“But for those who have come for the first time and even for those who have come before, it has been hard to keep our eyes off the Wall that defines the border. It is formidable and imposing.”
November 6, 2016
It is Sunday morning. We’re gathering early for breakfast at the Garymar Academy, our home on this UU Borders: Justice Journey Trip to Tijuana. Gary prepares an egg casserole as well as other delicious dishes, plus strong coffee for the sleepy eyes around the table.
We are all UU’s. Three of us are from Arizona, seven from California including Gary and Mar, our hosts who own the academy and are also members of the First Church of San Diego. And there is also Johnny, a resident of Tijuana who grew up in the U.S. and is now like Gary and Mar, a passionate activist in Tijuana on behalf of the poor and those who have been deported.
Mar and Johnny have been our guides on this deeply moving Justice Journey. Our Journey began when we crossed the border Friday afternoon. But that seems so long ago. We have experienced so much.
• We met Marie Cookie on Friday evening at her office near the border. She is a force of one that has created an organization to help deported mothers. Along with Marie, we meet and hear the stories of mothers who have been deported and forced to leave children behind in the U.S.
• We toured Casa del Migrante, a shelter for woman and children run by a Catholic order. We learned that they offer shelter to new deportees, or new migrants to Tijuana hoping to cross into the U.S. They can only stay a short time while they learn ways to live and cope in Tijuana. The stay used to be 3 months but the demand is so great it is now only 1 month.
• We met with a representative of Ollin Calli, a cooperative of former maquiladora workers. Maquiladoras are the factories that U.S. companies have inside Mexico because of NAFTA. Companies from Europe and Asia have followed suit. Ollin Calli helps the current workers learn their rights but we learn that the hours are long and the pay is low. There are unions but they are actually created by the companies, workers are forced to join them if they want a job but they do little for the workers.
• We met with Nicole Ramos, a U.S. immigration attorney who with her husband Jorge live and practice law in Tijuana. For little or no money, they help many who have made it to Tijuana after escaping violence and persecution from their home countries apply for asylum to the US. Because so many Haitian and Central American immigrants have recently arrived, the need is great. Nicole has organized a legal seminar for many of these asylum seekers. She will be assisted by many of her attorney friends who will come down from L.A. All will work pro bono.
Yes, we have experienced so much and we have sleepy eyes, but our spirits are rising. For this is Sunday morning and, as we do on all our Justice Journeys, we are going to the border at Friendship Park in Tijuana right at the ocean. There will be a church service conducted jointly on both sides of the Border as there is each Sunday. But in addition to the church service, there is sooo much more to learn and experience.
We are all wearing our yellow Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts. When we arrive at Friendship Park, we set up a yellow canopy Mar has brought and place it over a table. We set water containers for anyone who needs water. Face paints come out. The yellow shirts are known to paint wonderful faces on kids of all ages.
But for those who have come for the first time and even for those who have come before, it has been hard to keep our eyes off the Wall that defines the border. It is formidable and imposing.
Here the border is fortified. It is a Wall constructed of steel girders set vertically and deep into the ground. They are set close together and rise 20 feet into the air. It goes East and inland for as far as we can see and west into the ocean for several hundred feet. For migrants desperately seeking entry into the U.S., swimming around the Wall must seem so easy and tempting. But there is a tall tower with TV cameras that monitor the Wall constantly. Any attempt to swim around will bring the U.S. Border Patrol in just a few moments.
Yes,the Wall has a formidable presence but many have labored long to lessen its impact by painting beautiful scenes and words of protest. Mar even painted the SSL heart symbol. And there is a garden that extends from Mexico ‘through the Wall’ into the U.S. side. It is tended by Dan and his volunteers who are out in force this Sunday.
Where the Wall cuts through the park and right next to a monument, the U.S. has welded steel rebar horizontally across the girders creating a mesh with openings less than a square inch. When we walk to the Wall and peer through, we soon realize why. About 50 feet inside, the U.S. has constructed another wall that extends inland as far as we can see. But there is a gate. Every Saturday and Sunday, the U.S. Border Patrol opens that gate from 10am – 2pm. Anyone on the U.S. side is let in and permitted to walk up to the Wall. Assuming they have made prior arrangements for their friends in Mexico to come to the Wall, they can see and talk to each other through the mesh.
Many of these meetings are between family members who have been deported to Mexico. Some deportees who don’t live in Tijuana, many have traveled hundreds of miles to see relatives they have not seen in years.
Migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. also come Sunday mornings to the Park to meet with immigration attorneys who come to offer pro bono legal advice.
One of the migrants who came on this Sunday to seek attorney advice was Tyrone. Johnny invited Tyrone to our table. The yellow shirts are well known at Friendship Park as immigration rights activists from the U.S., who have a strong interest in hearing immigrant stories.
Tyrone from Belize is warm and friendly and speaks English, the official language of Belize. As we speak, a strong connection develops between us. Tyrone has been in Tijuana for a few weeks and hopes to apply for asylum in the U.S. He left family including children in Belize. He has an aunt who lives in L.A. he hopes to join. In Belize his life had been threatened and several friends were attacked and harmed.
Tyrone seems hesitant to share his trauma in detail. Our immigrant attorney friend, Nicole, has prepared us for such conversations. Victims of persecution and violence often suffer from PTSD and bringing up such difficult memories also brings up deep suffering and pain. We don’t press.
Gary, our host, who has been part of our conversation and has a wonderful warm heart, invites Tyrone to come back with us to share in the barbeque lunch he has planned back at Garymar.
While we were in conversation with Tyrone and several others, the church service began and ended. This is the way sometimes. Conversations with migrants and deportees are precious.
Before leaving we gather together close and decide to sing. We sing “Standing on the Side of Love” strong, clear and with lots of hearts. Sending music into the air near the Wall we hope lessens the dark spirit the Wall seems to send down upon us.
Back at Garymar, Gary barbeques lots of pork which he shreds and we combine in a taco with lettuce, tomatoes, salsa and other wonderful ingredients. There is conversation and laughter. It is clear Tyrone has really enjoyed this afternoon with new friends.
Our weekend is almost over. Tomorrow, Monday morning, most of us will volunteer to help prepare and serve breakfast for the homeless at Desayunador Salesiano run by the Catholic Church. Nearly 1,000 persons are served every morning. It is a deeply rewarding morning.
We return to the U.S. because we can. We carry memories of those we have met who have been deported and forced to leave family and friends behind, of migrants like Tyrone escaping violence and hoping for asylum and the new friends we have made who are working to help them. These will sustain us as we return to work for immigrant justice.
P.S. I have continued my relationship with Tyrone and have exchanged emails with his aunt. I was able to connect him with Nicole and he attended the seminar she organized. They helped him complete the complicated asylum application and Nicole escorted him to the border. After some push back and after speaking to a California Border Patrol supervisor, Tyrone was permitted to cross into the U.S. He is now in Detention at Otay waiting for his preliminary hearing on his application.
Dennis Brown, leader of UU Borders: Justice Journey; member of UU Justice Ministry of California Immigrant Justice Team