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  • Mary L. Hanna

2019 U.S. Mexico Border Report

When our team arrived in Tijuana, we could not know what we would experience in the days ahead. Would the border be open or closed? Would we need to use our violence de-escalation methods to help protect migrants? How could we be most helpful to the most vulnerable persons at the border? We discovered that while Tijuana can be a very dangerous place, our day to day experience was, on the surface, quite ordinary. Tijuana is like many cities of its size. And fairly safe if you are traveling in a group, have reliable shelter, have access to money and transportation, and know who to approach for help. We had those advantages, most do not. Through our orientation with Al Otro Lado and our first-hand experience at El Chaparral and Al Otro Lado, we became aware of the obstacles to even reaching the port of entry and we began to feel apprehensive for these ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In our work with Al Otro Lado, we came to learn the importance and power of being a friendly presence, a link to trustworthy assistance, and witnesses to the ways the asylum process, at one of the world's busiest points of entry, is not accessible, is not equitable, and is not just for the vast majority of men, women, and children who seek to make their claims for asylum.

Sunday February 17: Friendship Bi-national Park, La Playa We had an opportunity to view the artwork, community garden, and sculptures that community members had created on and along the wall. It was remarkable to see this symbol of bi-national friendship, the expressions of love, humanity, and interconnection throughout Friendship Park now a challenge and resistance to the rusted iron barrier that scars the sandy outcropping into the ocean there. Constructed in 1971 during the Nixon administration, the park was originally a symbol of cross-national friendship. And in fact, the park only had a short barbed wire fence until 1994, when residents of both countries could easily meet on the border under the supervision of US border patrol. Even after September 11, 2001, it was possible to meet and pass things across the fence. That changed in 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security closed down the park and constructed a second parallel fence and later a third 20 foot wall of bars was built that stands today. Friendship Park reopened in 2012 with the mesh fence that only allows people to touch fingers with loved ones on the other side. (“Friendship Park,” Wikipedia). We gathered at a little coffee place near the beach run by Border Angels, the café is a fundraiser and educational center for the human rights group that advocates for and educates people about the dangers faced by migrants as they cross the desert, dropping off water along migrant routes and educating about the history of US/ Mexico border policy as well as providing legal advice. One of the café staff shared with our group their experiences along the border and their efforts to continue their work despite border patrol interference with their humanitarian work.

Monday, February 18, 2019 Our previous day’s orientation gave us context for what the travelers could face, but could not prepare us for understanding the confusing and changing numbers process and distinguishing newcomers from more seasoned migrants and the different immigration authorities and police always present in the plaza. Picture an ordinary transportation plaza, where taxis idle for incoming train or bus passengers. No buses or trains here, just people walking along the pedway between the old and new point of entry or migrants who hope to cross in the near future. The most confusing part on this first day was figuring out the numbers process as it unfolded in real time and figuring out when and how we could help. We looked for subtle signs that people may be confused or we approached male members of family groups to find out if they had heard about Al Otro Lado and their services yet. Other members of our team with stronger Spanish skills observed and documented the numbers process and the various efforts to obstruct the process. At some undetermined point, we would begin to hear voices from a megaphone calling out names. And then quickly, volunteers would hurry to the sidewalk to help those boarding the buses quickly shift their warmest layer to be next to their skin or to add a warm donated layer close to their bodies.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 Our second day, we felt like “old hands” at El Chaparrel. We could now identify the police standing along the concrete wall in the sunshine and the Grupos Beta overseeing the numbers process. We were also more confident greeting people and introducing ourselves before asking them about the flier. There were fewer migrants on the plaza that day, one of coldest during the week. We could feel the cold radiate from the concrete and it reminded us of the cold these migrants would face, with fewer layers than ours, in the detention cells. It was not unusual for the procedures to change without notice. Later that morning we discouraged away from the sidewalk and had greater difficulty connecting with migrants to help them into warm clothing before they boarded buses. Friday, February 22, 2019 This was my final day directing migrants to the Al Otro Lado entrance. I had an opportunity to assist several families and individuals and I had the opportunity to meet and learn more about the San Diego community who are part of the larger network to provide services and assistance to asylum seekers in the region. One of the volunteers was from the San Diego based Rapid Response Network, which helps migrants with transportation and housing once they cross the border into the United States. Throughout the week, we were happy to discover that a Meta Peace Team presence in Tijuana would be an important complement to an array of humanitarian groups assisting on either side of the border.

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