MIMS students at the border wall

From February 16-18, 2024, Masters in Migration Studies (MIMS) students and faculty from the University of San Francisco traveled to the San Diego-Tijuana (TJ) border to meet with nonprofit organizations that serve to humanize and dignify migrants transiting along the southern border. Using photojournalism, MIMS Cohort 7 student, Tay Ingersoll, wrote of her sobering experience at the border.

We began our journey at the University of San Diego, where we met with a MIMS alumna from our first cohort, Maria Silva, who currently works for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). We learned from Maria about IRC processes for supporting and resettling newly released migrants from Customs and Border Patrol detention.

In San Diego alone, between 600-800 migrants are released each day on the streets of the city. NGOs have received county funding to coordinate a specific reception site where new arrivals can receive resources in one location, such as financial support, to book airfare to their final transit destination. In January 2024, altogether 16,000 migrants arrived at this site seeking assistance.

Our group set off on foot for a 30-minute trek toward the San Ysidro border crossing point of entry. Our destination in sight was the local Jack in the Box restaurant, where we followed a path behind it toward a large sign saying “Mexico,” followed by tall gates adorned with spirals of barbed wire. Even a strange art instillation overhead of pointed triangles, like jagged spears, narrated a symbol of control and disconnection. We waited shortly, showed our passports, and crossed into Tijuana. It was eerie driving toward our residence next to the tall, unnatural border wall, which weaved across hillsides and coastal terrain.

We gathered for dinner and enjoyed the company of attorneys Nicole Elizabeth Ramos and Soraya Vazquez, who represent Al Otro Lado, a non-profit organization providing holistic legal and humanitarian support to refugees, deportees, and other migrants in the United States and in Tijuana. It is heartening to meet with these representatives who are committed to fight the injustices they witness along the border by providing essential, free legal information and assistance to those who have been deported and those seeking asylum in the U.S.

Creating Safe Spaces
The next morning, our group set off to Casa de Luz Tijuana and La Casita Tijuana, where we met with their founders, Irving Mondragón and Susan ‘Susy’ Barrales, respectively. Casa de Luz and La Casita Tijuana are safe houses that provide shelter, food and resources for LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers transiting through Tijuana. There remains a culture of scrutiny toward the LGBTQIA+ community between conservative neighbors, a lack of access to HIV medication, and censorship on social media. The Mexican government still criminalizes trans women by using their dead names and by not recognizing gender change even when showing proper documentation. As a trans woman, La Casita’s founder, Susy, understands the needs of trans migrant women and continues offering services centering trans physical and mental health.

The final organization we met with that evening was Aldeas Infantiles SOS Tijuana. According to psychologist Berenice Castro, the village can house up to 77 people; typically, two family units would share a single housing dwelling. Families come from Iraq, Spain, Colombia, El Salvador, Cuba, Guatemala, and Haiti. They can only stay up to three months while waiting for asylum, as the goal is for families to have a sanctuary, save money, and get assistance and resources to continue their transition. Sharing homes can be tricky, but Aldeas Infantiles SOS created a space to welcome newcomer migrant families, and continues to support their needs along their migration journey.

On the last day, we visited Border Market in Playas for breakfast. Founder Gaba Cortes, an artivist and immigrant advocate, created this market space, which invites migrants along the border to enjoy company and coffee together. More than 1,500 people have visited Border Market, where they can enjoy a cup of coffee on the balcony and not be bothered by police on the streets. Gaba reiterated that food does not have borders, as we sat in community munching on delicious mole chilaquiles and pambazos.

Facing the Wall
As we left the Border Market, a 15-minute walk along the beach led us to the border wall. I felt so grounded at the beach, where there was a familiarity that was safe and calm. This feeling would soon dissolve into numbness and pain. I felt the cool water grab my ankles and slowly drift away. And then we were there, the moment I was anticipating: seeing the border wall.

I kept looking out at the crashing waves that broke onto the end of the wall, fewer than 100 yards away. I soon walked up along the wall when I arrived at the U.S. deported veterans mural. My gut sank. Being a veteran myself, it brings me overwhelming feelings of anger and grief that the country I served could treat their service men and women this way. The wall is a symbol of division and dehumanization. There needs to be a dismantling of this cruel barrier.

We received a spontaneous introduction to Border Church, a ministry that was established four years ago. Sermons are held in front of the TJ border wall, where people come for safety and peace. Pastor Guillermo Navarrete shared an incredibly heartbreaking story of his time serving the church. He met a deported veteran sitting on the ground against the border wall, where he was waiting to see his wife and three daughters on the other side.

“Do you know how people kiss each other through the border wall?” Guillermo asked our group. We looked left and right at each other, questioning alternative ways to show love. Guillermo raises his two pinky fingers and joins the ends together. He said he remembered seeing the deported vet “kissing” 30 fingers when his daughters eagerly arrived on the other side. The wall continues to enforce family separation and perpetuates the anguish and trauma experienced by countless individuals seeking refuge and safety along the southern border.

As our experience to the San Diego-Tijuana border drew to a close, one thing became abundantly clear: the power of human connection transcends borders. As we departed, we carried with us not only memories, but a deeper commitment to continue the vital work of advocacy and solidarity.