Thousands of Haitians find 'Mexican dream' near US border
Jose Luis Millan found a new crop of star employees at an upscale Tijuana car wash where customers cross the border from the United States to pay up to US$950 to have their prized possessions steamed and scrubbed for hours.
They're never late, always hustle and come in on days off to learn new skills, traits that he says make them a model for their Mexican counterparts.
They are among several thousand Haitians who came to Mexico's northwest corner hoping to cross the border before the US abruptly closed its doors last year. The Mexican government has welcomed them with a visa programme that helps them fill the need for labour in Tijuana's growing economy.
In a country whose population is one per cent black, Tijuana's Haitians stand out. They share tight living quarters, sending much of their meagre wages to support family in Haiti. Haitians earn far less than they would in the United States, but enough to forsake the risk of getting deported by heading north.
"It's the Mexican dream for many of them, a sense that they belong," Millan said. "Mexico has given them opportunity. Mexico has opened up and let them achieve their dreams."
The Haitians took an accidental route from their impoverished Caribbean homeland to Tijuana, a city of about two million that borders San Diego and also has large pockets of Chinese and Korean immigrants.
Brazil and its neighbours took in the Haitians after that country's 2010 earthquake. As construction jobs for the 2016 Summer Olympics ended and Brazil descended into political turmoil, they crossed 10 countries by plane, boat, bus and on foot to San Diego, where US authorities let them in on humanitarian grounds.
Then President Barack Obama shifted course in September and started deporting Haitian arrivals. Many decided to call Mexico home.
After struggling as a schoolteacher in Haiti, Abelson Etienne moved to Brazil in 2014 to work at a factory that made cable for lighting products. He arrived in Tijuana in December after a harrowing journey with his wife who, despite the US policy shift, was allowed in on humanitarian grounds, presumably because she was seven months' pregnant.
Etienne, a 27-year-old who studied chemistry in college in Haiti, settled into a routine of six-day weeks and three double shifts, earning him 1,900 pesos (a little over US$100), mostly for his wife in New York City and the infant son he hasn't seen.
"There's so much work in Tijuana," he said while a pot of fish stew with mangoes and tomatoes simmered on an electric burner in the two-room apartment that he rents with three other Haitians. "I've been treated very well in Mexico."
The Mexican government is giving Haitians one-year, renewable visas that allow them to work but not bring family. Rodulfo Figueroa, the region's top immigration official, says Mexico is practising what it asks of the US and other countries.
"We believe that there's a humanitarian case to be made for these people to find better lives in Mexico," said Figueroa, the National Migration Institute's delegate in Baja California state, which includes Tijuana. "Our policy is to have the Haitian population do what they need to do to have status in Mexico."
The new arrivals, currently numbering around 3,000, are manageable in a country of 122 million. Central Americans, who come illegally in much larger numbers, are typically deported, although Mexico is granting asylum more often.
Rodin St Surin, 36, is among hundreds of Haitians who found work at Tijuana's export-oriented factories. CCL Industries Inc, a Toronto-based company that makes Avery office products for retailers including Staples, Wal-Mart, Target and others, needed help after moving manufacturing from Meridian, Mississippi, last year.
The plant hired St Surin and 15 other Haitians in May for its workforce of 1,700 during peak back-to-school season. They inspected and packaged binders at the back of a giant, spotless floor where machines also churn out labels, folders and markers around the clock.
"I'm very comfortable with these people," said Mario Aguirre, the plant's operations director and a 43-year industry veteran. "They have given us very good results. They don't miss work, they always arrive on time. We'd like to see the same attitude in everyone."
The factory offered 1,500 pesos (about US$85) for a six-day week, with health coverage, paid vacation and a free shuttle to work. St Surin, who left Brazil with hopes of joining a cousin in Miami, sends earnings to a caretaker for his three children in Haiti, who he hopes to bring to Tijuana.
"Mexico could become my home," he said outside a crowded, graffiti-covered building where a nun allows about 50 Haitians to live rent-free.