More than a week after tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border reached such a fevered pitch that U.S. agents fired tear gas on migrants who tried to breach the fence in Southern California, thousands of Central American refugees remain in Tijuana, where they are living in temporary shelters and stretching the resources (and sometimes the patience) of the largest city in the state of Baja California.
Enter José Andrés and World Central Kitchen.
The celebrity chef and restaurateur (and Nobel Peace Prize nominee) and his nonprofit organization have quickly established themselves as reliable presences where there are hungry mouths to feed. But unlike in Houston, Florida, California, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and anywhere else they’ve been, their emergency relief efforts in Tijuana are not in response to a natural disaster. They’re in response to a humanitarian crisis at the border, spurred in part by the Trump administration’s hard-line stance on immigration. In November, the Mexican government agreed to support a new U.S. policy that will keep Central American asylum seekers on Mexican soil while their claims are processed in U.S. courts.
Despite the heated politics behind the border standoff, Andrés said it was not a difficult decision to show up in Tijuana.
“In the end, it’s very simple. Our motto comes from John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ” he told The Washington Post, before quoting, almost verbatim, from the author’s Depression-era novel. “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people may eat, I will be there.”
Then Andrés put his own amendment on Steinbeck’s famous line: “We will be there,” he added.
“If you are a person of faith, you will argue this is the right thing to do,” Andrés continued. “If you are a person of love and compassion, this is the right thing to do. If you are a person that believes that pain in the world should go away, this is the right thing to do.”
Several days ago, Andrés said he and other leaders at World Central Kitchen decided to set up operations in a former concert venue in Tijuana, where city officials recently relocated an estimated 6,000 refugees after closing down the sports complex located south of the U.S. border. Tijuana authorities cited the poor sanitary conditions at the complex for the move to the arena, which is much farther from the border.
World Central Kitchen has three or four people on site in Tijuana, Andrés said, along with at least 30 volunteers to help feed migrants. Over the past few days, it has served about 3,000 meals per day, the chef said. “The number, if we need more, always grows,” he added.
Even though the situation in Tijuana is often framed as a political crisis, Andrés said he sees it more as a social, economic or even environmental crisis. The waves of Central American refugees who pour into Mexico are often escaping poverty, famine, gang violence, climate change or even the effects of natural disasters, the chef said.
“We forget that people never want to leave their homes. We forget that people are attached to the places they leave,” said Andrés, a Spanish native who became a naturalized U.S. citizen five years ago. “The issue here is how desperate people have to be to leave home.”
The best immigration reform, Andrés said, is making sure the United States’ neighbors are stable and prosperous.
“You could argue that the president of the United States — it doesn’t matter who the president is — you will want political stability, especially in the countries that surround you,” he said. “You will want to make sure climate change doesn’t get any worse because then you will not have people knocking on your door. Or you will make sure to help people after natural disasters at home and abroad, for the same reasons.”
“I want secure borders,” Andrés added. “I have my three daughters. But I always believe that secure borders means making sure everybody is doing well, as well as they can.”
At this stage in his life, Andrés said he’s not concerned with those who might politicize his decision to feed hungry refugees — and whatever financial effect that could have on World Central Kitchen, which raised nearly $12 million last year, according to its financial reports. The organization also received $9.6 million from the U.S. government to help feed people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ripped the island apart.
“If something unites Democrats and Republicans, it’s what we’re doing, which is to make sure we put humanity forward in what we are doing,” said the chef, who plans to travel to Tijuana later this week.
“We don’t need to be politicizing the suffering of others. What we need to be doing is having more compassion.”
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