Wilenda Nicolas, six months pregnant, prepares a mattress on the floor for a little girl in a migrant shelter with some 100 other Haitians in Tijuana, a Mexican city bordering the United States.
Nicolas found the child, who she thinks is three years old, lost in the forest of Nicaragua during her trek from Brazil to Mexico.
“She was in tears, naked. Nobody stopped to take care of her, so I took her with me,” Nicolas, 23, told AFP.
Nicolas and the girl are among thousands of Haitians who used to live in Brazil but have arrived in Tijuana in recent months, overwhelming immigration authorities on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
The perilous trip across eight nations has taken Haitians around three months at a cost of $3,000 each on average — and they’re not using planes.
“I took buses, a boat, I hitchhiked, I walked in the forest for 15 days. It was very, very tough,” she said.
While Nicolas worked in a chicken slaughterhouse in Brazil, many toiled in construction projects for the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympic Games, but they left due to the economic and political crises afflicting the South American nation.
The United States gave Haitian migrants special protections following the 2010 earthquake that devastated their nation, killing 220,000 people.
But the sudden influx prompted President Barack Obama’s administration to announce last month that it would resume deportations of undocumented Haitians.
“I hope that Obama will accept us because we have suffered too much,” said Francois Fedner, a 27-year-old Haitian who made electric cables for the Olympics but left Brazil with his wife in July, spending $7,000 for the trip.
– Unbearable situation –
An estimated 4,000 Haitians have massed at Mexico’s northern border with California. And this was before their country was hit by another catastrophe when Hurricane Matthew killed hundreds last week.
“Between May and October, the influx of Haitians went from 30 per week to 200 per day,” said Rodulfo Figueroa, head of the Tijuana office of Mexico’s National Migration Institute.
They must wait weeks to be able to cross the border, where US agents review their cases.
“A bottleneck has formed here,” said Margarita Andonaegui, co-founder of the Alesiano Padre Chava migrant shelter, which houses 350 people.
“The situation is becoming unbearable,” she said.
Mexico’s government may open a 600-capacity migrant center to ease the burden on the local shelters.
At one shelter, Haitians sleep in multicolor tents on the courtyard while laundry dries under the sun. Some play cards to pass the time while others play football in the street. The US flag is visible across the border, flapping in the wind.
Tijuana residents drop off food and clothes while Roman Catholic charity groups serve meals on the street and lead prayers.
– Nameless child –
Nicolas is three months away from giving birth, but she’s already taking care of a child who’s not hers. The girl never leaves her side.
“I don’t know her name. I called her Damie,” Nicolas said, adding that she also doesn’t know the girl’s age.
Nicolas arrived in Brazil last year, working at the slaughterhouse for $200 a month. But she decided to go to the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a podiatrist, borrowing money from her family to pay for the trip.
Like others, she was waiting in Tijuana for her turn to convince US authorities to let her immigrate to the United States.
Her day finally came last Friday. Under searing heat and with her backpack on one shoulder, she stepped on the border bridge with Damie and some 60 other migrants, whose cases will be reviewed by US immigration officials.
As of Monday, there was no news whether Nicolas and Damie were allowed into the United States or face deportation.
“I’m confident. I believe I have a chance. God is with me,” she said with a smile that wouldn’t quit.
A few days ago, a migrant recognized the little girl and put Nicolas in touch with Damie’s parents, who were held by authorities in Costa Rica.
She promised to return the girl to her parents when they all meet in the United States. After the conversation, she realized she hadn’t asked them the girl’s name.