Reflections by Charles Steinberg M.D.
At the Border in Tijuana
I’m in Tijuana at a small scrappy medical clinic working with the migrants, like the Gomez family who arrived from rural Honduras with four children covered with pustules that I have not seen in decades. They all had chickenpox, as will everyone else in their shelter since it is highly contagious in crowded conditions.
There are so many different kinds of people gathering in Tijuana along the border, which is a fortified wall, with barbed wire and Mexican police armed with frightening guns, and flak jackets. This symbol of America makes me hang my head in shame.
I have been hearing many stories from weary and sick people who have one thing in common: their lives were intolerable and/or violent and no matter what happens “on the road” it is better than staying home. I have seen refugees from Venezuela, Ukraine, and Cameroon each with their own story of fear and flight. Many of the migrants are middle class wearing nice clothes and pulling quality suitcases. Others are farmers, unskilled workers, students, and activists. I see young couples and families but very few older people. Many of the migrants are displaced Mexicans some from as far away as the southern state of Chiapas. The caravans have brought significant numbers from Honduras, and gang-ridden El Salvador.
The migrants are scattered throughout Tijuana. There are many shelters and encampments, some in homes, some under bridges or under overhangs. Social welfare organizations like the Salvation Army and Catholic charities are stretched to the breaking point. One Sunday I visited a church clinic and found 100 tents set up inside the church community hall. I visited a shelter for LGBTQ where 40 people lived together. Prominently blessing the sitting room was Our Lady of Guadalupe watching over the three NA meetings for crystal meth addicts that took place at this shelter each day.
There are also hundreds of Haitian families seeking asylum. I visited one of their shelters on the outskirts of Tijuana. A scabies epidemic had people scratching themselves raw. There was no way to do laundry with very hot water, which makes it Impossible to treat scabies in the long run. The scabicide cream we distribute kills the bugs on the body, but they crawl right back from unlaundered clothes and bedding.
I often go to the border in the early morning light to assist those who will cross the border that morning. There is a plaza with trees, which once was a gathering for community, for children to play and mariachis to perform. Now the 10-foot border fence cuts the plaza in half. The wall is made out of 4-inch diameter metal tubes. A gate leads to stairs and walkways that cross over to US customs and immigration.
At 7 am names are called out. If your name comes up you must be at the border gate by 7 am or risk losing your spot. Each morning new numbers are given out to newcomers. The odd thing is each number is given to 10 hopeful immigrants. I think that is a not so subtle way to make the number of immigrants seem smaller, or at least confusing.
A bevy of our pro bono immigration specialist lawyers is there to advise and remind people what they will need to say to get through the interview. Here is a photo of the “hand” which people have been told to memorize when presenting their story. Lawyers walk up and down the line with last minute advice and encouragement. I speak to a few with medical problems who are concerned that they might be denied because of these issues. We give what we have- information, hope, a smile, a touch. “Buenos Suerte.”
People are told that they will be separated from their belongings for a period of time…sometimes up to a week or more. Everything is confiscated: medicines, phones, and all bags.nWe advise them to wear their warmest clothes next to the body because everyone is only allowed to wear one layer of clothing. Parents have written with magic marker on the arms of their children their names and USA phone numbers and any other contact information in case they are separated.
The image of lines of people with all their belongings hanging in ragtag suitcases, children clinging to their parents and everyone with numbers written with indelible markers on the inside of their forearms invokes a nightmare of historic images.
As a name is called, people embrace as they part from one another friends and family who are not getting across today. Hurried hugs and kisses and tears are shared. People line up and start moving with expectation hope and trepidation. Today’s 40-asylum seekers move through the gate, and directly into a parking lot and into waiting vans while loved ones watch, weep, and cheer. I wonder if and when they will ever see one another again. The tears of sorrow of those left in Mexico crush my heart.
I have not seen what happens to these 40 people after they disappear from view. I am told that the asylum seekers fill out papers and write down their story. They are then taken to a large rectangular Detention Center with bare white walls, bright lights and loud blaring television commercials that never stop 24/7. The room, nicknamed “The Icebox,” is air conditioned to be cold; about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As you begin to shiver in your one layer of clothing you are told that if you get uncomfortable and want to leave ICE officials will happily release you. Just sign here, on your voluntary deportation papers. Sometime in the next few days, you leave this tortuous environment and get the “all important” interview.
Back at our clinic people are arriving seven days a week. Many are suffering from respiratory viruses and infectious diseases. Others have skin rashes, festering wounds, back pain, and diarrhea. Our midwife treats pregnant women. Most everyone suffers from exhaustion and trauma. Many are very poor. Uprooted and uncertain what the future holds they just keep taking the next step.
Guillermo, a Mexican from Chiapas, came in with an ace wrap around his wrist. He had injured himself in a fight three weeks before and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t broken. When he took his hat off I saw a 5-inch long “dent” on the left side of his head. What happened? “Another fight 3 years ago…this one with machetes,” he said and then lowered his head and shook it sadly as some demonic memory came to mind.
Yesterday I saw a young woman from Cameroon, whose tribal name means, “Gift from God”. She had been a college student and political activist before the government arrested and tortured her. Her teeth had been kicked in and broken at the gums. I sent her to a local dentist thankful to be able to help this time with resources.
The medical staff is all volunteers who dribble in from all over the United States, some for a weekend, for a week or two or longer. Nurses, nurse practitioners, doctors, technicians all volunteer. Gringo volunteers are a sore point for the local government of Tijuana and could hurt the pride of Mexico. So our clinic is under the radar, we come and go quietly. One truth is that Tijuana has been hugely impacted and strained with the arrival of so many migrants. A tolerant city in less stressful times there is growing frustrations and anti-migrant feelings. Understandably many local people would like the migrants to move on. Just the opposite is happening. Tijuana has been a border crossing for a long time now, in fact since we stole California from Mexico.
Our pharmacy is a “freebee dumping ground.” Concerned medical practitioners have given drugs and supplies to the clinic. We have hundreds of small 2 tablet drug samples, which were in a jumble in a closet. A few days ago I did my small part to bring order and efficiency to the pharmacy tearing open those little packets and consolidating medicines, labeling supplies, and changing the light bulb. I love this about our clinic; No one is special. Doctors, lawyers and everyone else clean up after themselves and will plunge the toilet or mop up the floors when necessary.
There are a myriad of legal services in our building too. Volunteer specialized immigration lawyers from the US and Mexico help individual migrants prepare for their interviews, to know what their rights are, and understand how to answer legal questions. This is hugely helpful and important. In San Diego there are similar services available to those who do get through the ICE screening.
Today I saw, Alfonso, a cowboy of a man, probably in his mid-30s. At the end of the visit he said to me. “I don’t think the asylum process is going to work for me. I’m going to start going east and keep going…. until I get past the wall.” His weathered face breaks into a small smile. He pulls out his cell phone dramatically and points to a satellite map. “Once I get past this wall I’ll go north with my GPS. I will make it… or I won’t.”
Each night I fall into a clean comfortable bed in a nearby B&B where I contemplate the ineffable – of why am I me and not a refugee? My ancestors were refugees. This is a part of my lineage story. But my own life is blessed in every way.
I have huge gratitude to be here. It is good to be alive today and to be able to help.
Please remember all those who are suffering trying to escape brutality and poverty, some of whom are waiting on our southern border.