Joe Kramer ’20 shares his experiences from the MIMS field trip to the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico.
A lot can happen in three days. To describe that weekend as anything less than a journey would be an understatement. This journey was one of contradictions and juxtapositions that would make any American’s head spin. From October 12, 2018 through October 14, 2018 the 2020 cohort of Migration Studies students from the University of San Francisco spent the weekend in the border cities of San Diego and Tijuana.
Upon arrival in San Diego one does not feel much different than when walking around in the Bay Area. The streets are clean and the people hurry to and fro as they finish up their work week. The cohort was greeted at the airport by Jocelyn Olguin, a student representative from the University of San Diego. Jocelyn would be our guide and mediator to the border cities that would be our home for the next three days.
The first stop on this journey took us to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church where a round table was held by an assortment of immigration and community experts. The morning was spent discussing the realities surrounding immigration policy and community work in a border town like San Diego and the harsh realities that have become the norm with the election of Donald J. Trump as president. With the implementation of new immigration policy by the Trump administration, the work of educators, activists, social workers and the like has not only become more crucial but also exponentially more difficult. Despite these depressing realities, the morning ends on a high note with hope floating in the air. This hope stemmed from the knowledge that so many young people, are willing to step up to the challenge in order to make the lives of every migrant as good as they possibly can be.
After a tour of the historic Chicano Park neighborhood, and a lunch comprised of some of the best tacos in the city, the group prepared to cross the border on foot into Tijuana. Tensions were high as many in the group had never crossed an international border on foot before. Many in the group were unsure if it would be a smooth transition. Despite these apprehensions, the border crossing was surprisingly quick and easy. It verged on being cordial.
The first thing that hits you when walking into a new place is the smell. Tijuana was no different. The smell of cooking meats, cigarette smoke, sewage and cologne filled the air. It was Friday night and most of the city was out in preparation for the weekend. These first few minutes showed the first of many odd juxtapositions of the weekend. The neighborhoods surrounding the border were poor, old and full of life. This was a far cry from the U.S. side of the border where sterile Starbucks and strip malls lead up to a border wall grey and foreboding. This theme would carry on throughout the weekend as the cohort explored more of the border city and longer sections of the infamous border wall.
Sunrise is different in every city. In Tijuana the sky turns a steel grey, streaks of navy blue breaking through the low clouds. The last remnants of a coastal nighttime sky. The only sound that can be heard is the crow of the rooster and the bark of the dog. After a night of rest at a Jesuit retreat center tucked up into the hills of Tijuana, the group made their way back into the city for a morning worth of work. The Desayunador del Padre Chava is a community center well known throughout Tijuana. It serves breakfast to the needy of the city and provides services such as doctor check-ups and things as simple as a haircut. The workforce of the Desayunador is comprised of young volunteers from around the city as well as the visitors from San Francisco.
After a morning of serving the people of Tijuana, the cohort convenes yet another round table, comprised of community leaders from the Mexican side of the border. Lawyers, community volunteers and a group of veterans share their stories of work on the other side of the border. Many of the hardships faced by these groups are mirrored on the American side of things, though there are distinct issues that remain uniquely Mexican. This provided the group with their first taste of perspective in regards to the struggle on the other side of the border.
One group in particular that must be discussed in some detail is the group of veterans mentioned above. The Deported Veterans group is a group comprised of American veterans that due to minor legal complications were designated deportable and sent across the border to Tijuana where many of them had never been before.
Robert Vivar headed this group of veterans from various branches of the United States military services. Each member had been born outside of the United States but had been brought over at a very young age. In order to naturalize, they had joined the military and become permanent residents. After their time in the service they returned home and many of them suffered from PTSD. With the VA unable to take care of them they resolved to medicate themselves through other means which led many into run-ins with the law. These encounters with law enforcement resulted in their status becoming “deportable” and subsequently led to their expulsion from the United States. They ended up in Tijuana and though their parents were of Mexican nationality, many of them have limited or no Spanish language capabilities and no family ties to assist with the transition. Though these men had seemingly been betrayed by the U.S. it was apparent that many of the men did not hold a grudge of blame the United States for their expulsion. They only wished to return home to the lives that had been left behind months or years before.
After the morning was concluded, the rest of the day was spent at the beach on the Tijuana side of the border wall. As one approaches the border from the street, giant murals with political messages and images appear larger than life. Names of men and women that have been deported were listed on the wall. The cohort half-expected the atmosphere of surrounding the wall to be similar to the mood on the U.S. side. This was not the case. In Tijuana one could see children playing and families eating together. Vendors sauntered up and down the boardwalk selling shrimp and other delicacies. The sound of music wafted from shops and boom-boxes nestled next to coolers on beach blankets. The overall mood was that of frivolity and relaxation. The only thing on peoples mind seemed to be the weekend. This was a much needed reprieve after a heavy day spent seeing the more negative sides of the immigration issue in Tijuana, it was reassuring to see that life goes on and that even in the shadow of the border wall, there will always be pockets of happiness.
After an early start on Sunday morning, the cohort crossed the border once again on foot. The last item on the agenda was to visit Friendship Park, a meeting zone for families on the U.S. side of the border wall. Pedro Rios, a representative from the American Friends Service Committee, headed our walk to the border wall from a remote trail a few miles inland from the border. The borderland leading up to the wall on the U.S. side is a giant marshland girded by the ocean. Short brush lines the pathway up to the wall. Discarded clothes and backpacks from potentially successful border crossers line the road. Border Patrol trucks drag tires behind to smooth dirt in order to make footprints more visible. One border guard is present at the park and gives us a short synopsis of the park rules. Passing things through the gate is prohibited. Pictures are prohibited. There is a maximum of 10 people in the park at once. These rules seems flexible when the park is slow, which is was that day.
The next hour was spent conversing with people on the opposite side of the border. Through the fine mesh fence once can barley make out the contours of the others face. Voices are muffled and the the mood is somber. The prescreen of prowess is apparent as one strains to see a weak spot in the border defense. It carries the same weight as prison bars and those on the Tijuana side are teased by the open spaces and glossy apartment buildings that glimmer in the distance.
As the cohort makes it way down the hill and into the cars destined for the airport, each person confronts the harsh realities of the weekend. While many within the group are left with more questions than answers, it is impossible to deny the profound light that had been sparked. Through meeting those in the movement and by seeing the effects of U.S. border policy first hand each member of the group was able to build on their work and see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
For me, when starting this program I was unsure of what the end goal might actually be. Write a thesis, do some good work and make some connections. All missions were vague and all outcomes uncertain. In the wake of this journey things began to click into focus and it became very apparent just how much was riding on the collective work of all of us. The future of immigration in the U.S. and around the world is to be dictated by our generation and it will require more cooperation and understanding. Experiences like those from October are just the start.