My Weekend at the San Diego/Tijuana Border

This is a guest post by Cindy M. Wu, Program Manager at Houston Welcomes Refugees, author of A Better Country: Embracing the Refugees in Our Midst, and co-author of Our Global Families: Christians Embracing Common Identity. (And also my sister-in-law)

On the weekend of June 14-16, 2019, I was privileged to participate in a border immersion trip to the San Diego/Tijuana border with The Global Immersion Project. It was a deeply impactful experience, one I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to go beyond news headlines and rhetoric to seeing with your own eyes and immersing yourself in the context of those most affected by immigration and border issues. I heard from people on both sides of the wall, from DACA recipients to Border Patrol agents to deportees. I slept in a migrant home, sharing a table and a roof with displaced boys and men. I visited a detention center. I heard directly from peacemakers who are fully invested in restoring their communities. I saw the humanity that is too often overshadowed by the complexities of the issues. It was an experience I’ll never forget. 

Day 1:

We started bright and early with a conversation with a DACA recipient and learned of the struggles she faced once her status was revealed to her as a high schooler. I was struck by her work ethic and resilience. Then we crossed the border into Tijuana and began the immersion journey, led by local peacemakers (featured in the photo below: woman in the black floral shirt, gentleman in the green shirt).

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Pictured here is Alejandra, one of the facilitators of the immersion trip, providing some background and introduction. Also pictured (in the green shirt) is Jon Huckins, Co-Founding Director of the Global Immersion Project.

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A pedestrian gate for crossing borders is on the right.

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A section of the border wall

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Pictured here is Friendship Park, a binational park that includes the border wall and where loved ones meet up on opposite sides

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Pinky hug. These vertical fence posts have been reinforced with a metal mesh so tight you can only squeeze a pinky through it to “hug” or “kiss” someone on the other side. In the past, family members could touch each other through the posts, but the government added the mesh as a security measure to prevent unlawful exchange of drugs or falsified papers.

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This door to the other side used to open on special occasions to allow brief moments of embrace or picnicking. Since the recent migrant caravan crisis, it has remained closed.

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A view of downtown San Diego from between bars. You can also see a border patrol truck. The American side is heavily policed, while the Mexican side is full of tourists.

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The wall extending out to the sea. Beach visitors can set up right next to the wall. Note how the American side is empty.

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I was struck by how lively and colorful the Mexican side of the wall was. The American side was plain and deserted.

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I saw this small red cloth tied to the wall and wondered what the story was behind it. Was it a rendezvous spot? A sentimental memory? A promise made? There are thousands of stories along that wall…

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This was one of the more gut-wrenching moments for me, listening to the stories of deported moms, as well as of a 70-something-year-old veteran who had served in the US army and Reserves decades ago, was jailed and ultimately acquitted for a wrongful charge, but then deported to Mexico where he knew absolutely no one. The stories of family separation were so unbearably painful.

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That evening we stayed at one of Tijuana’s 38 migrant homes, Casa del Migrante. This one is a men’s shelter, and we dined among the men and boys, listening to their stories. When we woke up the next morning, it was Father’s Day, and as a group we reflected on all the separated dads and children under that roof, even as we missed our own dads and children. For us, we knew we were returning home to them, but for many of those men, they had no idea.

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Day 2:

One of the most sacred moments on the trip was participating in Border Church, a brief service officiated by a Methodist pastor on the US side and a Catholic pastor on the Mexico side.

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The communion table. The shadow in the back is the pastor on the US side.

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As the service was going on, families communicated through the bars. During the passing of the peace, we gave each other pinky hugs, around the circle and through the fence, representing the only access to touch afforded by the wall. I was caught off guard by how emotional that moment was for me.

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Taking communion with our Mexican and US brothers and sisters. So beautiful.

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And then we had to cross back into California. It took us SEVEN hours to traverse one mile!

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Day 3:

This was such a gift: we got to hear from and talk to both Border Patrol agents and Border Angels (humanitarian activists). Afterwards, we had the rare opportunity to tour a detention center. I’m still processing what I saw there. We also visited Chicano Park, the nation’s largest collection of outdoor murals and result of a nonviolent people’s land takeover.

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Border Patrol agents and Border Angels respectfully and graciously sharing their divergent perspectives on several topics

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Chicano Park
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Some final thoughts: It’s important to realize that people bear witness in different ways. Not every trip to the border is the same. Without critical heart work and foundational research beforehand, people can actually walk away from their time at the US-Mexico border with their political and personal biases intact, even reinforced.

If you’re interested in getting beyond the polarized rhetoric on immigration policy and you have the time and resources for it, I highly recommend an immersion trip with the Global Immersion Project. If you can’t go yourself, then read the stories and testimonies of those who have gone through this unique immersive process. The Understanding phase of the Global Immersion Project begins 5 weeks before each trip. Participants are required to explore the historical development of a particular conflict. They look at diverse theological frameworks, international politics, social and economic implications, and the four practices of Everyday Peacemaking. The goal of this phase is to equip participants to enter into relationships more compassionately and into conflict more intelligently.

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