Central American immigrant flood creates crisis, presents opportunity
TIJUANA, Mexico—The flood of immigrants amassed at the Mexico-U.S. border presents both a humanitarian crisis and an opportunity for sharing the gospel, a team of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaders who traveled to the region learned.
Glen Foster, coordinator of CBF West; Marv Knox, coordinator of Fellowship Southwest; Rubén Ortiz, CBF Latino field coordinator; and Jorge Zapata, associate coordinator of CBF Texas, traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, Calif., Dec. 13-15.
The CBF group sought to learn more about the 7,000 Central Americans who participated in a caravan to the region and now seek asylum in the United States. They visited camps and met immigrants. They also interviewed religious, governmental and humanitarian workers who interact with the immigrants daily. They sought to determine how CBF and its partner congregations can meet the spiritual and humanitarian needs of the crisis.
They visited the two major immigrant camps in Tijuana.
Benito Juarez, located on the border, near the place where the U.S. government teargassed Central Americans as they tried to rush into the United States, is a tent-city home to more than 800 immigrants. Local officials said residents of this camp include the leaders and most persistent members of the caravan. They have resisted the Mexican government’s attempts to relocate them in almost 40 shelters across the city, because they want to remain as near the border as possible.
El Barretal is the largest shelter, home to about 2,000 immigrants from four Central American countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. This shelter, operated by the Mexican government with input from the United Nations and humanitarian groups, includes an indoor area for mothers and their children segregated from a larger outdoor area for individual young adult women and men. Both sections look like seas of pop-up tents.
The remainder of the immigrants dwell in much smaller centers across the city of 3 million residents. Many of them registered with the Mexican authorities, but the government admits it doesn’t know the exact location of about 3,000 immigrants.
The CBF group met religious leaders ministering directly to the immigrants.
Juvenal González, a church-starting missionary with the San Diego Southern Baptist Association, leads seven Tijuana Baptist congregations that provide breakfast in El Barretal each day. CBF Texas provided funds to support the feeding ministry, and Fellowship Southwest funded construction of showers in the shelter. Juan Manuel Serrano Nuñez, pastor of First Baptist Church in Tijuana, participates in that ministry.
Ray Schillinger, global consultant for immigration and refugees for the American Baptist Churches, USA, previously served as an ABC missionary in Tijuana. Ricardo Cano leads Hispanic ministry for the San Diego Association. And Juan Carlos Mendez, a pastor in Los Angeles, leads a group called Churches in Action, which coordinates delivery of supplies to the shelters.
The CBF leaders also met consuls general from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Their task is to monitor the safety of their citizens in Mexico, as well as to help the immigrants gather documents necessary to apply for visas to stay in Mexico or for asylum in the United States.
Caravan immigrants now living at the border represent a spectrum of situations, the CBF group learned.
Some immigrants elicit sympathy. For example, some teen-aged boys and girls have fled their homelands to escape beatings, rapes and murder by gangs. Other young Central American adults, many of them Christians who built small businesses in their hometowns, faced mob-style extortion and fled for their lives.
Other immigrants generate frustration, if not disgust. Aid workers told stories of some shelter residents—a minority, but still prominent—who have thrown food on the ground, who disrespect military personnel who protect them, who refuse to help keep their facilities clean and who expect aid workers to look after their own children.
The consulate officials confirmed an opinion held by aid workers and Mexican leaders—this situation cannot go on indefinitely. They reported they do not expect immigrants to remain in the shelters longer than another six months. The immigrants will either be deported back to their home countries, obtain visas and remain in Mexico to live and work, or enter the asylum process in the United States.
Meanwhile, the CBF group resolved to do what they can to alleviate the suffering and support the spiritual needs of the immigrants.
“This is a humanitarian issue, and we must help Christians minister to the immigrants’ needs in the name of Christ,” Ortiz noted. “But since this caravan situation is close to an end, we need to learn that migration will remain as a global phenomenon that challenges the way we have been doing missions in the past.”
“While we saw some immigrants who do not appreciate the kindness shown them and who disrespect the people who are trying to help them, we cannot allow their actions to deter us from providing help for the people who have experienced trauma and desperately need our help,” Foster said.
“That’s why we must provide ‘tough love,’” Zapata added. “Some immigrants act as if they are entitled to unlimited support. We will help them, but also insist they do their part to demonstrate they are willing to care for themselves. That’s the best solution, for their long-term well-being.”
González’s feeding ministry and efforts to improve El Barretal shelter impressed the CBF leaders, Knox said. “We plan to continue to support this worthy ministry,” he reported. “Juvenal and the volunteers from the churches not only provide a hearty breakfast each morning, but they provide both a visible and verbal testimony of Jesus’ love for these immigrants—both those whose stories break our hearts and those whose actions frustrate us enormously.”
Because of location of the shelters, the challenge of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and security concerns at the shelters, the group decided soliciting volunteer efforts from CBF constituents is not feasible.
But they determined continued financial support for Tijuana/San Diego Baptists’ ongoing ministry in the shelters is worthy of CBF generosity and investment. For example, a gift of $300 can fund a breakfast for 500-700 residents of El Barretal. Also, with the worst of winter approaching, contributions can be used to provide underwear and shoes for children who desperately need those supplies, as well as coats for immigrants who live in tents and have no means of escaping frigid weather.
The CBF leaders vowed to maintain ongoing collaboration with their Baptist sisters and brothers on this front-line of ministry and to support their endeavors into 2019.
If you wish to contribute to the immigrant ministry in Tijuana, click here.