About six miles west of downtown Tijuana, on Mexico’s border with California, visitors can spot a billboard erected years ago that reads: “Little Haiti, City of God.”
The area was once the home of thousands of Haitian migrants stranded in this north-western Mexican city as they tried to defy the tightening of US immigration policies.
Though the population in Little Haiti has declined recently, its legacy remains among those left behind.
“It was the hands of 600 Haitians that built part of this school,” said Gustavo Banda, pastor of the Embajadores de Jesús, a church that expanded its capacity to house up to 2,000 Haitian migrants each day between 2016 and 2017.
The school, Banda added, is the first of its kind dedicated to migrant children inside a Tijuana shelter. At its inauguration in April, there were hundreds of children from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Neither the politicians nor the donors to this project acknowledged the Haitians who once lived and worked here.
For more than a decade, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, has been plagued by devastating natural disasters, political instability, and gang violence exacerbated by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.
The 21st-century exodus from Haiti began in earnest after the 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 220,000 people and left more than 1 million people homeless, prompting many of those who survived to flee for Latin America and the US.
Many went to Brazil, which welcomed Haitian workers in preparation for the 2014 World Cup.
But when Brazil’s economy suffered its worst slump in decades, Haitians started traveling north for months until they reached Tijuana, Mexico’s doorway to the American dream.
The US initially allowed Haitians to enter the country under the humanitarian parole provision, which gave them as long as three years to remain on American soil. But in September 2016, Barack Obama announced that those who showed up along the southern border would be deported back to crisis-stricken Haiti.
Obama’s decision previewed similar policies subsequent administrations would take to deter Haitian arrivals along the US-Mexico border.
“One common thing we have seen is the application of deterrence policies at the border,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an organization that provides legal services to displaced black people near the US-Mexico border since 2015.
“It has always been very difficult for Haitians to seek asylum because of US immigration policies, and as a result, they started a vibrant community in Tijuana with barber shops and restaurants.”
Back in downtown Tijuana, Wikiel Caslot, 35, welcomed a family to Labadee, a restaurant he named in honor of a port on Haiti’s northern coast.
It’s been six years since Caslot left Brazil and journeyed to Tijuana. At the time, the Trump administration announced significant measures to dissuade people from seeking asylum, and Caslot gave up on his dream of reaching the US. He quickly adapted to the opportunities Tijuana offered.