Witnessing and Reimagining the US-Mexico Border: Stories of La Frontera

As residents of California, we live in a border state, but living in the USF-San Francisco bubble can make that reality feel distant. During spring break, we participated in the University Ministry’s Arrupe Immersion “Migration and the U.S.-Mexican Border,” along with a group of other USF students. The people we met and the stories we heard had a profound impact on us. A common sentiment we heard was that the people of the borderlands want their stories to be known. They asked us to share their lived experiences and to spread awareness on the reality of migration and life in the borderlands. We were inspired to write this article to share their stories and honor their resilience. 

The borderlands are built on and sustained by human movement. At the San Ysidro-Tijuana entry point, thousands cross daily for work, healthcare, school, and leisure, bringing economic and cultural vitality to the region. However, the border wall disrupts this. In the midst of such movement and cultural exchange, the wall can feel like an arbitrary line in the sand, but it results in a very real disruption of communities and families. Despite this disruption and displacement described by the people we met during our week along the border, they all exhibited a profound strength and commitment to their communities. 

Customs and Border Protection and cameras on the U.S. side of the border wall; on the other side, an old bullfighting ring that is now used for concerts and events.

The U.S. side of the border is cold, gray, and quiet. There was a heaviness among our group as the wall loomed over us. We were told that, just 50 years ago, this area was only separated by a wire fence. Since then, there has been an extreme militarization of the border. One man described how airstrips used by the U.S. military in Iraq (for landing helicopters in the desert) had been shipped to San Diego for the construction of this new, second wall before us. The strip of land between the two border walls is known as “no man’s land,” monitored and enforced by U.S. Border Patrol agents. As we stood there, a few agents sped by on quads, their bodies and faces completely covered. Later, we saw them detaining a couple of men who must have tried to cross. It felt wrong. We watched as these men were detained, unable to do anything. How many times had this occurred without anyone to witness it? 

Customs and Border Protection prevents civilians from approaching the border wall

The Mexico side of the border felt starkly different. Where the U.S. side of the border is designed like a war zone, 100 feet away, Las Playas de Tijuana shines as a vibrant statement of life and resilience — a claim of La Frontera (the border). The border wall itself is covered in murals telling the stories of the borderlands. There is a bi-national garden maintained by people striving for international connection, but the reciprocation of that effort is prevented by U.S. border policies. Despite this, the local Border Church meets at Friendship Park every Sunday to share faith and encourage the creation of an international community connecting both sides of the wall. 

Murals on the Tijuana side of the border wall

In Tijuana, we heard the real stories of deportation. First, we met with the office for Unified U.S. Deported Veterans. Many of these veterans believed that they had become U.S. citizens the moment they were sworn into service, and felt betrayed. It seemed cruel that the same country they had risked and sacrificed so much for had discarded them. Many of the veterans had families in the U.S. and maintained that they were “American,” as reflected by the decades they had lived in the states. Today, these veterans are fighting for repatriation and bringing our veterans home. 

We also met with and heard the stories of deported mothers. These mothers have been separated from their children for years. In contrast, parents with U.S. citizenship are often granted full custody. The mothers described struggling with feelings of guilt since their children may feel abandoned, not understanding that the deported parent had no choice. While the zero tolerance policy of 2018, a detention-based reaction to unauthorized immigration, is a blatant example of the inhumane act of separating families, it is important to realize that family separation happens all over the country. Parents without citizenship status are deported, and torn away from their children and communities. 

How do we leave the borderlands physically without forgetting the people we met? How do we remain active and engaged witnesses? We were only in the borderlands for one week, but the impact will last a lifetime. We were called to acompaña a la lucha — to join as supporters in the fight. 

At USF, we have the tools to do so. Call your local senator and demand our deported veterans come back home. Become involved with local grassroots organizations supporting immigrants and other marginalized communities, such as La Casa de las Madres in the Mission District. Continue to stay informed on immigration justice and educate yourself. While the border may feel distant, we are not isolated from its reality. The current immigration system is inequitable and inhumane. The people of the borderlands showed us that the U.S. immigration system must be deconstructed and reimagined to preserve the dignity and humanity of all migrants. 

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