In the wake of local impacts from national immigration issues, several SLO County residents formed an activist group to raise awareness and educate the community.
As part of that effort, members of Allies for Immigration Justice traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to provide support to Haitian immigrants who have been displaced. There, they also learned about an office that aids U.S. military veterans who have been deported.
- Photo Courtesy Of Bill Struter
- WAITING GAME In Tijuana, Mexico, there's a small church nicknamed "Little Haiti" where displaced Haitian immigrants take shelter.
Douglas Pillsbury, a member of the Allies' steering committee, said he was one of nine people from the advocacy group who traveled to San Diego May 27 to work with the San Diego-based nonprofit Haitian Bridge Alliance.
The nonprofit helps Haitian immigrants with documentation translation and preparation, passport and identification facilitation, computer and Wi-Fi access, immigration attorney assistance, and résumé and work preparation.
The nonprofit formed, Pillsbury said, because there is a large number of Haitian immigrants currently in Mexico for two main reasons. He explained that in 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti struck Port-au-Prince, just south of the capital. According to an article by Public Radio International's The World program, it's estimated that 3 million people were left in need of emergency aid.
Five years later, Haiti was devastated again, this time by Hurricane Matthew, leaving widespread damage. Pillsbury said the Allies group learned that these factors and many others caused a large number of Haitians to travel to Brazil, Venezuela, and Mexico.
Twice a month, the nonprofit visits a church in Tijuana called Ambassadors of Jesus—nicknamed "Little Haiti"—where Haitian immigrants live in tents and wait their turn to make the trip to the immigration office to ask for asylum in the United States.
"The first view that we had of the church was that there was garbage everywhere," Pillsbury said. "Inside the church, in contrast to the outside, it was very clean and neat."
The first visit the nonprofit makes is to assess the situation in Little Haiti and see what the needs are of the people living there. After raising enough funds to purchase basic necessities (soap, diapers, or food) the nonprofit returns with its donation. During the second trip, Bridge Alliance also focuses on providing legal or medical assistance.
The members of the Allies for Immigration Justice were part of the second visit on May 27. In collaboration with the local United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalists from SLO, the Allies raised $900 to contribute to the nonprofit's effort, Pillsbury said.
The church is currently lined with four- to five-person tents that Haitian immigrants live in. At any given time, Pillsbury said, there are between 200 to 250 people living at the church waiting to go through the immigration process. He said the group met people who had barely gotten to the church and others who'd been living there for more than a few months, waiting.
Allies is looking to share their experience with the community at the Lights for Liberty public event that they're co-hosting with the Women's March SLO on July 13. The focus of the peaceful rally and vigil is to shine a light on what's happening at the U.S. and Mexico border and in detention centers across the country.
The group also aims to share information about its visit to an office for the U.S. Deported Veterans Resource Center.
It's a place for displaced veterans who in some cases had a green card when joining the U.S. military and who've committed a crime after their time of service and were deported because of it.
Solina Lindahl, an Allies member, said that many individuals in this scenario believed they would become citizens by serving the U.S., but that wasn't the case. She said that, in the past and currently, the U.S. military hasn't proactively helped its members get the right paperwork for a path to naturalization.
In other cases, many individuals who visit the Deported Veterans Resource Center came to the U.S. as children and became legal residents, but again because of a crime were expelled from the country they served.
The center provides resources and support for those individuals to access their benefits such as medical care, counseling, and pensions—which are difficult to claim abroad.
"Although there is a pathway to naturalization [military personnel] are often not advised of the correct steps, and they fall through the cracks fairly easily," she said.
Lindahl said the group shared the information they learned from the center with U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), who is co-sponsoring a bill to aid military personnel in proactively getting paperwork for naturalization.
The Support and Defend Our Military Personnel and Their Families Act was introduced to the House of Representatives in April. If passed, it would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to protect the well-being of soldiers and their families.
In the same month, Carbajal also co-sponsored another bill, the Veterans Visa and Protection Act of 2019. If passed, it would require the secretary of Homeland Security to establish a veterans visa program to permit veterans who've been removed from the U.S. to return as immigrants. Δ
Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.