Summer 2019
Journeys of Reconciliation

“Journeys of Reconciliation is an interreligious immersion program, open to students, faculty, staff, and alumni of Emory University, that explores the root causes of conflict and builds relationships between Emory University and communities in the U.S. and around the world. At the program’s heart is an affirmation that barriers of race, nationality, religion, gender, and class can and ought to be overcome. The program invites groups to encounter the world’s complexity, to hear stories of pain and liberation, and to seek wisdom outside the university walls. Each trip carries the hope that participates will be transformed into more thoughtful and caring citizens of the world.”

Introduction
From May 17-25, 2019, I took part in a journey to San Diego, CA, and Tijuana, Mexico, that gave me more than I could have ever anticipated. This newsletter is a shortened version of the journal that I kept on the trip, and I hope that through it I am able to share just some of the stories and experiences that have continued to offer me new perspectives as I reflect on the trip. I want to take the time to reflect on the issues of migration, community building and maintenance, discrimination, and governmental influence. These issues are often polarizing in today’s society, but at the heart of these issues lie real people. Human beings, who exist in families and communities, who work and contribute various skills to society. Human beings who face hardship across cultures and borders, who, like many of us on the other side of the country, are just trying to do the best we can to live a good life. I ask that in reading this, you keep in mind the humans at the heart of these issues. It is easy to compartmentalize the issues, and pragmatically (or rashly) seek to solve issues surrounding the border with the mentality that all it takes is one governmental policy, one act of military, or one change of mindset to address these issues. What is lacking in these arguments is the consideration that real life people, communities, families, face the consequences of actions taken by those who are unfamiliar or unwilling to become familiar with the human beings in the area. Keeping this in mind, I will now share some of the most profound experiences of my trip.

First Things First
 
Below you will find a quick reference with some of the things I learned about U.S. immigration policy and procedure:

1. Asylum-seekers can’t seek asylum. Asylum-seekers, according to international law, should be able to ask for asylum either at a port of entry or after they cross through without repercussions, yet the U.S. is now asking to see papers before the asylum-seekers reach the port of entry, not allowing them to reach the port of entry to ask for asylum (which breaks international law!). I experienced this! When I was returning to the U.S., I was stopped and asked for my passport before even entering the port of entry. This could stop any asylum-seeker from being able to declare asylum.

2. There is already a wall. Let me repeat: There is already a wall. In fact, there is a double wall. More about that later, but I guarantee you that I saw two walls with my own eyes, going down even into the ocean. Now that you know there already is a wall, we can come up with better solutions than to build another one! The wall has been pretty effective in keeping people out, but at what expense? Poverty and loss of business on both sides of the border, encouragement of criminal acts just to get through because legal entry is also being denied, etc.

3. The wall is well-guarded already. A border patrol officer told me that the wall is 30 ft high so that they can ensure that a person will break a bone when they fall. Look, we can have different ideas about immigration policy, but there is something really wrong with that. There are motion detectors and weight detectors in the ground, and there are border patrol officers watching the wall 24/7. I would be surprised if anyone could get through.

4. They can’t just come through legally. Growing up in rural Georgia, this argument is one that I probably have heard the most: Why don’t they just cross legally? Well, unfortunately, the climate surrounding immigration under this administration has made it close to impossible to even seek asylum legally, let alone immigrate for other reasons. There is an unofficial waiting list of thousands on the Mexico side just waiting for their numbers to be called for legal processing, and this usually takes a few months to a year. Even after processing, people must wait around another year for their trial date, often in prison-like detention centers, at which they are about 99% likely to be turned back to their home country because they were denied asylum. Again, they can’t just come through legally.

5. United States veterans are being deported. Calling all those who support the military! This is happening. People who fought for the safety of American lives are being deported. More about this later too.


The U.S. Side
 
Before I went on this trip, I really had no idea what the process is like for immigrants in general. I gained all of this information not just from shelter leaders or immigrants themselves, but also from border patrol agents and business and community leaders on both sides. It is not a one-sided issue, and I can’t emphasize the complexity of the issues enough. Now, let’s get into the day-by-day account!

Upon landing in San Diego, the group of 7 travelers (5 students, 2 professors) headed straight to the headquarters of Via International, the group that coordinated our trip. Via International does so much more, though, as they are active workers of peace in the border community on the U.S. side. We met them in Logan Heights, which is only about 15 minutes away from the U.S./Mexico border. Their office is in an old bread factory, which has been turned into a hub for artists and historians to display their work. Here, we were introduced to Rigo Reyes, the Director of Community Development at Via International, who served as a mentor to us for the rest of our trip. His vast experience of the area, especially since he grew up and has spent his life there, was seen so clearly through his passion for teaching. He represented what I believe could be seen throughout our trip, which was such unexpected hospitality. I have to be honest - I was worried about how I, as a white woman, would be received in a place that has already received so much discrimination and racism from my race. But, I was always greeted with kindness and acceptance despite this history. I think this is something we can all take a few pointers on.

Chicano Park: “Forest of Cement”
The Chicano movement arose out of the Civil Rights Movement, as people in the border communities were often rejected from Mexican and American identities. Because they were not openly accepted as either nationality, this group of people created their own labels relating them back to their indigenous roots to the area. Coming from an Aztec language, the name Chicano became known to define those who did not completely identify with the terms “Hispanic” or “Mexican” or “Latino”. Chicano Park, established officially in April 1970, represents a community struggle with the City of San Diego to claim land that had been divided and industrialized through the development of new freeways. Community members say that these new freeways tore apart families, and the following gentrification ripped people from their homes and divided the community into unnatural sections. So, after a 12-day protest, Chicano Park was finally created, to the city’s dismay. Another hub for art and expression, this park is located directly under the freeway, and is often referred to as a “forest of cement.” Yet, the locals have discovered a way to make the park beautiful, painting murals that express opposition to oppression, their indigenous heritage, and inspiration for a peaceful future.


Meeting with Bill Jenkins, UMC Activist 

 “There’s Always Room for One More”


Over dinner, our group was privileged to meet with Bill Jenkins, a United Methodist activist on the U.S. side of the border. Years ago, he turned his church into a 24/7 mission to provide medical treatment, food, and religious reprieve for anyone seeking help, particularly refugees and asylum-seeking migrants. He bases his shelter on the “Matthew 25 Model” which focuses on having as many ministries focused around hunger, thirst (including spiritual thirst), clothing, wellness, prison and befriending strangers as possible.

Matthew 25:42-43
"For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."

Some take-aways

 

Just since the Fall of 2016, they have helped over 7000 asylum-seekers who cannot support themselves during the asylum-seeking process. In 2018, he officially incorporated the Safe Harbors Network, which seeks to expand their capacities of care for migrants.

  • Current U.S. administration is trying to prove that there is a humanitarian crisis at the border, which is true, but the solution is not to build a wall that only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis

  • There are only 9 shelters along the U.S./Mexico border, which means that many of the migrants who legally cross and are awaiting their immigration trials are living homeless on the streets, unable to work (which is what we are trying to avoid!)


Church Service Sunday: Our Lady of Guadalupe and Border Church
 
We visited two church services in San Diego, and the first was at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, a Jesuit parish in Barrio Logan. Luckily, the church had a screen projector and a bilingual service, so our group was able to participate fully. Even just upon stepping foot into the church, we were welcomed instantly. A member of our group was even asked to give the welcome to the church at the beginning of the service, and of course we elected the graduate of the Candler School of Theology as our representative. Accompanied by a mariachi band, the service was full of happiness and joy, and I enjoyed the moment when we shared the peace of Christ with our neighbors, for we were able to meet each other.

After this service, we went to a quite different church service, which was conducted through the border wall. If you read above, you read that there is a double wall. So how could we have a church service through them? There is something called Friendship Park, or a small area between the walls, that opens between 10am and 2pm every Saturday and Sunday that allows families to reunite at the border wall. Of course, we are still not allowed to cross. Nor are we able to touch, for the wall is so dense that there is only space for two pinkies to connect. This pinky touch has become a sort of hug through the wall, and it is simply heartbreaking to watch.


We walked for 1.7 miles through a swamp and then along the beach in some of the most intense winds I have ever felt. The beach was deserted because this beach is a part of a California State Park, which has not been commercialized.

We totally did not wear the correct shoes for the occasion, but we did have time on the walk to reflect on the trip and what was to come at the border.

When we finally reached the border, we saw two walls extending down into the ocean. The area was guarded and there were surveillance cameras everywhere. We came upon Friendship Park, where we saw two grandsons being reunited with their grandmother on the other side of the wall after 25 years. We entered at the approval of the border patrol agent and proceeded with the service.


We were escorted into Friendship Park by John Fanestil, a United Methodist pastor who led the church service through the wall. As you can see in the pictures to the right, it was unable to clearly see through the wall, yet we knew there was a strong church presence on the other side, where John’s words were being translated. We shared music in English and Spanish, and there was communion on both sides of the wall. There were points of the service where we placed our hands on the wall opposite of someone else, and it was a really powerful moment to be so close to someone, yet so far.

After the service, we returned back to our lodging with heavy hearts. Such an unnatural border amidst ocean and greenery, and though physically divisive, it is unable to prohibit faith, music, and love to transcend past.

Click here to see our post-worship reflections

 
















 
Meeting with Border Patrol: “Hide and Go Seek for Grownups”
 
Back at home, we shared a meal with Juan, a border patrol agent who, after 7 years patrolling the wall, now works as a communications and operations officer for the border patrol. It was a privilege to be confronted by all perspectives, including his. Juan began his career young when he joined the military. He decided to settle into border patrol duties, as he was finishing up his military time and heard that the border patrol makes good money. We discussed the issues right now at the border, and the most pressing issue he faces is the influx of immigration and the border patrol’s lack of resources to handle it. He described that the border patrol is doing a lot of tasks that aren’t necessarily its job, but that no one else will do. This includes communicating with the Tijuana Police Department and Mexican government, and cooperating with NGOs (non-governmental agencies) to accommodate for the thousands of people on the waiting list to enter the U.S.

Juan did say he faces a moral dilemma every day: How do you watch humans suffer and still send them away? But, these moral dilemma do not stop him from doing his job. Ultimately, he said he wishes we could use social media to discourage migrants from even attempting to migrate, for he sees that most of them do not make it into the U.S., and he believes it is more trouble than it’s worth.

This perspective shows me that there is pressure on all sides of the issue to find a solution, yet those who are proposing solutions are so far removed from the situation that they are not well equipped to handle it. Even Juan mentioned that many of the solutions that the Trump administration comes up with work in theory, but do not actually work when contextualized.
Border Angels: “Angeles de la Frontera”

Before we crossed into Tijuana, Mexico, we had one more stop to make. We met with Border Angels, a non-profit organization that primarily drops water in the desert for migrants who may be facing dehydration. They also provide free immigration consultations for those who would like to learn more about the legal immigration process.

  • Immigrants do want to learn English. 91% of second generation immigrants are fluent or near fluent English speakers.

  • Immigrants do pay taxes. Undocumented immigrants pay taxes. They also contribute to Medicare and provide as much as 7 billion dollars per year to the Social Security fund. Further, undocumented workers pay sales tax and property tax where applicable.

  • Immigrants do not increase the crime rate. Recent research has shown that immigrant communities do not increase the crime rate and that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

  • Immigrants do not take jobs away from Americans. There is no correlation between the increase in the foreign born population and the decrease in the employment of native-born workers.

  • Immigrants do not drain the U.S. economy. The average immigrant pays a net $80,000 more in taxes than they collect in government services.

  • Undocumented immigrants are not a burden on the Healthcare system. Federal, state, and local governments spend about $1.1 billion annually on healthcare costs for undocumented immigrants ages 18-64, compared to $88 billion spent on all health care for non-elderly adults in the U.S. in 2000.

    Source: Border Angels Pamphlet 2019
We accompanied the Border Angels first to a local Home Depot, where we gave water and granola bars to day-laborers waiting outside for employment. I had the pleasure of speaking with a few of them, all of whom had vastly different and equally interesting migration stories. After we chatted, we drove out to the Sonoran desert, where we began the water drop. Many migrants die from thirst in the desert heat before they even make itsomewhere where they can legally seek asylum or show papers. Each member of the group dropped gallon jugs of water on various points of a trail, and though we only went a few miles into the desert, we were shown just how strenuous and dangerous the hike could be. The most shocking aspect of this journey was the many hundreds of bullet shells in the sand along the way. This is where the border patrol agents do target practice, and it was a painful reminder of just how hostile the area could be. On late Monday afternoon, we crossed into Mexico. Crossing the border at the port of entry was surprisingly easy and painless, and within 30 minutes we were standing in front of the colorful Tijuana sign.

The Mexico Side

We stayed in a monastery-type inn on the Colegio Ibero campus, and the view was just spectacular. There was another group staying in the same place, and they were taking a vow of silence when we arrived. There was a very calm silence about the place, which allowed us again to reflect on what we had learned so far and what was still to come. I found that generally, the Mexican side of the border was very similar to the U.S. side. I will say that I liked the Mexican side just a bit more, but only because they used more color!

"All migrants are just seeking a better life. There is no good migrant and bad migrant".
Espacio Migrante: All Good Migrants

On what was perhaps the most emotionally tense day of the entire trip, we began the day visiting Espacio Migrante, a migrant shelter that houses entire family units and one of the only shelters that houses unaccompanied minors. As soon as we walked through the door, a young boy ran up and hugged my legs, and in that moment, I felt an even stronger pull to learn as much as I could about these communities. We spoke with some of the leaders of the shelter as migrants scurried in and out of the two rooms in the shelter, some receiving checkups from a visiting doctor. In addition to medical assistance, the shelter provides legal and psychological assistance, recreational activities, and computer skills and English classes.



Fundacion Gaia: “How do we allow ourselves to build walls?”

Next we met with the president of Fundacion Gaia, an organization that seeks to aid deportees (from the U.S. to Mexico) and homeless migrants who now live in the concrete river in Tijuana. I learned that often, deportees from the U.S. have lost a lot of their Spanish language skills and no longer remember Mexican culture, so when they are deported back to Mexico they have a very hard time finding their way around. Instead, many of them end up homeless in this long stretch of concrete, which leads them to drug and alcohol abuse, thievery, or death. Fundacion Gaia also helps with job placement in Mexico for those who are deported, for call centers in Mexico are always looking for people who can speak English fluently.

Unified U.S. Deported Veterans: “Why does the government hurt its own?”

When we met with Unified U.S. Deported Veterans, I have to admit that I was a bit wary of what we would talk about. I’m not a huge fan 
of war, but I was interested to hear what they had to say.
How does a military officer get deported? Many Mexican nationals were drafted into the U.S. military, or came as children to the U.S. and fought in the military. If caught in any criminal act, even petty

theft or drug possession (basically, one mistake), these people can be deported and ripped from their families in the U.S. Many veterans return from active duty with PTSD, which untreated can cause many irrational or criminal behaviors, including petty theft or drug possession. After fighting for our country and offering the ultimate sacrifice, the United States not only perpetuates the mental health issues of returning military vets by not offering sufficient psychological support, but sends some veterans back to a country that they may have never known. For a transformative video about this organization and cause, click here. I met some of these folks and visited the places that were shown in the video, and I can say that these people are true heroes.


Visiting the LGBT+ Shelter: “No one really knows what’s going on.”

This shelter was only established in February 2019. We met with Chris, who discussed with us the many issues that follow migrants who are also marginalized by sexual orientation. These migrants are often discriminated against by other migrants, so they require their own shelter in order to stay safe while they wait for legal processing. This house receives many more diverse people than other shelters because LGBT+ people face severe discrimination in many countries, forcing more of them to seek asylum in the U.S.

Take-aways:
  • U.S. government creates a list of activist agencies, and they are put on migrant watch lists

  • These activists can be put through secondary inspection and have their phones confiscated and/or copied before release

Visits with Small Businesses
 
It’s not just about human rights (though a lot of it is!). It’s also about economy, right? Well, both sides of the border benefit from trade and open borders. Many client bases for businesses in Tijuana are comprised of Americans, especially when it comes to health and dental care. We spent a day visiting with small businesses which have benefited from microloans, given specifically to help female entrepreneurs in the community. For those of you who know me, I was particularly excited about this initiative! I spoke with an 8-year old girl and her father at a corner snack shop, and a married couple in their home-factory which makes spicy churritos. The group also got to meet with Edgar, who owns his own dental surgery practice in Tijuana. He says that 85% of his client base is from outside Mexico, primarily from the U.S. He noted how much the U.S. media impacted his business in January and February of 2019, when they released stories about Tijuana being dangerous. Over half of those community members that I spoke to have refuted the general idea that the border/Tijuana is a dangerous place. Rather, it is simply like any other major city, with some areas of major growth, and some areas of poverty and crime.

Either way, media in the U.S. has shown to strongly impact what happens in Mexico. For example, caravans of immigrants have been arriving at the border for years now, but when the media released a story about a large caravan in October 2018, this put people into a crisis mode, even in Mexico. Or, for instance, Trump releases racist statements about Mexicans, and then tensions build in Mexico. The areas are much more connected than we tend to think, and this can be good and bad. 

Good, if we are agreeable with each other, and bad, if we allow the state of affairs to remain the way it is.

El Colef: Colegio de la Frontera Norte


Since this was an educational trip, we had to stop by one of the universities in Tijuana. This school is only for graduate students, and focuses on border communities and migratory studies. We met with faculty and students for a tour of the campus and for a brief presentation of some of the graduate research.

Re-Entering the U.S.

When we were arriving at the same port of entry that we came through to enter Mexico, there was much more of a wait to get into the United States. We waited for about 30 minutes, and before we even got through the doors when it became our turn to pass through, we were stopped by officers asking for our papers. I mentioned above that this is illegal, for supposedly if I were seeking asylum, this would have possibly prevented me from declaring that at a port of entry. After I finally entered the port of entry office, I waited in another line that ended with a brief questioning from a customs agent. Luckily, because I am white, I was not questioned for long, though I hear that some of my non-white friends were there quite a while longer. After I passed through this checkpoint, I was free to go. Yes. That’s it. I was free to go, with no bag check, no metal detector or security scanner. That was it. So yes, there is a wall that keeps people out of the country. And yes, that wall is heavily armed and guarded. But I walked near the wall and I never got apprehended. Why is that? Why is it that I could pass through the border without even having my bags scanned? There is more security at the border, but not where is should be. If I looked any different, perhaps I would have had a much tougher time getting my bags through. But it seems that racial profiling is the only security measure keeping people and their “drugs” out. Because that’s the argument, right? “We have to keep the drugs out! We have to keep the violence out!” Here’s the thing: There is only a drug cartel because there is such a high demand for drugs in the United States.

We can keep blaming everyone else, but it is the United States that has high drug abuse rates. Yet the one security measure that I could get behind - the one where they check me for drugs or weapons so that I don’t bring them into the U.S. - is the one that they omitted. This shows me one thing: It’s not about the drugs or the weapons. It is about the people bringing them. And the people who aren’t bringing anything except the clothes off of their backs. For they are all lumped into one category: immigrant. I hope that if this is your opinion, you rethink it. These are people. Human beings. And they happened to be born in a place a little less “free” than ours. What if you had been?


By the end of the trip, everyone was just exhausted. It was an emotionally, physically, and mentally taxing week. But, with this exhaustion also came so much knowledge, compassion, and joy. I can’t possibly include all of the things we saw and everyone we spoke to, because this would be a lot longer than it is now. But I included some of the most impactful parts so that hopefully you see what a diverse and inspirational trip I had. Anyway, below you will find some of the more whimsical favorites of the trip!

Most Delicious Beverage: ICEE at the San Diego Zoo (It was so refreshing!) Most Delicious Meal: Tacos at Taqueria Franc, Tijuana

Most Delicious Dessert: Churros EVERYWHERE!

Most Stunning View: Vina de Frannes in Valle de Guadalupe Most Meaningful Moment: Meeting Joe at Art Shop in Tijuana

Most Relaxing Moment: Eating ice cream at Moo Time in Coronado, CA

THANK YOU!

I am happy to elaborate on any stories that you read here, or to simply have a conversation with you about these issues.

Lastly, thank you so much to all of you who donated to make this trip possible for me. As you can see, I ended the trip with so much more understanding of these issues. Ultimately, I hope this can help share some of the information that I gained.

Donors
 
EU Office of Spiritual and Religious Life Reiko Laski

Sam Kramer King Davis

Carolyn Williamson Miranda Allen

St. John Choir Members Gary Cannon

Al Moretz

Michael Dauterman Jill and Darren Kramer Ameya Gangal

Jacob Brown

Charles and Christi Ware


Special Thanks
 
Ameya Gangal Joey Ye

Yesenia Ramirez Haley Lerner

Sergio Delgado-Moya Lisa Garvin