In Tijuana, Caravan Migrants Met With Xenophobia and HIV Discrimination but Find Support

Donald J. Trump is determined to build his wall. As of today, we are in the U.S.'s longest government shutdown, over Congress's refusal to appropriate funds for this wall. On January 8, over 40 million people watched our president address the nation with one thing on his mind: anti-immigration rhetoric. Trump's notorious 2016 presidential campaign, with its slogan "Make America Great Again (MAGA)," sparked controversy and galvanized racist public opinion in America. People have salivated over his "bad hombres" choice of words and praised his unapologetic references toward migrants -- calling them rapists and criminals who come from "shithole countries." This notion of fear and animosity toward Central Americans is also present in Tijuana, a diverse municipality in Mexico just on the California border that hosts refugees from all walks of life -- not just people from Central American countries, but also people from Haiti, Ghana, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.

Tijuana has long been a diverse city of people moving through Mexico, Central America, and the United States. But Tijuana, like the U.S. with its MAGA fans, is not without its Mexican nationalists, who are helping to stoke racist and xenophobic sentiments. And people living with HIV and traveling to enter the U.S. from the southern border have to deal with both the local xenophobia and trying to access care without having their status disclosed, which can bring further stress, stigma, and violence.

Just like in the U.S., a small but active group of right-wing agitators in Tijuana has worked strategically to displace and target Central Americans seeking asylum and refuge. For example, when the second mass exodus of Central Americans began camping out in Playas de Tijuana a few weeks ago, a mob of people began attacking them. Paloma Zuniga, a dual U.S. and Mexican citizen, has been spearheading this xenophobic movement. "I'm probably the most Mexican Trump supporter you will ever meet," declared Zuniga. Zuniga has more than 62,000 followers on Facebook, some of whom reside in Tijuana. Zuniga is a clear example of what hate looks like on the other side of the border -- hate that Trump has helped galvanize.

Graffiti in Tijuana
This graffiti on the Mexico side of the border in Tijuana reads "They kill our children on the other side."
Estefania Castaneda

I have been in Tijuana for the past few weeks prepping LGBT refugees for their credible fear interview, which grants them the opportunity to present their case in front of an immigration judge. I have been working closely with the National Lawyers Guild, along with nonprofits stationed in Tijuana. My time in Tijuana has been an experience, to say the least. All of my taxi drivers would make comments about the people in the caravan -- calling them dirty, ungrateful, and a nuisance. One driver even warned me not to disclose my Salvadoran heritage after our small talk, telling me that type of conversation can "get me into trouble."

"Mexican officials from the group called Beta are prohibiting refugees from entering the shelter Barretal and making xenophobic comments such as, 'Leave already. You do not belong in Mexico,'" said Luis Fernando Hernandez, a Honduran migrant in Tijuana. At the same time, government officials are now evacuating migrants and displacing them from their refugee camps. Fortunately, there are some "Tijuaneros" who are actively supporting Central American migrants seeking refuge. Some are even committed to providing HIV prevention and care services to migrants who may be HIV positive when they arrive, or who may become vulnerable to contracting HIV due to the conditions of their migration.

Antonio Granillo is the director of Albergue Las Memorias, a shelter in Tijuana that advocates for substance users, people living with HIV/AIDS, and people in transitional living circumstances. He has been the director for over 20 years. This shelter was named after an organization in Los Angeles, The Wall Las Memorias Project, in appreciation for the work they do together. The shelter in Tijuana collaborates with city officials to empower marginalized communities through a holistic approach that incorporates housing and vocational training programs and assists clients with obtaining and managing their HIV medication.

"We opened the shelter 20 years ago and serve people with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and pretty much anyone who walks into our doors," said Granillo.

Granillo is a community advocate in Tijuana. He overcame substance use and homelessness and began empowering himself by participating in focus groups with organizations such as CIRAD, which assists people with addiction to substances by giving them tools to gain professional vocational skills and emotional support during their time in recovery. CIRAD allowed Granillo to gain work experience that would help him advocate for people living with HIV and transgender women doing sex work in the community. He took that experience to Albergue Las Memorias, and, despite some of the stigma and discrimination against migrants from outside Mexico now in Tijuana, people living with HIV, and LGBT people, Granillo sees himself as a champion for all.

"We have always offered shelter and services to people from all walks of life," says Granillo. "At the moment, we are serving two Honduran men who are HIV positive. We are ready to continue serving people who are HIV positive and in need of our services."

From what I have gathered by talking with the folks in the caravan, many LGBT people from Honduras are escaping violence and persecution from their government, which has been in turmoil since a 2009 coup against an elected president who was from a leftist party. Some people believe the Obama Administration and the State Department under the leadership of Hillary Clinton intentionally ignored the coup in order to support a leader they felt more appropriate to U.S. interests. Some of these Honduran men I spoke to are looking for resources that can help them with their HIV care. One young man in particular has not been able to achieve an undetectable viral load, and he hopes to make it to the U.S., where he can get access to care and advocate for his health.

Tijuana has a "micro-hyperepidemic" of HIV/AIDS that primarily includes sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender people, and people who use and/or inject drugs. Many of the people most vulnerable to HIV are deportees who reside in Tijuana fighting homelessness and displacement. These people often live in squalid conditions that put their health in further danger. Granillo shared that a tuberculosis outbreak is happening in Tijuana, and no one is talking about it.

"We have lost about 900 people to tuberculosis," he said. "These folks are also HIV positive, and it becomes a problem in itself. We see this topic as a social issue."

Giuliani Alvarenga is a UC Berkeley alumnus who double majored in English and gender & women's studies. He is a Sidley Austin Pre-Law Scholar and wrapping up his two-year clerkship with Munger, Tolles, & Olson before he begins law school.