The border that separates the United States and Mexico has long been a symbol for the suffering caused by geopolitical borders and their military enforcement. This ‘herida abierta [open wound] where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds’, as Gloria Anzaldúa put it in 1987, was salted afresh when Trump ascended to the US presidency, promising to deport thousands of Mexicans living in the US and to re-arm the frontera with ‘a big beautiful wall’, to stop any more Mexicans from getting in.
As it currently stands, it is very difficult for Mexicans to obtain a visa for entry into the US, and the number who apply far exceed the number who are successful. Thousands cross into the US without documentation, risking their lives to pursue the economic and political security they don’t have at home, where the US dollar is fifteen times the value of the peso, and thousands are caught up in the endemic violence associated with political corruption and the war on drugs.
To cross this border one day in March, I catch the trolley from downtown San Diego to the end of the blue line at San Ysidro.
San Ysidro station has seating, a strip mall and a bunch of currency exchange outlets, with a large McDonald’s at the centre. The restaurant is crowded with people of all ages and staffed by young people, who shift between English and Spanish as customers line up for burgers and fries. In the middle of this restaurant there is a large, official sign that warns in both languages against sleeping in the mall.
Behind the station is the path to Mexico. I know this because there is a sign reading, ‘Pedestrian path to Mexico’, with an arrow pointing to the left. There’s a family of five or six walking this way too, and an elderly woman carrying some large shopping bags. I follow them, all of us strolling onto the land bridge that will carry us to el otro lado, Tijuana, the other side.
The path is pockmarked with bird shit and hung with government warnings. The family I am following pauses to feed squirrels that appear on the edge, who clearly know to expect a snack. We pass through into the belly of the bridge and line up for customs and passport checks.
It’s a mildly busy checkpoint. I take my place in the foreigners’ line along with US citizens, who are heading over the border to go shopping, and a tour group from Japan. A couple argues in Spanish about which line they should be in. When my turn is called I present my passport and my nearly expired visa to a bored immigration official. ‘You want another one of these?’ he asks, gesturing to the visa. I nod. ‘Where do you live?’ he asks me. ‘Australia’, I say. ‘Okay, it’ll be 500 pesos, you can pay over there’, he says. I pay over there, return to the checkpoint, and am handed my passport with a new visa inside. All done. I don’t even realise until later that there was a man standing in the corner of the checkpoint holding an enormous gun.
On the other side of this land bridge, Tijuana springs to life: McDonald’s is replaced by taco stands and the trolley by rusty old buses. The family I’ve just seen feeding the squirrels buys some Cokes from a stall at the end of the bridge. I hunt in my purse for some pesos to pay for a bus into town.
Approximately 120,000 passenger vehicles, 63,000 pedestrians and 6000 trucks travel back and forth between Mexico and the States at this transit point every single day. The passage is routine, urban; indeed boring, as many an official would no doubt attest.
It couldn’t be like this without papers being presented and pesos paid, but what a contrast it is to the militarised drama that attends crossings elsewhere along this border – that can be invoked at the very idea of the crossing.
In February, Mexican journalist Martín Méndez Pineda walked over the border at El Paso and presented himself to the immigration officers, saying he feared for his life and was seeking asylum in the United States. He was in regular receipt of the kind of death threats that have since been carried out on fellow journalists, such as Miroslava Breach in March, and Javier Valdez in May. Méndez Pineda was detained and held in federal custody for more than 100 days, even though he had passed a ‘credible fear’ test and submitted all the necessary legal documents. On 16 May, facing the certainty of indefinite detention if he was to remain in the US, Méndez Pineda ‘agreed’ to be deported, and was walked over the border, back to Mexico and to the people who want him dead.
There is little doubt that Martín Méndez Pineda’s claim to asylum on el otro lado was suffocated because he is Mexican. Mexicans were a clear and present scapegoat in Donald Trump’s campaign to be President – regularly referred to as ‘rapists’, ‘gang leaders’ and ‘bad hombres’, and touted as one of the sources of America’s economic and social problems. And so for Méndez Pineda – a journalist, a Mexican, a human being – crossing the border was the continuation of an innocent person’s living nightmare.
It does not have to be this way. There has to be a way to neutralise the anxiety and fear surrounding migrants long before it materialises in border guards, guns and endless prisons. Because crossing a border could be as innocent and ordinary as taking a trolley to where you need to go.
Image: US Mexico border / flickr