Final Stop The culmination of Tijuana's decade-long migrant crisis

Fifteen hundred neatly organized sandwiches are assembled by 10 local volunteers as the smell of more than 30 pounds of sizzling beef wafts across the World Central Kitchen (WCK) headquarters in Tijuana, Mexico. The non-profit, founded by chef Jose Andres, has been feeding between 1,400 and 1,600 Central American refugees two to three times a day on the U.S.–Mexico border since arriving there on December 5. On December 18, WCK surpassed 50,000 total meals served in Tijuana border camps.

A volunteer (that preferred her name not be included) serves over 1,500 refugees. Each day, 5-6 children from the camp would assist World Central Kitchen with serving lunch. The goal of the program surrounds creating a sustainable refugee-operated kitchen in Tijuana to serve for months (or even years) to come. The recent influx in caravan activity has drawn mass media attention - but contrary to popular belief - refugees from Central America have been arriving in Tijuana for over a decade.

What is happening in Tijuana?

Local relief organizations became overwhelmed when more than 7,000 Central Americans made the grueling journey to the Tijuana border in a series of organized caravans throughout November and early December. The refugees arrived with hopes of claiming asylum — according to camp manager Nate Dennison, many were misled into thinking the process of entering the United States would be streamlined.

“Organizers made it seem like they would be able to cross with no problem,” Dennison said. “Many seemed surprised when they were turned away and forced to wait months for their papers to be processed.” Only 40 to 100 people are being processed by immigration officials each day.

When the caravans first reached the border, local officials were completely unprepared and had to pack more than 6,000 refugees into the Benito Juarez sports complex. After torrential rains in early December damaging the location, the facility was dissolved in and refugees were dispersed between one of 16 refugee shelters in the Tijuana area.

(Top Left): A child sits amidst the hundreds of tents packed into the Barretal compound on the outskirts of Tijuana, Mexico. (Top Right): A man attempts to calm an angry crowd of refugees after a fellow camper was arrested for selling cigarettes to minors. The crowd began following police out of the facility after the arrest was made. They were stopped at the front gate - and eventually coerced that cooperation and peace was the best course of action. (Middle): A child watches on as volunteers from World Central Kitchen prepare dinner at the Barretal refugee camp. (Bottom Left): Refugees play soccer in the single male section of the Barretal border camp located just outside of Tijuana, Mexico. (Bottom Right): Men gamble with dice on the ground of the Barretal refugee compound located just outside Tijuana, Mexico. Gambling, soccer, and card games are among the most popular activities to pass the time.

The majority (3,000-plus refugees) were moved to the Barretal complex, located about 14 miles southeast of Tijuana. The camp now sits in the center of Tijuana’s low-income suburban community — far from the wealthy and tourist-centric city center. “Out of sight, out of mind,” Dennison said. “The city and local residents wanted them out.”

Who is World Central Kitchen?

World Central Kitchen was founded by celebrity chef and philanthropist Jose Andres after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since then, the organization has provided relief efforts in Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Zambia, and the United States.

Kevin Hernandez, 19, of Honduras sits in the Barretal migrant facility 20 minutes outside of Tijuana. Kevin lived in Houston for 4 years before being deported back to Honduras. Upon arriving back to his home country - his father and older brother were killed in organized gang hits. Soon after, he departed with his 17 year old brother on the two month journey to the border. Now they just wait for their paper’s to be processed. While his younger brother has a good chance at asylum - Kevin’s chances of re-gaining legal entry to the United States after already being deported once are slim to none.

Most recently, WCK has focused its efforts in Tijuana, setting up a headquarters and sending two to three west coast chefs to oversee their work at the border camps. With no end to the flow of asylum-seekers in sight, the initiative aims to empower refugees to create a self-sustaining food-based relief effort, establish a formal food service certification program, and continue providing for those who need it most.

“Our goal is to integrate [the refugees] into the food-making process,” said WCK project manager Sam Bloch. “Right now, we’re attempting to hire shuttles to transport them from the camps to the kitchen. This way, we can teach them how to properly run and organize the kitchen, creating a sustainable food service moving forward.”

(Top Left): A volunteer serves lunch to over 1,500 refugees at the Barretal refugee compound.(Top Right): Johnathan Torres, 10, of Honduras, serves dinner to over 1,500 refugees. (Middle): A Honduran refugee gives out sandwiches prepared by World Central Kitchen in the Barretal refugee camp located just outside of Tijuana, Mexico. (Bottom Left): Brenden Darby, 28, of San Francisco cooks over 30 pounds of beef in the World Central Kitchen headquarters in Tijuana. The meat will be served as part of dish for dinner at the Barre Tal refugee camp. World Central Kitchen, Chef Jose Andres’ non-profit relief organization, serves over 1,200 meals 2-3 times each day. (Bottom Right): World Central Kitchen volunteer, Ocar Montana, 22, of Tijuana, unloads loafs of bread from a box truck at the WCK headquarters.

“Our goal is to integrate [the refugees] into the food-making process,” said WCK project manager Sam Bloch. “Right now, we’re attempting to hire shuttles to transport them from the camps to the kitchen. This way, we can teach them how to properly run and organize the kitchen, creating a sustainable food service moving forward.”

A day in Baretal:

Each day begins at 7 a.m. Lunch is prepped, and at 11, two or three volunteers pack up a large box truck with enough to feed the 1,400 to 1,600 refugees. Entering Barretal through a rusted, graffiti-covered back entrance, Nate Dennison ushers the van toward a set of makeshift tents next to the family section of the camp. The compound is split into two areas: an indoor facility for families, children, and the elderly, and an outdoor section for single men.

A man receives rudimentary medical attention from other refugees while waiting over 25 minutes for emergency services to arrive. He began seizing and vomiting due to a lack of medication according to responders on scene. Medical services were suspended in the facility several days prior in an effort to close the compound. Care from independent non-profits slipping past the police-guarded entrances is all that remain. Recent complaints from community members in Central Tijuana have lead to the government relocating migrant camps to low-income suburban communities on the outskirts of Tijuana.

Upon arrival, children from every section of the camp rush to the truck to unload and begin setting up. There is no need for instruction, as many refugees have been helping every day for several weeks. With little else to keep them occupied, children wait with excitement to serve the day’s lunch and dinner. After putting on gloves, masks, and aprons, they begin as several World Central Kitchen volunteers oversee the process.

(Top Left): Refugees from the male portion of the compound eagerly wait their turn to enter the family side of the facility for dinner. Each night World Central Kitchen served between 1,200 and 1,500 meals. The line stretched over 100 yards in the other direction. (Top Right): Jorgo Avisai Perdomo, of Honduras, leans against an old pallet provided by nonprofits to prevent refugees tents from flooding in the intense rain. The previous camp was closed after massive storms rendered the facility inhabitable. Jorgo has been traveling for two months. (Bottom): A young Honduran refugee sporting a Steelers sweatshirt eats an apple provided by World Central Kitchen at the El Chinchetta refugee compound in Central Tijuana.

Women, children, and elderly are served first as a line of between 200 and 300 men begins to form at the gate separating the two sections of the camp. After the families are served, the men are let in 10 to 20 at a time. Two hours later, 1,500 meals have been dispersed, and the children help WCK workers pack up the truck. Volunteers then return to Tijuana where dinner is waiting in hot packs. The truck is packed for a second time, and the process is repeated for dinner around 5 p.m. Thanks to the combined effort, the nonprofit is well on its way to creating a sustainable refugee-run kitchen that will last for months (or possibly years) to come.

David Zuniga, 2, of Honduras, sits on a dinner table in the Barretal migrant camp located 20 minutes outside of Tijuana. Three meals a day are provided by local volunteers, churches, or international non-profits. David is covered by a dinner served moments earlier by World Central Kitchen - Chef Jose Andres’s global hunger non-profit. The group of volunteers has been serving 1,200-1,400 meals two time a day since December 5th 2018.

Who are the major players in the crisis?

There are four major players involved in the U.S.–Mexico border crisis: the Mexican government, the United States government, local Tijuana and San Diego residents, and non-profit organizations providing aid.

The Mexican government immediately pledged their support, providing food, water, shelter, and job facilitation to refugees in Tijuana. Local churches and non-profit organizations also stepped in to assist with food and shelter. It was estimated that the city was spending about $27,119 every day on services and supplies during the month of November, according to Tijuana's Government Secretary Leopoldo Guerrero.

(Top): World Central Kitchen project leader, Sam Bloch, unpacks several boxes of apples to serve with lunch at the El Chinchetta compound in Central Tijuana. (Bottom Left): A World Central Kitchen volunteer serves refugees in the El Chinchetta compound located in Central Tijuana. (Bottom Right): Volunteer and San Diego artist, Robert Marquez, stands outside the El Chinchetta refugee compound in Central Tijuana. Robert beautifies these temporary living spaces by painting sheets that he hangs on the walls.

The U.S. government, however, immediately condemned the caravans, bolstered security, and sent 5,600 troops to the border. Additionally, President Trump has since continued his aggressive campaign to secure $5 billion in funding for his long-promised border wall (despite Democrats offer to compromise at $1.3 billion). This also comes at a time when border apprehensions are at nearly half of what they used to be, with roughly 396,579 apprehensions on the south-western border in 2018, compared to over 800,000 in 2007 , and 1,643,679 in 2000.

Source: (BBC News)

This polarizing debate culminated recently with the second-longest (so far) government shutdown in U.S. history. Before Trump gave his direct address to the American people on January 8, a Politico poll found that 47 percent of voters blame Trump for the shutdown, while 33 percent blame Democrats. Today, the debate continues, as the U.S. government remains in a gridlocked shutdown, and an estimated 800,000 government workers miss their first paycheck.

Heraldo Enrique, 19, of Honduras, stands wearing a Santa hat outside the El Chinchetta compound in Central Tijuana. Heraldo left Honduras to escape the pressure of joining a gang. He has been on the road alone for two months

Local San Diego and Tijuana residents are split into two groups: those who oppose the refugee presence and those who feel it is their duty to help. “The sentiment in the local community is very negative,” local Tijuana volunteer Beatrix Berger said. “Mexicans always support other Mexicans illegally crossing the border. They used to say ‘no human being is illegal,’ — but now they say the Central Americans are illegally here.”

(Top): Children in the Barretal migrant camp prepare to serve lunch to over 1,200. Three meals a day are provided by local volunteers, churches, or international non-profits. (Top Middle Left): An illuminated tent is silhouetted against the night sky in the Barretal refugee camp outside of Tijuana, Mexico. (Top Middle Right): A volunteer and occupant of the El Chinchetta facility helps serve lunch to over 1,500 refugees. (Middle): Tents line the second story of the El Chinchetta refugee compound in Central Tijuana. The building is home to 300-400 Central American migrants. (Bottom Middle Left): A World Central Kitchen volunteer chops potatoes in preparation for dinner at the new World Central Kitchen headquarters in Tijuana, Mexico. (Bottom Middle Right): Laundry dries next to a Christmas tree that was recently donated to the Barretal refugee camp in Tijuana, Mexico. (Bottom): Central American refugees freestyle rap to IPhone beats using a donated mic and speaker set-up at the Barretal refugee camp located on the outskirts of Tijuana.

“The biggest concern is the possibility of the border closing again,” she went on to say. “Families in Tijuana who work or send their children to school in San Diego are very worried.” She went on to cite the refugee street presence, and financial strain on the government as reason for concern amidst her friends who oppose the support efforts.

Others feel that education and job opportunities are the key to integrating Central American refugees into Mexican society. “If we show them positivity, they will be positive. If we [treat] them badly, they will [respond] badly,” Tijuana pastor and volunteer Leopold Perez said. “I think it all depends on the education we give them.”

Refugees have a makeshift dance party using a donated speaker + microphone set.

Tijuana’s collegiate community also views the refugee presence as an opportunity to help those in need. “I don’t care if they are from down South; I’m going to help them either way,” said student and volunteer Oscar Montana, who has been volunteering with World Central Kitchen three times a week since mid-December through a collegiate volunteer program. “It doesn’t matter why they came here, or what I think, they need to eat.”

(Top Left): Over 1,200 sandwiches are prepped for lunch by World Central Kitchen volunteers. (Top Middle): A volunteer serves dinner to over 1,500 refugees at the Barretal refugee compound. (Top Right): Two young boys lift their sibling’s baby stroller up a set of stairs in the Barretal refugee camp. The camp is not handicapped accessible. (Middle Large): Volunteers serve dinner to over 1,500 refugees. (Middle Left): A line of refugees waiting for food snakes into the street outside the El Chinchetta compound in Central Tijuana. (Middle Right): Volunteer, Rodrigo Rodriguez, of San Diego, hands out toys to refugee children in the Barretal camp located in Tijuana, Mexico. Rodrigo also purchased a washer and dryer for the facility. (Bottom Left): World Central Kitchen volunteers chop potatoes in preparation for dinner at the new World Central Kitchen headquarters in Tijuana, Mexico. (Bottom Right): A child and her grandmother peer out of their tent to watch children playing outside. The Barretal camp now houses between 1,500 and 2,000 migrants - with 30-40 leaving and coming each day.

The final players in this polarizing crisis are non-profits like World Central Kitchen, Border Angels, local church groups, and community shelters. While initiating relief efforts in Tijuana was challenging at first, nonprofits have received immense support from community members, fellow non-profits, students, and refugees. “You don’t see a lot of negativity down here,” said WCK project manager Sam Bloch. “Most of that comes from the media sensationalizing a few bad incidents. We’ve received a great deal of support for our work here.”

A boy scooters by a tent spray painted with the text “Abolish ICE” in the Barretal migrant camp located 15 miles outside Tijuana, Mexico. This section of the camp houses woman, children, and elderly. Many of the families have been waiting for their papers to process for over two months. Others leave days after arriving, with hopes of illegally crossing the border in search of asylum.

The situation at the border is rife with complexity and compounded by political commentary, but the need for immediate action is undeniable. If you’d like to support chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen you can donate here.

Michael Schwarz is a freelance photojournalist residing in Brooklyn, NY. He specializes in a wide array of photo and video work, as well as written journalism, investigative reporting, and spot news coverage. His work has been published by the Associated Press, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and Fodor's Travel. You can view his work here, or follow him on Instagram @mikeschwarzthekid

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