Men and women who land in Tijuana after being deported from the U.S. lost a great friend this week. Micaela Saucedo was one of the city's most vocal advocates for that city's vulnerable deportee population, and she died Sept. 1 after a battle with cancer.
Saucedo was a founder and executive director of the Casa Refugio Elvira, which began in 2007 as a shelter for women and children who found themselves stranded in Tijuana after being deported from the U.S. More recently, she had moved her old ten-bed shelter into a larger building, and began housing men, who make up most of the deportee population on the streets of Tijuana.
The idea for the shelter was sparked when a Mexican immigrant named Elvira Arellano left the Chicago church where, for a year, she'd been seeking safe harbor from deportation. She traveled to Los Angeles, but was arrested there and deported to Tijuana.
It was Saucedo, a retired nurse and activist, who greeted Arellano at the border. The shelter ultimately bore Arellano's first name.
As the shelter's director, Saucedo tried to differentiate Casa Refugio Elvira from others. She placed no limit on how long people could stay, realizing it often takes much longer than a week or two for a recent deportee to figure out what to do next.
"She saw a wrong, and she tried to fix it right away," said Enrique Morones, a border activist who worked with Saucedo and La Hermandad Mexicana, a pro-migrant nonprofit, to establish the shelter.
Saucedo often went to the border crossing where deportees filed off of buses. She knew most of them would arrive disoriented, knowing nothing about Tijuana, and she personally invited families to her shelter.
It was through this work that she learned of the hundreds, at times thousands of deported migrants who lived in abject poverty in the concrete canal that lines the Tijuana River as it runs along the border fence. Some have drug habits, others are simply unable to pay the dollar a day charged by most shelters.
Saucedo was a slight woman who wore glasses and graying hair. She visited the canal almost every day, talking with deportees and offering them food. She soon realized her ten-bed shelter was not enough.
Earlier this year, she moved it into a large abandoned building. She said she wanted to be closer to the canal because deportees often ran to find her when police were harassing canal residents. She also wanted to house more people, including men.
When I first met Saucedo in April, she had been arranging for the body of a young man who had been killed in the canal to be flown back to his hometown in southern Mexico. The government agreed to pay for that trip.
But for Saucedo, it was a tragedy that this man's only ticket home was in a casket. When he was first deported, the government wouldn't buy his bus ticket.
"There's no money," she said. "That's why you see so many people who want to return to their hometowns, but there's no money."
It was this large, stranded population to which Micaela Saucedo devoted the last seven years of her life, often spending her own retirement income on shelter utilities and rent, even as her health deteriorated following a diagnosis of cervical cancer two years ago.
"She struggled so much trying to make sure that there were the resources necessary in order for her to actually make a difference," said Mar Cardenas, who runs a community center in Tijuana's Playas neighborhood.
When I last visited the shelter's new location in April, it needed a lot of work. Its paint was peeling, there were exposed wires and no beds -- only blankets on the floor.
Apart from the lack of money, improvements were slow because Saucedo had been busy trying to convince police officials that raiding the canal and burning people's possessions -- a common practice -- would not solve the drug and public safety problems they were concerned about in the canal.
"They treat them poorly and they jail them, and they're beginning to see that doesn't work," she said. "Let's try to help them, ask them what they need. I can solve their problems of hunger, cold, and shelter. But when it comes to their larger problems, we need to work together."
Saucedo died early Sunday at her son's home in Chula Vista, after her health took a turn for the worse in recent weeks. She was 67. Because she was its main driving force, it's unclear whether her shelter will continue to operate.