumented migrants a day between the two ports of entry serving Baja California. So the Mexican authorities now insist that they have appointments before allowing them to cross, a policy criticized by some human rights advocates who argue that Mexico should not stand in the way of those seeking asylum in the U.S.

Shouting and shoving, the crowd surged toward the trailer, held back by police officers in bullet-proof vests. The Mexican officials struggled to make themselves understood.

“Document?” Rosario Lozada, the city’s director of migrant affairs, asked a man in Spanish.

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“Cameroon,” he replied.

“No, no, how did you enter Mexico?” she tried in English. “Where is the document?”

He handed her a sheet of paper issued at Mexico’s southern border that gave him 20 days to legalize his status or leave. She checked that the photograph on the document matched his face, then stamped it with a date three weeks later.

Many here say it’s only a matter of time before frustrated migrants try to cross illegally.

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Over at the Hotel Cortez, Nertho Thermitus had a decision to make.

The 28-year-old Haitian had dreamed of going to university. But when his family lost their home in the earthquake, he had to look for work. He spent two years at a factory in Brazil that manufactures car parts, but was laid off in 2015.

Now he and two travel companions had been sharing a room for nearly three weeks in Tijuana and were fast running out of money. He had an appointment at the border for the next day but wondered if he should instead try to find a job in Mexico. Local factory owners were recruiting at the shelters.

Should he risk being deported from the U.S.?

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His roommates remained hopeful. After all they had been through, how could the U.S. turn them away?

“This decision is keeping me from sleeping at night,” Thermitus said, shaking his head.

The three men fell silent. Thumping music from a neighbor’s radio filled the dimly-lit room.

The next morning, Thermitus was up before dawn. He pulled on a pair of dark jeans and a striped grey sweater he had been saving for his arrival in America. He stuffed the rest of his things into a small backpack, finished off a bag of chips and bowed his head in silent prayer.

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“I’m putting everything in God’s hands,” he said quietly. “It is my last hope.”

Outside, the streets were deserted. Thermitus walked swiftly, past clubs and bars still lit up from the previous night’s revelries, to a thoroughfare painted yellow like Dorothy’s brick road.

The sun was rising as he trudged across the overpass to San Ysidro.

A Mexican immigration official checked Thermitus’ paperwork and told him to join a line of waiting migrants. A scuffle broke out when a man without an appointment tried to sneak in behind him.

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Shortly before 8.30 am, an official gave the order for them to proceed across the pedestrian bridge. At the top of the ramp, migrants turned to wave to their friends below, who shouted “bon voyage!”

Thermitus kept walking, and disappeared into the dense fog of the U.S. immigration system.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Twitter: @alexzavis

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