Last weekend, I volunteered to help out the charity group “Border Angels” to donate a day of my time – along with about 10 lb. of ground up coffee – to the refugees currently stranded in Tijuana, Mexico. The event, referred to by the group as the “Caravan of Love,” involved collecting a wide-range of essential supplies within San Diego (e.g. food, clothing, shoes, toiletries, medical supplies, diapers, etc.) and then sending dozens of American vehicles across the Mexican border to distribute these supplies directly to refugees in need. As an attorney based in Southern California, I originally reached out in the hopes that my legal-skills could be repurposed to assist the asylum seekers; however, I joined up for a day with the Border Angels to get a sense of what things looked like within the refugee camps themselves, as well as provide whatever help I could in the effort to donate and distribute some supplies.
Now, as you might expect from any charitable holiday-season drive to help people in need, the volunteers I teamed up with hailed from all walks of life, but each possessed a genuine desire to create something positive for those less-fortunate than themselves. Also, I cannot understate just how badass and impressive the organizers for the Border Angels were as they helped point the other volunteers in the right direction. Yet, by the time our San Diegan “Caravan of Love” arrived at the refugee camp – located approximately 30 miles south of the border Mexican border, within the converted nightclub Barretal – the undeniably positive energy of generated by hundreds of southern Californians immediately came face-to-face, with the extraordinarily complex reality these refugees are forced to deal with.
The Border Angels tried their best to prepare our group of predominantly upper-middle-class white American volunteers, for the sights and experiences we were about to encounter. For example, the Border Angels made it clear that we should prepare for a bleak situation: families in desperation, children without clothing, unclean environments, and poor hygiene. Similarly, the Border Angels tempered any expectations that our efforts would somehow solve the entire crisis in a day, or provide some sort of Christmas miracle that lifted these families out from desperation, and into a sense joy and love. Nevertheless, what actually struck me most about my time spent at the refugee camp, was not how dark and depressing things had become, but rather how many different angles one could look at the situation, in light of the many different agendas had become involved.
I mean, sure, the crisis is incredibly depressing. Hundreds of children can be seen wandering aimlessly in bare feet along a hot asphalt surface among crowds of people sleeping in tents, shouting to each other, or blasting music within the small confined space. At the same time, the faces of the adults openly convey fear, frustration, resentment, and anger. Just walking supplies into and out of the camp creates an immediate feeling as if you are wading through some metaphoric emotional sludge, thick enough to slow you down, yet deep enough to consume you. And, of course, the backdrop of an impoverished Tijuanan community overrun with broken mud-soaked roads, and worn down houses, serves to constantly remind you that the poverty permeating throughout the camp, does not end at the military-controlled access point.
It is actually here, right where the Mexican people meet the camp filled with Central American refugees, that the situation becomes even harder to define. On the one hand, the camps are clearly filled with charitable Mexicans and Catholic groups who want to help. There are local Mexicans singing and dancing with the El Salvadorian and Honduran children, to keep their spirits up. There are also hair dressers, nurses, plumbers, police officers, and military personnel answering questions, and coordinating with all of the foreign charity groups, to keep the peace and prevent the situation from devolving into chaos. However, on the other hand, local Tijuanans outside the gates chant demand on loudspeakers that the refugees leave their country. With each trip to our vehicles to pick up supplies, local Mexicans surround and uncomfortably enter our personal space while asking for the refugee’s supplies. Women receive overt stares and catcalls, by both Tijuanans, and male refugees, as they carry supplies in boxes down unguarded alleys.
Approximately 30 minutes after we started dropping off the supplies, the Mexican military abruptly stopped all of our goods from being transported into the camp, and informed us that we would not be permitted to bring anything more inside, unless we redirected everything we had into a government-run warehouse. Many charity groups immediately refused, and told us that they would be taking their goods to other camps. However, our group decided to strike a “deal” in which they would permit us to hand out children’s underwear and socks from our supplies, if we agreed to send 10 volunteers into the warehouse, and organize space for them to receive the rest of our goods. (Note: Our group initially asked me to see what happened if I tried to just slip the things past the military blockade. I maybe got about 20 feet before they stopped me).
As one of the 10 people who ultimately volunteered to spend a few hours helping within the warehouse, I watched as we redirected and stacked approximately 90% of the charitable donations sent from the US into a corner already filled with hundreds of brand-new camping supplies, tents, sleeping bags, jackets, medical supplies, and other valuables. Volunteers who had been within the warehouse before openly complained that the fully-stocked warehouse contained massive amount of supplies that the refugees had explicitly requested, yet the piles of these supplies seemed to keep on rising, as the refugees complained that they weren’t receiving them. As I moved boxes for hours, I questioned whether the coffee I had donated, along with thousands of dollars worth of goods our group had delivered that day, would ever find their way to the refugees.
To be fair, the warehouse did provide a safe and organized place for us to place our valuables – and the military did not exactly force us to hand everything to them, if we wanted to take our charity somewhere else – but, the lack of organization, coupled with the collection of the most critical materials (not to mention the Mexican government’s refusal to let us film anything on our phones) served as a stern reminder of how complicated this situation remains. In the end, we decided to let the Mexican government hold all of our supplies, so that the refugee children could immediately receive pairs of socks and underwear but, upon returning to the first-world comforts of my San Diego home, so many lingering questions about the entire experience remained unanswered.
Would the supplies we spent hours organizing within that fully-stocked Mexican warehouse ever find their way to the refugees? Will the Mexican government assert further control over the charity organizations entering into their country? Is that control in any way necessary for security? How long before the U.S. allows these refugees to become processed and seek the asylum they walked thousands of miles for? Would another trip down to Tijuana like this do any more good, or would my time be better spent offering legal services as a lawyer?
These, and so many other questions, remain completely unanswerable right now. Thus, with several organizations trying to achieve so many different goals, I cannot stop thinking about how easily this entire situation can fulfill whatever political narrative desired. For every sense of hopelessness, there exists an uncompromising act of kindness. For all of the Mexican government’s assistance in keeping the peace, there clearly exists a sense of disorganization and uncertainty that refugees were being fully assisted. For all of the need that refugees possess within that camp, there also exists massive poverty within the very city that provided these refugees with shelter.
The entire situation is so much more complicated than an American news cycle typically reports. Still, at the end of the day, there are a lot of very good people working within very different organizations, who are doing their best to help. It might not be perfect, but if not for the efforts of so many people, it could easily be a whole lot worse.
Brian Pastore is a personal injury and civil rights attorney dedicated to serving the Southern California Latino community.