What I Learned at the U.S.-Mexico Border

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Many of us have already heard in the news how parents are being separated from their children at the border. From the outside looking in, it feels confusing and unnecessary. Why would this be happening? How do we stop it? 

So when I was offered an opportunity to visit the San Diego - Tijuana border to listen to and learn from those deeply connected to immigrants and the challenges at the border, I couldn't say no. It was a heavy experience. It was a beautiful experience. The border is at the front lines of our broken immigration system, and you feel that in so many different ways.

Here are five takeaways from my trip: 

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1. There's never a place for dehumanization.

We began with a conversation with Border Patrol. I will admit that I don't know if I've ever spent much time thinking about Border Patrol, so it was a rare opportunity to sit down and listen to someone who has a different experience than myself. The agents we met with were polite and professional. For context, their role with the Border Patrol is public relations-related, so it wasn't the most candid of conversations.

But it was helpful for me to hear from two men who are doing a difficult job and trying to do it to the best of their ability. And they do experience some community backlash regarding their work. While I have no qualms about challenging power or speaking up against abuse or injustice, I was reminded that words and actions of dehumanization deny the image of God in any person. There's no place for that. 

One of the agents didn't speak much, but offered a reminder that Border Patrol is simply enforcing the laws "we've voted into place." He said it would be helpful if we could get the U.S. on the same page, to agree on how to address the border, and then they'd do it. So... just that, if you could.

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2. Women and children are on the move.

The statistics say this. It's no longer predominately single men crossing the border, but women and children are arriving in increasing numbers. I knew that in my head. But sitting in the living room of a migrant shelter for women and children that was filled with high chairs, pack-n-plays, and toys was still jolting.

The leader of the house shared how he used to work at a men's migrant shelter, but they began having women arrive looking for a place to stay and they were turning them away. The home we visited has only been open for three years. He said the need simply wasn't there previously. It was difficult to meet these strong, beautiful women (and their delicious babies) and know that they may be separated from their children. One women spoke to us, and she was in the process of seeking asylum in the States and following the legal procedure. Still, with the new policies in place, she may be separated from her twins once she enters the country. 

3. Resources are limited and we're now diversifying their use.

One perspective I had not really considered is the sheer volume of resources required to implement a "zero tolerance" policy. Now every single person who enters the country illegally is arrested, detained, booked, and processed. Rather than focusing on drug cartels, smugglers, and other nefarious characters, law enforcement is required to turn their attention to all people because prioritization has been eliminated. I can't help but wonder if this broad approach actually makes it easier for savvy, criminally-minded people to enter the country, knowing law enforcement is busy booking mothers, children, farmers, cooks, and construction workers. 

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4. The Border wall has changed.

It's been about ten years since I visited the border wall at the beach. It's the westernmost connection between the two countries and the home of "Friendship Park." I shared in my book that the slats in the fence - between which friends and family on both sides of the border used to visit - have since been reinforced by a grate that allows only fingertips to connect. But seeing it in person was heart-breaking.

When I'd been there in the past, it was a space of tender, painful joy. But this time it was a desolate barricade. Visiting hours, visibility, and connection have been reduced. Some of the sentiment I heard on the Mexican side of the border was simply "Message received. The U.S. is not our neighbor or our friend." I wish that wasn't the message the U.S. is sending, but the border wall certainly communicates a hostility and division that breaks my heart. 

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5. Mexico is strong.

It was a joy and a gift to learn from Mexican men and women serving their neighbors and working for justice. We visited with Yolanda, a deported mother featured in this video; Hector, the founder of Deported Veterans; Samuel, who is cultivating a garden with Tijuana orphans, many of whom have been impacted by the immigration and deportation crisis; and the incredible team at Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter.

There were varying numbers, but estimates ranged between 150-300 deportees arriving in Tijuana daily. This city is being directly and dramatically impacted by the northward flow of people up from southern Mexico and Central America, as well as the rejection of these immigrants from the U.S. I was encouraged by the ways this city is welcoming and caring for its new arrivals, but we also recognized the challenges in these changes. 

I am still processing my visit to the border and will likely continue to for months. I'm grateful for the opportunity to go. And thankful to be able to share a few takeaways with you.