What life is like on the U.S.-Mexico border | America Jesuit Review
J.D. Long-GarcíaApril 04, 2018
It is a cool evening in San Ysidro, one of the southernmost neighborhoods of San Diego. Children are playing baseball at Larsen Field. From the bleachers, you can see past Las Americas Premium Outlets, across the international border and into the neighboring city of Tijuana, in Baja California.
Latino kids are handing out free samples of Wetzel’s Pretzels at the outlet mall. Edgar, a bilingual Starbucks barista, takes another order. Parents push strollers with sleeping babies back to their minivans.
Residents of Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, decorate the southern side of the barrier at the border with messages of peace and love. (J.D. Long-García)
The cars are parked just a few feet from one of two parallel border fences. Not far past the first fence, under humming floodlights, a Border Patrol agent in his S.U.V. peers over the Tijuana River toward the second fence 150 feet south. This is “no man’s land,” where the Border Patrol uses trucks, helicopters and cameras to look for those who might cross without authorization. Just a few feet into Mexico, past the second fence, Tijuana residents drive on the Via Internacional freeway on their way home from work.
President Trump continues to promise a “big, beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border. He talks ominously of drug cartels, terrorists and gangs taking advantage of a porous border. But there is a lot more to life in these border cities.
“President Trump talks ominously of drug cartels, terrorists and gangs taking advantage of a porous border. But there is a lot more to life in these border cities.”
Juan Rodríguez lights a cigarette outside the Ross department store in San Ysidro. He is sitting on a concrete bench, waiting for his wife, who is exchanging a shirt they bought for their son. It did not fit.
“We’re celebrating 40 years as a married couple,” Mr. Rodríguez says. For the past 30 years, they have lived in Tijuana; but one of their sons, who graduated from a university in Mexico, married a U.S. citizen and now lives in California.
Mr. Rodríguez and his wife come to shop in San Ysidro often. He has a Sentri card (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection), which is granted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to travelers who are “low-risk.” It cost Mr. Rodríguez a little more than $120 and a pre-screening interview, but he says it was worth it to avoid spending hours in line.
Things have changed a lot over the last 30 years, Mr. Rodríguez says, especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “People used to just huddle up and then run across the border, down the freeway,” he says with a laugh. “They would just disappear into the closest store or restaurant. But nothing would happen to them.”
Mr. Rodríguez and his wife will return home tonight. It’s a shorter line to get back to Tijuana than to cross into the United States.
“We live in peace,” he says. “There are problems in Tijuana, like any city. You know the neighborhoods. You just avoid them.”
Breakfast in Tijuana
Even at 7 a.m., thousands wait in line to cross into the United States at San Ysidro, the busiest point of entry in the world. It is also the site of many deportations.
The Desayunador Padre Chava, run by the Salesians, is one of the dozens of humanitarian centers serving those deported from the United States. The deportees can see the big yellow building with a white cross on top as they cross the small Chaparral Bridge into Mexico.
The center, which counts on dozens of volunteers, serves breakfast to about 1,000 people every morning. On Wednesdays, lawyers give free advice on the second floor. Among other services, there are hair stylists who can trim beards, though they are not always on time.
“What are you going to do? They’re volunteers,” says Claudia Portela, the coordinator of the center.
A prayer before a meal at Desayunador Padre Chava, a relief center for deportees in Tijuana. (J. D. Long-García)
By the front door, next to the larger-than-life statue of the risen Christ, a volunteer leads groups of six to tables in the dining hall. The food is already waiting—except for the tortillas, which arrive last, to ensure they are still warm. Before the guests take their seats, they remove their hats, and another volunteer leads them in prayer.
“It used to be that they didn’t even say ‘Hi’ to you,” Ms. Portela says. Insisting on the short prayer before the meal changed things. “When they get here, they feel like failures. You can see it in their faces. Some made a tremendous sacrifice to get to the United States, but [now] they are deported and have nothing to show for it. Their world falls apart in that moment. The fall—it’s traumatic.”
That is when, she says, many turn to drugs.
“But we show them there is another way,” Ms. Portela says. The center offers spiritual support, counseling, internet access and job services. Many of their guests find jobs in fast-growing Tijuana, a city of 1.7 million.
“Some made a tremendous sacrifice to get to the United States. [Now] they are deported and have nothing to show for it.”
“Some people aren’t ready to start working,” says Marcos López, who is busing tables at the center. “But we have to be patient and forgiving. Seventy times seven, right?”
Mr. López was deported from the United States in November. He is now living at the Salesian center with around 40 others. Though originally from Mexico City, he plans on staying in Tijuana to work.
“You can make a living in Mexico, too,” Mr. López says, adding that the center provides both moral and spiritual support.
Alex Balderama is another deportee who volunteers at the center in addition to using its services. Guests drop off their dirty dishes with him; one of them first pauses before a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, touches it and crosses himself.
“The simple act of serving others fills me with life,” Mr. Balderama says, explaining vaguely that he went through a “rough period” after being deported five years ago. “Just saying ‘God bless you’ as they drop off their plates. Talking with other volunteers, serving alongside them. That’s when things began to change for me.”
Those who visit the beaches of Tijuana can see the Coronado Islands on the horizon. On a Thursday in January, dozens gather here, but no one is in the water. The beach, Playas de Tijuana, comes to an abrupt end at the U.S. border, marked by a 12-foot fence of thick metal shafts that juts into the Pacific Ocean.
Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, those living in the United States can come to see their relatives living in Tijuana through the fence at Friendship Park, nearly two miles from the nearest parking lot. The area is supervised by U.S. Border Patrol, and visitors must be prepared to show identification. Recently, Border Patrol announced a new policy that limits visits to 30 minutes and allows only 10 visitors in the area at a time.
On this weekday, the U.S. side of the park is closed. On the Tijuana side, a couple of teenage girls pose for selfies, their backs toward the fence. They laugh before walking toward a cluster of bright yellow and turquoise beach houses.
A barefoot young man makes his way toward them. Jesús Rodríguez is wearing a black hat, a ripped green shirt, camouflage pants and a white backpack. He has a beard, an earring and a tattoo on his right forearm.
He steps over seaweed and between large rocks, and past the two young girls. Mr. Rodríguez puts his two hands on the fence and peers through. He closes his eyes and puts his forehead on the cool metal.
“My wife and daughter are over there,” Mr. Rodríguez says. By “over there” he does not mean San Diego or even California. His family is in Vancouver, Wash.
“Two years and three months ago, I was deported,” he says. “I don’t have a record. They just picked me up for being illegal. I just want to be with my family.”
After being deported, he moved back to his home state of Michoacán in central Mexico, which is known as the stomping grounds of a major drug cartel. At first, his wife and 2-year-old daughter, who are both U.S. citizens, joined him. But the two moved back after the couple decided it was too dangerous.
“If I knew how to cross, how to leave here…” Mr. Rodríguez says, trailing off as he looks through the fence. “It’s better to die in the desert than to be here without seeing them.”
Through the Desert
From the Pacific Ocean, the border barrier continues east for 140 miles. There are few gaps. A fence divides the cities of Calexico and Mexicali, then cuts through sand dunes outside the California town of Felicity, near the Arizona border.
In the populated areas around San Diego, Nogales, Ariz., and El Paso, Tex., more fencing, cameras and Border Patrol officers have apparently deterred unauthorized crossings over the years. But migrants did not stop coming altogether. Instead, they changed their routes, often trekking across more treacherous land.
In Arizona, groups like the Desert Samaritans and No More Deaths journey into the desert to leave plastic jugs of water for migrants. In the twin cities of Nogales (one in Arizona, the other across the border in the Mexican state of Sonora), the California Province of the Society of Jesus operates the Kino Border Initiative. Thanks to six partner organizations, including the Jesuit Refugee Service, the initiative delivers humanitarian aid to the deported in Mexico, organizes presentations and workshops at parishes in the United States, and offers “immersion experiences” that include volunteer work and discussions with migrants in Nogales. It also advocates for a more just immigration system.
Breakfast is served at 9 a.m. at the Centro de Ayuda al Migrante Deportado (Aid Center for Migrants) on the Mexican side of Nogales. Samuel Lozano de los Santos, S.J., introduces the volunteers to the guests. Some of the volunteers are Mexican residents; others come from the United States.
“Who is here for the first time?” Father Lozano asks a group of about 40 migrants, including eight women. As a few lift their hands, the rest applaud. “We are not in agreement with [U.S.] anti-immigrant laws here. You will not face any prejudice when you’re with us. Here, you will be welcomed.”
Recently deported from the United States and sent over the border to Nogales, Matea Hernández Pére is originally from Oaxaca, nearly 1,600 miles away. (J. D. Long-García)
The priest tells the new arrivals they will have a chance to make phone calls after breakfast. Volunteers from No More Deaths bring a number of cellphones for them to use.
“People will offer you their cellphones on the street, but don’t take them up on it. They’ll call your family 20 minutes later and tell them they kidnapped you,” Father Lozano says. “If they offer you work, tell them to come here first. You could end up disappearing.”
Sean Carroll, S.J., executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, leads the group in prayer. While the guests sit in a few rows of picnic tables, volunteers bring them hot plates of scrambled eggs and chorizo, rice, beans and salsa. Steam rises from large plastic cups filled with coffee.
“There’s no work. I don’t have enough to provide for my children,” Matea Hernández Pérez says after breakfast. Recently deported from the United States, the single mother is from Oaxaca, which is nearly 1,600 miles from Nogales.
Father Carroll reports a significant decrease in the number of migrants at the center from 2016 to 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported nearly a 24 percent drop in apprehensions of people trying to cross the border in 2017, which helps to explain the decrease in deportations.
The escalating border security has changed the lives of Nogales residents. “People have family on both sides,” Father Carroll says of Nogales. “Over the years, people would go back and forth. Even though you have a wall, they’re still family. But it’s harder now. The border is more militarized.”
In addition, he says, more migrants to the United States are telling him they were separated from their families in detention, and migrants are being detained for longer periods. While Border Patrol agents would not comment on the existence of a general policy, migrant advocates believe these measures are meant to deter border crossings.
The problem, Father Carroll says, is that emphasizing the wall leaves out any conversation about the root causes of migration. “The economic need that pushes migrants to leave their home countries is not being dealt with. The system needs to unite families and address violence.”
“The economic need that pushes migrants to leave their home countries is not being dealt with.”
Most of the Central Americans who migrate to the United States are originally from the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The number of migrants from these countries to the United States rose by 25 percent from 2015 to 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. Over that time, the number of Mexican migrants decreased by 6 percent. Those coming from the Northern Triangle are fleeing gang violence in countries beset by drug trafficking.
“There’s no need for a wall,” says Lupita Flores, who cooks at the Aid Center for Migrants. “What we need is for our governments to talk to each other.”
An earlier incarnation of the wall went up in Nogales in the 1990s. It was made of steel previously used for landing strips in the Vietnam War.
But it is little more than “a speed bump,” says Bob Kee of the Tucson Samaritans. “There’s desperation, and there’s the power of love. If you combine those two things, it’s really hard to stop someone from coming over.”
After breakfast, Billie Greenwood begins to prepare for the next meal, separating freshly baked tortillas so they do not stick together. She and her husband come from Iowa to volunteer at the Kino Border Initiative from December to February every year.
By the sink, where volunteers wash dishes, a laminated Pope Francis tweet reads: “You will never have a better tomorrow if you are always thinking of yesterday. Remember, step past the past and face the future.”
From Nogales, the fence continues east. After the fortified fence between Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Sonora, most of the artificial barriers on New Mexico’s 180 miles of international border will prevent only vehicles from crossing. This is a sparsely populated region of mountains and deserts; Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city by far, is 260 miles north of Mexico.
The 1,200-mile international border with Texas is the longest of any state in the Southwest. There is relatively little fencing, as the Rio Grande has served to mark the border since the 1840 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
But as rivers erode terrain over time, the border moves. Parts of the banks of the Rio Grande have been paved with concrete to keep the international border somewhat more fixed. The river, which begins in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and cuts south through New Mexico, divides El Paso, Tex., from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. The river traces the southern edge of Texas until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
“There are about 1,933 miles of border between the United States and Mexico. About 700 miles of that have some kind of fencing already.”
Ciudad Juárez was the last stop on Pope Francis’ six-day visit to Mexico in early 2016. While he met with the Mexican president and members of the Catholic hierarchy, the visit focused on “the church on the peripheries.” Still, the loudest message from the trip came aboard the plane back to Rome.
“A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, isn’t Christian,” the pope said when asked about then-candidate Donald J. Trump’s proposal to extend the border fence. Walls stand in the way of encounters, he said, while bridges facilitate them.
In many ways, Tom Mosher, a Columban priest, has acted as a bridge throughout his priesthood. After serving in Chile for 29 years, the U.S.-born priest began serving at the Columban Mission Center in El Paso in 2011.
On Jan. 17 he joins a group of other faith leaders at Vista Ysleta United Methodist Church in El Paso. Father Mosher, who visits asylum seekers in detention, says he recently met eight women from six different countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. He reports that Annunciation House, an El Paso refuge for the homeless and migrants, is overcrowded.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been detaining more migrants and even asylum seekers over the last year. “We were never happy with the Obama administration either,” Father Mosher says. “But now it seems like they’re using more force.”
“There’s no consistency,” Pastor Deborah Clugy-Soto, of the United Church of Christ, chimes in. “At least under the Obama administration, there were rules.”
“There’s no consistency. At least under the Obama administration, there were rules.”
As the meeting ends, the group decides who will host next month’s gathering. Father Mosher offers the Columban Mission Center, and the group assents. (Everyone agrees Father Mosher makes delicious coffee.)
After a brief respite at his home, Father Mosher climbs into a rundown station wagon and drives across the bridge into Juárez. He is covering for one of his brother priests, Father Bill Norton, who celebrates a weekday Mass and leads a subsequent Scripture study at Corpus Christi in Anapra, a suburb of Juárez.
As he makes his way through the potholed streets, Father Mosher explains the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement. “It actually caused more poverty,” he said of the 1994 agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico. He noted the impact on the pork and corn industries in particular. That contributed to the number of migrants moving north, where maquiladoras were springing up in cities like Juárez. These factories, run by foreign companies, tend to pay less than a living wage, according to Father Mosher. Workers at these plants assemble products with parts produced elsewhere.
“It actually caused more poverty,” Father Mosher says of the Nafta agreement. That contributed to the number of migrants moving north to cities like Juárez.”
Outside of Juárez, Father Mosher points to the border wall. “See that part there? It was just completed a couple of months ago.” The fence had been reinforced through the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which President Bush signed after an 80-to-19 vote in the Senate. It funded nearly 700 miles of fence along the border.
Under President Clinton, the Border Patrol enacted Operation Hold the Line in 1993. This led to more Border Patrol agents being stationed between El Paso and Juárez to curb border crossings. A year later, the Border Patrol enacted Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, which cut illegal crossings by 75 percent, according to the agency.
In Anapra, Father Mosher stops to give a few pesos to a man filling in potholes. People volunteer to do this work, he explains. The priest points out a supermarket near Corpus Christi Church, which has brought a variety of produce to the neighborhood.
In the church, parishioners are sweeping the white tiles in the main sanctuary. There is a lot of dust outside, and it finds its way through the drafty crevices in the wall. Father Mosher, who towers above the parishioners, is greeted with hugs.
“The greatness of the Lord is made manifest through the little that we have,” he says in his homily. “God likes to reveal his power through those most in need.”
“Here outside Juárez, where Pope Francis chose to visit because it is on the periphery, Father Mosher challenges the faithful to go to the margins and accompany those in need.”
That evening, the temperature hovers around freezing. After Mass, a bundled-up group of nine gathers in the parish hall for Bible study. Salvador Méndez and Teodora Martínez are among them.
“We didn’t have work, so we came to Juárez on the advice of a friend,” Mr. Méndez says. He and his wife came from the southern Mexican state of Veracruz 14 years ago. “So, then we got here, and sure enough, we found work.”
The couple are parents to seven children and have been married 43 years. Mr. Méndez works at a maquiladora. About the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico, Ms. Martínez says flatly, “We wouldn’t like that.”
The couple has no intention of crossing into the United States, or returning to Veracruz for that matter. They simply do not like what the wall would say. It implies division.
The couple takes their seats in a circle of folding tables. Father Mosher continues where he left off on his last visit, unpacking parts of Scripture cited by Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel.” The group takes turns reading passages from Genesis, Exodus and the Acts of the Apostles.
“The human being tends to satisfy itself by possessing many things. That’s a nearly universal experience,” Father Mosher says. “The liberation that Jesus offers us is spiritual, but he also offers a social liberation.”
Here outside Juárez, where Pope Francis chose to visit because it is on the periphery, Father Mosher challenges the faithful to go to the margins and accompany those in need. Everyone, including those who live on the periphery, is called to love their neighbors.
A Wall Around Our Hearts
All told, there are about 1,933 miles of border between the United States and Mexico. About 700 miles of that have some kind of fencing already. There are natural barriers, too, including mountainous terrain and 1,200 miles of the Rio Grande.
Back in Tijuana, Noé Lovato-Sánchez stands outside the Scalabrini-run Casa del Migrante. He is talking to José Luis Flores. Both of these young men, not yet 30, are recent deportees from Los Angeles.
“I worry more about the wall that Trump is creating around people’s hearts,” says Father Pat Murphy at Casa del Migrante in Tijuana. (J. D. Long-García)
“You already have Border Patrol, and there’s already a barrier, what else does this man want?” Mr. Lovato-Sánchez says of Mr. Trump. Mr. Lovato-Sánchez’s wife and two girls are in Los Angeles. He says he is more concerned about anti-immigrant sentiment than he is about the wall. He spent the last seven months in detention before he agreed to be deported.
Mr. Lovato-Sánchez’s girls and wife are all U.S. citizens. They will petition for him to come back to the United States, but it will take at least seven years. He says he does not think he can wait that long, that there must be another way.
His friend, Mr. Flores, is planning to move back home to Puebla. “For me, the American Dream doesn’t exist,” he says. “It’s just a dream. God will decide what comes next for me.”
“For me, the American Dream doesn’t exist. God will decide what comes next for me.”
The men join dozens of others who dine at the Casa del Migrante that evening. In addition to a hot meal, cooked by volunteers from the community, the center offers clothing and medical services through the Red Cross, and it has a psychologist on staff. They try to give deported migrants the tools to start their lives over again.
“Trump’s first year was less traumatic than we expected—in terms of numbers,” Pat Murphy, a Scalabrini priest, says, referring to a decrease in deportations. In 2016 the center had 9,000 guests; in 2017, there were 7,000. More people are staying in Tijuana rather than seeing it simply as a
“The wall is a physical barrier. It will deter some people,” Father Murphy says. “I worry more about the wall that Trump is creating around people’s hearts. It’s going to take a long time to get over this.”
Instead of investing in the wall, Father Murphy thinks the United States should invest in other countries. The founder of his order, Blessed Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, said people also have a right not to migrate.
“People don’t want to leave their homes. There’s corruption in Mexico, violence in Honduras. People are running away, trying to find a new life,” Father Murphy says. “Building a wall that’s higher and fatter, it’s not going to do anything to stop that.”
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Along the Wall,” in the issue.
J.D. Long-García is a senior editor at America.