When Johnny Hernandez and his friends arrived at a bustling migrant shelter in Tijuana this month, they knew theyd be mobbed by people clamoring for the simple things theyd packed into the back of their SUV.
It was their second visit that day, and Hernandez had been there several times before. Hed seen how desperation works.
Hernandez, 28, helped raise more than $15,000 in goods and distributed them to Hondurans and other Central Americans who have stopped their caravans in Tijuana, hoping to seek asylum in the United States.
But hes hardly the only Southern Californian feeling a need to help the strangers in Mexico.
While President Trump, many Americans – and some Mexicans – adamantly want to see the migrants go home, Hernandez and others in Southern California are offering help that allows them to stay. They come regularly, bringing clothing, toiletries, cash; even tools to create art. Some give free legal advice.
And they often provide something that cant be bought – hope.
Central American migrants gather around a pickup truck where members from a church in Tijuana hand out new clothes and much-needed shoes outside the El Barretal shelter on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A Tijuana church group provides new shoes and clothing to Central American migrants outside the El Barretal shelter on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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Two men while away the afternoon outside the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Thousands of migrants are taking shelter at El Barretal in Tijuana. The inside is dark and features three stories of space with no running water. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Workers with Unicef, World Vision and La Jugarreta, gather information about the welfare of children staying at the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Resa Cole of Los Angeles gets hugged by 8-year-old Ruth, a Honduran migrant outside the El Barretal migrant shelter in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. Cole and her friends have raised more than $15,000 on social media to help the thousands of migrants from Central America. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Dozens of migrants line up for food and clothing outside the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Men show off their battered shoes after caravanning from Central America to Tijuana, Mexico. Volunteers from a local church had limited supplies to hand out and people begged to be put on a list for the next disbursement at the El Barretal shelter on December 3, 2018. Some, feeling desperate for shoes, asked visitors for theirs. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Migrant children play near their tents outside El Barretal shelter in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A man puts his new jump rope to use outside the El Barretal shelter after Southern California donors passed out toys and coloring books in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Volunteers hand out childrens clothing at El Barretal shelter in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A man suns his feet as he sleeps outside the El Barretal migrant shelter in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Monica Curca, right, founder of the Orange County nonprofit Activate Labs, uses art therapy to help migrants cope with trauma. She sets up what she calls a “Rapid Response Creative Trauma Healing Center” at El Barretal shelter in in Tijuana on Monday, December 3, 2018. Curca designs billboard-sized plastic tarps for young and old to color. The banner will eventually be displayed in D.C. to humanize the migrants. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Grownups and children alike sort beads delivered to El Barretal shelter in Tijuana by activist Monica Curca, founder of the Orange County nonprofit Activate Labs. Curca believes in the healing power of art. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Monica Curca, fundadora de Activate Labs, una organización sin fines de lucro del Condado de Orange, utiliza la terapia artística para ayudar a los migrantes a enfrentar el trauma. Ella instala una gran lona para colorear en el refugio El Barretal en Tijuana el lunes 3 de diciembre de 2018. (Foto de Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register / SCNG)
Monica Curca, fundadora de Activate Labs, una organización sin fines de lucro del Condado de Orange, utiliza la terapia artística para ayudar a los migrantes a enfrentar el trauma. Ella instala una gran carpa para colorear en el refugio El Barretal en Tijuana el lunes 3 de diciembre de 2018. Un artista escribe: “Paz para el mundo. Todos somos iguales”. (Foto por Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register / SCNG)
Los hombres pasan el tiempo perfeccionando sus habilidades de fútbol en el refugio El Barretal en Tijuana el miércoles, 5 de diciembre de 2018. Las pelotas fueron entregadas y donadas por voluntarios. (Foto por Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register / SCNG)
El Barretal is a shuttered club now being used as a temporary shelter, housing at least 1,500 Central American migrants in Tijuana Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Child advocacy workers are on hand at the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana to make sure migrant children are properly being cared for on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Hand sanitizers sit at the entrance to the El Barretal shelter, which is housing thousands of Central American migrants in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
La ropa se cuelga para secarla en el refugio El Barretal en Tijuana, donde al menos 1,500 migrantes centroamericanos viven temporalmente el miércoles 5 de diciembre de 2018. (Foto de Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register / SCNG)
Los marines mexicanos montan guardia frente al refugio El Barretal en Tijuana, donde se alojan cientos de migrantes el martes 4 de diciembre de 2018. (Foto de Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register / SCNG)
The federal police patrol the neighborhood around the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Rossy Flores, left, lives across from the El Barretal migrant shelter in Tijuana. Her sister, Aide Flores, lives a few blocks away. They sell hot coffee and soup from their porch where there is a constant flow of traffic in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
251/5000 Un hombre muestra un medallón religioso que le dio un desconocido en la Ciudad de México mientras se encontraba en la caravana de migrantes que se dirigía a la frontera de los Estados Unidos. Se está quedando en el refugio El Barretal en Tijuana. (Foto por Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register / SCNG)
Eric Javier Mejia of Los Angeles takes a picture with 8-year-old Ruth from Honduras outside the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. Mejia and his friends raised more than $15,000 on social media to buy goods for the thousands of migrants from Central America. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Johnny Hernandez and Resa Cole of Los Angeles hand out jump ropes and toys to migrant children at the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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“Im American-born, first generation. My mom came in a caravan a long time ago. I did really well,” said Hernandez, who owns a commercial production company in Los Angeles.
“So now its our turn to share and give back,” he said. “Were all chasing the American dream.”
The helpers generally see migration as a human right, and say the migrant encampments in Mexico are a humanitarian crisis, but they dont all share the same motivation.
Some see the caravan through a religious lens, and mention Bible verses that speak of “welcoming the stranger.” Others note that seeking asylum in the United States remains legal, even if the current administration has made the asylum process difficult and suggests the people seeking it are criminals.
Still others stay away from religion or politics altogether, saying instead that helping the migrants is simply the right thing to do.
“Im not talking politics,” Hernandez said.
“Whether youre protecting a border or not, you cant turn your back on people in need.”
Church-goers say helping caravan migrants is an opportunity to serve.
“Were here to pray with, or for, them, and to listen to them,” said Panorama City resident Argel Chay, 49, a member of Iglesia Fuente de Vida, a church in Hollywood.
He was in Tijuana with parishioners from different Southern California congregations visiting with families who found shelter in a church.
“They need a lot of spiritual help.”
The number of migrants at the border changes nearly daily and its unclear exactly how many are still waiting to cross. Last month, about 6,000 migrants, mostly Hondurans, arrived in Tijuana, while another 1,200 stopped in Mexicali, Bajas capital, according to Mexican officials.
The site currently housing the most migrants is El Barretal, once an entertainment complex that now looks like a makeshift refugee camp, home for about 2,500 people. Other migrants — nobody can say for sure how many — have been taken in by area churches. And a few hundred remain in the encampment closest to the border, at a sports complex named after former President Benito Juarez – a site that originally housed some 5,000 migrants until it a storm turned the place into a muddy mess and government officials urged the group to move to El Barretal.
Meanwhile, about 1,110 migrants from the caravans may have continued into the United States– some by climbing over or between border fences — while about 1,000 others have returned home, Mexican officials told media. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials could not confirm Friday how many of the caravan members have crossed borders.
At El Barretal, comfort is not easy to find.
Families with children sleep in the most coveted area, where its darker and space is tight but a roof provides some shelter from rain. Single men are left to sleep in an open area outside. Most, not all, have tents.
During a recent visit, the sounds of sneezing and coughing were pervasive. And as they walked deliberately between mattresses and tents, the volunteers and aid workers checking on the health of the migrants wore disposable face masks.
In the midst of this were many signs of normalcy.
Children ran and laughed and played soccer. The entrepreneurially inclined set up shops atop cardboard boxes, selling things like cigarettes and lollipops that theyd purchased at nearby stores.
And when an Orange County activist showed up with beads and art supplies and large blank banners and a cache of markers, they were surrounded by children and adults alike.
For hours, many in the camp seemed immersed in art.
“I havent painted since I was a child,” said a smiling Ramon Avila, 38, a fisherman from Amapale Valle, Honduras.
“This is a great distraction,” Avila added. “Being stuck here all day, one can feel desperate. But Im going to take a pencil and paint.” Avila said hed reached this place after traveling more than 3,000 miles – much of it on foot — with a teenage son and other relatives.
As some children and adults painted, and others turned threads and beads into bracelets and necklaces, volunteers painted some of the smallest faces. As evening approached, many began dancing while a few took turns with the mic to belt out songs.
The people who brought the supplies say the art isnt all about fun.
“We know that creativity is grounding,” said Monica Curca, founder of the nonprofit Activate Labs. “(It) opens people to find solutions and build community.”
Curca said she offered similar help to migrants in April, when an earlier caravan arrived in Tijuana from Central America.
“We started it to bring hope and joy and build resilience,” Curca said later. Through music, art and dance, Curca said the migrants can experience “joy and hope” and “reclaim a bit of what was lost for them in the journey.”
Honduran Ronal Rellana, 36, decorated a banner with his wife. Their art included a message, in Spanish, that read: “Peace for this world.”
Rellana said hes thankful for the art break, and for the food, clothes and other help his family has received in Mexico.
“Its nice what everyone is doing for us,” said Rellana.
He said his belief in God leads him to believe he and his family will be allowed into the United States.
Along with the immigrant-rights activists and artists and others offering help, theres another group – lawyers.
Some are connected with World Relief, an international agency that partners with churches and is one of several organizations making monthly trips to help the caravan migrants.
The lawyers talk with the migrants and explain the U.S. asylum process. They also go over details, like what types of questions American immigration officials will ask.
“Some people would say Youre counseling them on what to say. No. Were not. We are providing a holistic assessment of their asylum application…to determine whether their case is strong or not,” said Jose Serrano, World Relief senior immigration legal services specialist in the Southern California office.
“We dont indicate whether they should or shouldnt apply,” Serrano said. “We indicate whether they have a case.”
Serrano generally visits a plaza called El Chaparral, near a pedestrian bridge by the San Ysidro port of entry. Migrants often begin to gather there before the sun rises. He gives what he calls a “mini-charla,” a short talk about the asylum process. Then he invites his audience to speak with him or his colleagues, either at the plaza or, later, in interviews at the free clinics.
“We want to make sure families have the tools to self-advocate,” Serrano said.
As in the United States, where the caravan can be a political flashpoint, the reaction to the migrants within Tijuana is mixed.
Some Mexicans have protested the newcomers. And the citys mayor, Juan Manuel Gastélum, has said the migrants are placing a great burden on the city.
On the streets, many view the migrants with a combination of sympathy and wariness.
“Its a knife with a double edge,” said taxi driver Jesus Baez. “We have to help them because its the humanitarian thing to do, and they are our brothers… But there are so many of them.”
“And, they are hurting tourism? said Baez, who has been driving a cab in Tijuana for 50 years. “If so, whats going to happen to us? Are they going to come and destroy our city?
Baez said he recently picked up an American couple holding a bag. As he drove them, he learned that the bag was full of Mexican pesos. When asked how much, Baez could say only that it was “muchos pesos.”
After he dropped off the couple at a migrant camp, Baez thought: “If theyre going to give away money, give me some also.”
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But plenty of locals also want to help.
Last week, volunteers from a Tijuana church passed out hot oatmeal and coffee, and took down names and shoe sizes for 200 people. Among the migrants – who walked much or all of the 3,000 miles from Central America – new sneakers are in great demand.
Other Tijuana residents just show up with bags full of clothes.
“My mother is Honduran,” said Denisse Carillo, who came to the El Barretal camp on her lunch hour to pass out clothes. “I understand the situation.”
Hernandez, the Los Angeles resident who crossed the border repeatedly to make donations, feels a similar connection and a responsibility to help out.
“Things would have been much different if I had been born on this side,” said Hernandez, referring to Mexico.
Hernandez and friends Eric Javier Mejia and Resa Cole stopped by twice on a recent Tuesday to drop off items at El Barretal.
Usually, Hernandez checks in with some of the migrants to see what they need, and then makes the purchases in Tijuana to avoid customs restrictions while crossing the border. He and other friends have distributed everything from thousands of dollars worth of diapers and hygiene products, to 150 tents to three solar-powered generators. The generators are now used in the camps phone center and at a medical relief trailer.
They prefer to drop off the items in a big warehouse at the entrance of El Barretal that is monitored by authorities, who later handle distribution. But on this day, the friends drove straight in to the camp and directly passed out jump ropes, coloring books and balls. Then, they stuck around and played with the kids.
Hernandez has visited El Barretal more than a dozen times. Hes going back next week.
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