The Refugee Health Alliance: Sending Love Across the Border (A View of the Wall, and Life in Tijuana)

Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

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Trump made the wall, and defeating the ‘migrant caravan’ the issue of the midterms.  After sending troops to the border with shoot to kill orders, and a month long federal worker lockout, on February 15th Trump Declared a national military emergency.

The day after the start of the national military emergency I traveled to Tijuana with a team of healthcare professionals

Here is another story.

The Wall

                While Trump has declared a national emergency, all seemed calm that day on the edge of the other side of the Southern Border Wall.

Our first uber driver was an amateur Archeologist, he had found fossilized eggs and whale bones in layers of sediment eroding from the exposed sides of the canyon valley walls.  The first indigenous native to Tijuana, the Pumai, arrived 30,000 years ago; they tested artifacts that archeologists had discovered in the canyon walls with the latest carbon dating methods.  We would arrive at the top a tall hill, an uneven crooked dirt road that made the van rock back and forth as we approached a church, the nearby lots full of trash and half salvaged rusted machines.

We drove down a four-lane freeway paralleling the border wall, a mix of red steel beams, slender two-foot-wide pillars separated by narrow slits raised twenty-five feet tall topped by steel plates, piled deep into the ground.  Between the new steel barrier, another wall of concrete pillars topped by barbed wire, Caterpillar bulldozers, construction equipment and a lone Porta Potty sat on the road between the two walls, resting in a layer of brown brackish mud and stagnant water on a dirt service road in clear brown and red clay earth between the two fences, where besides the road, a wooden telephone pole, a transformer shaped in a long grey metal cylinder, and electric lines strung from one pole to the other along that no man’s land, paralleling the road.

A lone jogger ran along the freeway next to the rusted dirty red steel pile wall on Mexican side, wearing shorts, a white t-shirt and bright orange sneakers.

One could glace as we drove past that even past the second grey wall of concrete pillars topped by barbed wire, another chain link fence with barbed wire on top and the bottom stood erect, with tall metal poles topped with flood lights pointing at the Mexican side, as if to illuminate the entire area in blinding white light at night as if at a baseball game.

At times the newly constructed barricade gave way to a spray-painted wall of rusted red, tan and grey rippled thin sheets of thin metal nailed together.

The road we traveled split inland, driving down a canyon flanked by steep hillsides and a stone riverbed, filled with water flowing down, beneath the steel pillars of the border wall to empty into the Pacific Ocean.  Bright green grass had bloomed along the hillside from the month’s recent rains- a ten-year drought ending in a four-day deluge and intermittent rain the month of January and half of February.

Another uber driver’s name was Juan Carlos, a veteran uber driver who had driven for three years in Tijuana, completing over 19,000 rides.  He liked all the people, the characters he got to talk to.  He also helped his cousin who had a small business, printing massive billboard signs that dotted the freeway, advertising legal services, car dealerships, and soft drinks.  He grew up in Buena Vista, and a neighborhood in Tijuana bordering the river; Back in 93 it flooded.  He was a kid then, he still remembers.  The water poured over the concrete viaduct and inundated the entire valley floor.  All the wooden homes had to be torn down, and the shoddily constructed thin plywood walls crumbled.

He has three children and has been married 28 years.  A 21-year-old, a college student studying industrial engineering, a 16-year-old boy who wants to be an architect, and a daughter a few years younger.  We drove through the city streets, and again on the busy four lane road paralleling the border wall.

“They’ve been building this wall, the US government, for the past 22 days, sometimes even at night,” he explained, “Replacing the old sheet metal and barbed wire wall.” One could see the new twenty-five food tall steel pillars, piled deep into the ground, topped by red steel plates and barbed wire.  Using small mobile cranes, hydraulic lifts, and yellow Caterpillar earth moving equipment, miles of these long rusted red steel bars had been erected to replace the old sheet metal fence, followed by second layer of barbed wire and another concrete wall with narrow slits.  I shuddered, and my stomach growled.  I was hungry.

A City in Two Countries

                A man in his mid-30s and an older woman labored in a kitchen, of a red wooden shack, a few plastic chairs placed outside in a dirt lot on the side of the road.

A mom with a giant neck tattoo in shape of a heart sat with her daughter on two stools outside the kitchen; her girl was six years old, born in San Diego when mom was with her dad.  She has lived in Tijuana several years now.  I asked her which she liked best.  The pig-tailed six-year-old said Tijuana, why?  Her mom asked.  Because I speak Spanish and I like speaking Spanish she replied.  What do you like about San Diego?  She said she liked spending time with her dad and brother.  But Tijuana was better because of speaking Spanish and her grandmother’s cooking—the older woman hunched over a sink in the kitchen looked up, their eyes connected, and smiled.  Abuela was proud of her little one.

When I saw her, she had her mom’s cell phone in her hand, and with an extended index finger was swiping away at the black screen- the device was turned off.

Business as Usual: Deportees, Locals, and New Migrants

We finally entered the next uber driver’s cab, an older man who had completed almost 7,000 rides in the year since he began driving.  He had been in Tijuana 23 years, and worked twelve years at an area call center, where 1,200 bilingual staff sold car insurance in Mexico.  There are a lot of bilingual call centers in Tijuana, he explained, people deported from the U.S. go to work there.

The streets were full of cars; crowded midmorning traffic.  About half had California plates, the rest of Baja, California.  He left the job; he worked in Human Resources managing a small administrative staff.   It wasn’t worth the stress; plus, the pay was less than driving uber.  We passed a car dealership, a giant Cadillac and Buick dealer, a large sign adorned the showroom, a parking lot full of cars with giant florescent green stickers.

The Uber driver had a long black, beard with streaks of grey, a pink and blue stripped shirt and two stone – perhaps opal bracelets on his right wrist.  A tiny Rasta doll – a brown skinned doll with a knit green hat and dread locks hung by some twine affixed beneath his rearview mirror.

Tijuana has a lot of migrants he explained, Russians, Africans; some from Angola—Chinese; there are a lot of Chinese all over Mexico—and Venezuelans.

Those from Honduras, from Central America just started arriving more recently.

It was just after 5:30, time to head back.  We took an uber with an older man, an accounting manager who had worked at a factory that build auto parts; temperature gauges, sensors for cars.  He was laid off two months ago when the factory closed, moving to another Mexican city several hours away.

Tijuana has a lot of immigrants, he also explained.  The Haitians have been here several years, they are working, selling things on the side of the road, making a life here.  When the migrant caravan arrived, there was an incident where they closed the border.  That really hurt us, because a lot of people work in San Diego, or send their children to school there.   We passed a baseball field a few blocks from the border wall where 2,000 migrants had pitched tents.  When they found out they couldn’t get into the U.S., many left.  We passed another encampment, where tents had been erected in the middle of the city.  Our driver thought that when migrants found out they couldn’t get into the U.S. they went home, back to Honduras.

Migrant Camps Dispersed Violently

When we got out of the cab, I spoke with a doctor from another health team , a resident Physician from New York in his late 20’s who had been bar hopping in LA the night before.  He was exhausted he told me.  They had gone to a refugee camp of scattered tents called La Mapa. 

“The camp got raided last night.  The police tore down tents and set a tent on fire, beating people up.  Everyone  scattered.  Women were dragged to the ground by police; people ran, fleeing to the canals and viaducts, and to sleep under freeway overpasses.  There were only 15 to 20 tents left there.  There were 300 before, I was told.”

“What kind of injuries did you treat?” I asked.

“At that location I saw infectious foot fungus, upper respiratory infections, bruises, contusions, and abrasions, as well as many cases of sexually transmitted diseases.”

 “We also went to a YMCA that was housing unaccompanied minors, fifteen young children.  That was fun, they were happy to see us there.”

It’s sometimes helps just to know that someone cares.

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