TIJUANA — Alicia Martinez and her five children, residents of Mexico City who lost their home in the 1985 earthquake, arrived at the border last month practically penniless and without a place to sleep. They found shelter and food at Centro Scalabrini.
Carlos Montenegro, a native of Guatemala who lived for two years in Los Angeles, said Mexican police stole the money he had saved to finance his trip back to his family in Central America. He's staying at Centro Scalabrini until he can earn enough money to return home.
Carlos Spudich, an 18-year-old Venezuelan student, found himself stranded here without family, friends or money. He, too, wound up at Centro Scalabrini.
"I came here with practically nothing," Spudich said as he lounged on a bunk bed at the center. "I feel fortunate to have found this place."
Centro Scalabrini, named for an Italian bishop who founded an order now known informally as the Scalabrini Fathers, serves as the first-of-its-kind shelter for the many homeless migrants who arrive in this bustling border city, providing them with
food and a roof over their heads. The center, which opened in February, is viewed as particularly important at a time when many Mexican observers fear that the new U.S. immigration law may lead to massive arrests of undocumented Mexicans and deportations to border cities such as Tijuana. In fact, some illegal aliens, fearing arrest in the United States, have already returned to Mexico.
(U.S. immigration authorities have said there are no plans for large-scale deportations, although many Mexicans are suspicious, remembering the widespread deportations of Mexicans during the 1930s and 1950s.)
"There's definitely a fear of deportations, even though it may be unfounded," noted Father Roberto Simionato, the Italian-born associate director of the center, which is situated in a simple three-story stucco building in a working-class neighborhood overlooking downtown Tijuana.
Even without deportations, however, Tijuana and other Mexican border cities are melting pots that absorb thousands of migrants daily--and not only Mexicans, but also other Latin Americans and members of various nationalities who are attempting to enter the United States illegally.
In fact, given the number of migrants who have been passing through this border city for years, perhaps the most amazing fact about Centro Scalabrini is that it is the first such facility of its kind. The 35-room, 210-bed shelter has already provided assistance to more than 2,000 migrants, officials said.
"There's a definite need for this type of shelter in Tijuana," said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, who runs an immigration study institute here. "It's good for the entire community. People can sleep under a roof and get food rather than sleeping on the streets and not eating."
About $400,000 in church funds financed the shelter's construction and the purchase of furniture and other equipment. Tijuana Bishop Carlos Berlie was a longtime supporter of the concept. The facility, which includes a small infirmary and a large kitchen, is staffed by two priests and three nuns. It is run by the Italian-based order, which specializes in the care of migrants and operates shelters in Latin America, the United States and Europe.
Emblazoned on the outside wall in Spanish is the facility's motto, which, roughly translated, states: "I Walked as a Stranger and You Provided Me Shelter."
Stories Sadly Familiar
Inside the structure, visitors stay in neat rooms outfitted with bunk beds. Their stories are sadly familiar to anyone who has talked to illegal aliens in the United States.
"We lost our home in the earthquake," said Alicia Martinez, 33, a former resident of Mexico City who arrived here last month. "Since the earthquake, things have been very difficult in the capital."
She and her five children, ages 10 to 18, share one room. Martinez said that she came to the shelter when she and her family were arrested by U.S. authorities and sent back to Mexico after they had hopped a Los Angeles-bound freight train in Yuma. They had been in the United States only a few hours. Now, they are grateful for the shelter.
"At least here we have a roof over our heads, and we're together," said Jose Luis Avila Martinez, the eldest child at 18.
Their next move? Back to the United States. The family said last week that they planned to attempt a crossing shortly, joining the hundreds still sneaking into the United States despite the new bill.
"If there's no work (in the United States) because of the new bill, then we'll return to Mexico," said the mother. "But it has just become too difficult for us in Mexico."
Carlos Montenegro, a 33-year-old Guatemalan, had a different story. After working as an auto mechanic in Los Angeles for two years, he decided to return to Guatemala to see his family, including three daughters. However, upon arriving in Tijuana in March, he said, he was approached by police officers who demanded the $500 he was carrying to finance his trip back home.
His is not an unusual comment: Many migrants in Tijuana say they are shaken down by local, state and federal police.
"I'm working until I can earn enough to pay my way back home," Montenegro, who has maintained his good cheer despite his travails, said as he sat on his bunk alongside his suitcase. He is working at a Tijuana bottling plant. Echoing the comments of others, Montenegro concluded: "I'm lucky that I found this place."