This is the first in a series of pieces from ThinkProgress chronicling the struggles of immigrant life in Southern California along the U.S.-Mexico border. You can find the other pieces here and here. SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA — When former First Lady Pat Nixon traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in 1971 to inaugurate what is now Friendship Park just south of San Diego, California, she observed the then-thin string of barbed wire separating the two countries and reportedly said, “I hate to see a fence anywhere.” The implication, people thought, was that neither nation would ever build one.
But they did build a fence. Two, in fact. Today, a pair of massive metal walls — both constructed by the U.S. government and each roughly 18 feet high — separate most of Friendship Park from Mexico. The first is incomplete, porous, and encircling only one section of the park. But the second fence, expanded and reinforced multiple times since the early 1990s, represents the formal border between the two countries. It currently extends east as far as the eye can see and westward down to the beach below, where a weathered-looking series of iron pylons stretches out into the Pacific Ocean. The Mexico side is home to the bustling city of Tijuana, where crowds of people can often be seen strolling across the sand and bodysurfing through the crashing waves. The U.S. beach, by contrast, is usually deserted, save for the occasional low rumble of a border agent vehicle on patrol.
On Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., however, a small crowd comes from miles around to gather at the American section of the fence. That’s when U.S. Border Patrol officers open the first gate, allowing visitors to walk up to the second fence and talk to people on the other side. This makes Friendship Park one of the only places in the world where people in the United States and Mexico can physically see and speak to each other without the aid of electronics — or the risk of deportation. It attracts a wide variety of guests, most of whom have visceral and often frustrating experiences with America’s immigration system.
When ThinkProgress visited the park, it was to observe the weekly meeting of the Border Church, an ecumenical Sunday worship service that is conducted simultaneously on both sides of the fence. Two pastors stood in two different countries — Guillermo Navarrete silhouetted through the fence on the Mexico side and Bishop Dermot Rodgers in the U.S. — and conducted the ceremony in English and Spanish, the pair taking turns translating each other’s sentences for the assembled crowd. The groups sang hymns and held communion at the same time, with brief pauses to hear announcements from faith-based organizations who work on either side of the border. About halfway through the service, pastors instructed attendees to place their hands against the metal fence, face someone touching it on the other side, and pray.
“Lord, we give you thanks, because you lift up our voices, and you let us hear your voice,” they prayed. “To the government, to the society, and to our brothers and sisters trying to cross over, with a desire to help our brothers and sisters in need.”
As the worshippers bowed their heads, visitors continued to whisper to each other across the divide in hushed tones. Some smiled and giggled as they spoke, but many looked more sullen, and a few openly wept. Several pressed their hands hard against the weathered metal fence, trying in vain to wriggle stubborn knuckles through the gate’s tiny holes in hopes of brushing fingertips with loved ones on the other side.
ThinkProgress spoke with several of the people on both sides of the fence, asking them what brought them to Friendship Park. These are their stories, as they told them.
‘If I go back, I want to go back the right way’
Isidro V., a 70-year-old Mexican deportee, is already thinking about death. He longs to spend the rest of his life with his family on the American side of the border wall. “I have no plans to die,” Isidro said in impeccable English to two ThinkProgress reporters, pressing his face into the Mexican side of the border wall to shield himself from the midmorning sun. “But sooner or later, we’re going to die, so I think that I will want to spend as much time as I can with my kids. My wife has already passed away. My father passed away when I was 18 years old and I still need my father. Even though I’m old, I still need my father. My children need me.”
Walking across a porous southern border back in 1967 — “there was no fence” — Isidro said that he came to the country to work as a chicken farmer and became a permanent resident in the process. He has four children, now ranging between the ages of 30 and 39, scattered across California and Illinois.
He had come to Friendship Park for the first time because he heard so much about this place, known for its cross-border meetings between deportees and those on the American side. For Isidro, who had earlier in the day met up with his daughter who gave him a pair of new reading glasses in Tijuana, the park served as a reminder of his own deportation. Isidro said that a traffic stop two years ago spurred his eventual deportation, a fate that can affect permanent legal residents charged with certain crimes. The cop who pulled him over found two syringes in the truck. Isidro insisted that the syringes were filled with antibiotics used for his chickens “to put medicine into the baby chicks because they get colds and the flu. The police thought that I was selling drugs.” He didn’t have money to hire a “good” lawyer and was deported back to his hometown of Ciudad Juarez. ThinkProgress was not able to verify the legal reasoning for Isidro’s deportation.
I don’t want to jump the fence.
Isidro has since been living as a stranger in Juarez, a town embroiled in an unceasing drug war. He lamented that his relatives “don’t know me at all because I spent over 40 years in the United States.”
“A lot of people disappear,” Isidro said, referencing the drug cartels that he has seen ravage Juarez. The border city has been given the morbid designation as Mexico’s murder capital. “The government. The people. They fight over drugs… Nobody can say nothing, not against them, especially to the police… it’s just too much fighting.”
Since his deportation, he said that his daughter has only made the seven-hour drive down from Northern California twice to visit him. The nine-hour ride from Juarez hasn’t been easy on him either. Despite the fact that he has family members who could legally cross borders, his roots are solidly in the United States, a common refrain among another immigrant community: those who are undocumented. At least 62 percent of the undocumented population have lived in the country for ten years, with the median length of residence for unauthorized immigrants in the United States being 13 years, as of 2013.
“If I go back, I want to go back the right way,” Isidro said before pulling away from the border wall. “I don’t want to jump the fence. It’s not worth it. I don’t want to continue making more mistakes. If I go back, I want to go back legally.”
‘I wish I was dreaming and when I woke up, I wasn’t here’
Yolanda Varona hasn’t stepped on U.S. soil in four years. She has two children in the United States, one of whom is a U.S. citizen, and three grandchildren, one of whom she has yet to meet. She came to the United States in 1995 to flee an abusive husband. Four years ago, on an emergency drive into Mexico to help a friend, she was prevented from reentering the United States.
Since then, Varona has become the leader of DREAMers Moms Tijuana, a bi-national nonprofit organization in ten U.S. cities, galvanizing and inspiring deported mothers and women to transition back into life in Mexico. She frequently comes to Friendship Park to bring awareness to the resources that deported immigrants can access at her organization. On that particular day, she was standing on the Mexican side of the border wall, wearing a pink shirt and gripping a banner that read, “DREAMERs Mom Tijuana.” “The whole purpose of the DREAMers Moms group is to intercept deported moms and women that are arriving here in Mexico,” Varona said through a translator provided by the advocacy group Border Angels. “In their desperation, loneliness, sadness, frustration, agony of self-worth, DREAMERs Moms intercept them, so that they won’t fall into what has normally occurred: drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution. One of the targets of DREAMers Moms is to intercept these women before they turn to these avenues.”
“I found comfort in being able to help other mothers,” Varona said, explaining that her own experience with loneliness drove her to teach arts and crafts to other women wanting to be self-sufficient after their expulsion. Varona said that her life has dramatically changed because she’s “far away from my family,” though her U.S. citizen son has come to visit her in the past. Her daughter, who is in the process of applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a program that grants temporary deportation relief but prohibits international travel, is unable to visit her in Mexico.
I found comfort in being able to help other mothers.
Varona acknowledged that other people are not as lucky to see family, a situation that she hopes to highlight in an upcoming organization-sponsored documentary about U.S. citizen children who have nowhere to go after their parents are deported. But such a reality has already affected at least 205,000 parents of U.S. citizen children deported between 2010 and 2012.
“I wish I was dreaming and when I woke up, I wasn’t here,” Varona said, her voice breaking. Crying, she said that she hopes that President Obama would soon pass promised executive action that may extend to parents expelled to other countries, parents like the 30 deported women currently served by her organization. “We prefer for him to extend DACA not only for the students, but also for the parents of the students that qualify for DACA.”
Along with other DREAMers Moms member organizations, Varona began fasting last week from 10 a.m. to 7p.m. every day, pressuring the president to offer deportation relief for the parents of U.S. citizens and DACA recipients.
“I cannot have a normal life without my children and my grandchildren,” Varona said, before pulling away to wipe her eyes. “I feel sad; depressed; I feel my children are suffering without me.”
‘This is not humane’
As Border Patrol began asking people to leave the park at 2 p.m. that Sunday, Bishop Dermot Rodgers abruptly stopped officiating the Border Church service, letting worshippers in Mexico continue unabated as he helped usher people away from the U.S. side of the fence. He carefully gathered his worship materials as he left, most of which had been set alongside the fence to create a makeshift altar: a microphone, old pictures of past services at the fence, a blanket, a wooden chalice, a water bottle half-filled with communion wine, a tattered Bible, and a small balsa-wood cross with words painted across its surface.
“No olvidados,” it read in Spanish, which means “not forgotten.”
Indeed, Rodgers, who has been a priest for 25 years, has no intention of forgetting those whose lives have been affected by the border fence. Originally ordained within the Roman Catholic Church before joining the Evangelical Catholic Church, his ministerial work is now deeply impacted by immigration issues. Rodgers considers the Border Church service, which he has been helping lead for about three years, an extension of that calling.
“The real purpose here is to reunite families at the fence,” he said. “It’s the role of the church to be where suffering is, to be a healing force in the midst of all that suffering … And to bring some sense of hope that good will eventually come out of this if we stay true to our faith and stay firm.”
Rodgers is also the chaplain to the DREAMers’ Moms — a group of deported mothers whose children still live in the United States. He goes to Mexico every Wednesday to meet with the mothers, offering them much-needed pastoral care and assistance. The work, he says, can be “a lot,” but he draws strength from a personal connection to their struggle.
“I’m an immigrant — I don’t sound it, but I was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland,” Rodgers said, his Irish lilt suddenly noticeable when pronouncing the name of his home town.
“[Northern Ireland is] a country itself divided with a border, and I grew up with border fences — bigger than this one, in fact,” he continued, pointing behind him. “Fences separating neighborhood from neighborhood, separating members of my family from other members of my family because we’re of different religions. This was blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, that I never got to know.”
It’s the role of the church to be where suffering is, to be a healing force in the midst of all that suffering.
Rodgers said he saw strong correlations between his own experience as an immigrant and those crowded around the fence near Friendship Park. After coming to the United States when he was just shy of 18 years old, he said he “did what every immigrant does,” working in a restaurant and scrubbing dishes for $2.50 an hour.
“I was doing all the hours that nobody else wanted, doing the work that no one else would take, and suffering for it,” he said. “It was not easy.”
Since then, Rodgers has worked to earn multiple degrees and pursue a life in accordance with his faith. He sees the issue of immigration reform as a difficult struggle, but one where religious groups can play a pivotal role.
“I believe that all faith communities should raise up their voices,” he said. “It’s very heartbreaking. We claim ourselves to be a country of ‘family values.’ And yet, to see us willingly, easily, and almost coldly separate mothers from their children…” His voice trailed off for a moment as he turned to watch a border agent shut the steel gate.
“This is not humane,” he finished, shaking his head.
‘Folks, you have five minutes’
Twenty-nine-year-old Edgar M. arrived at the American side of Friendship Park at 1:50 p.m., ten minutes before the park’s gate would shut for the week. He frantically paced around, moving from fence panel to panel, eyes darting back and forth into Mexico each time. Was that his brother? No. He kept searching. Was that young child his niece? No. He moved on to another part of the wall.
“Folks, you have five minutes. Then the gate closes. This park is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the weekends,” a border agent shouted to a crowd that perceptibly spoke faster and hemmed closer to the wall, if that was even possible. “Five minutes!”
Please. I need to find my family.
Edgar leaned on one of the 20-foot steel beams that form the border wall, one hand gripping his cell phone. Speaking in rapid-fire Spanish, he urged his brother on the phone line to move further west along the fence — Corre (run)! Apurate (hurry)! — to this part of the park where he was because he couldn’t walk east. He was bound in by chains, sand, and an armed border agent on the American side. Meanwhile, his relatives — two brothers, niece, and nephew — were rushing west along the Mexican side, alongside houses and sidewalks that but up against the wall.
“It’s 2 p.m.,” the border agent shouted, looking at his watch. It was exactly 2:00:02 p.m. PST. “The park is now closed. Everyone, please leave through the gate.” People started to move out and away from the fence. The sounds of exiting — goodbyes, sniffles, promises of quick returns — filled the air. Edgar, a bit bewildered, edged slowly away from the fence, keeping his eyes locked east the entire time. He was the last straggler out of the gate.
“No, no. Please. I need to find my family,” he pleaded with the border agent. “I didn’t know [that there is a] 2 p.m. [visitation policy].”
“Every weekend, the park is open 10 a.m. to 2p.m.,” the border agent calmly and politely repeated to Edgar, who was now tearing up. “I have to lock this gate now. I understand, but I can’t keep it open for you.” This was the unnamed border agent’s first time manning this part of the border wall, he told ThinkProgress. He’s usually 35 miles east, out in the rural desert, away from frequent encounters with the public. Anecdoctally, the agent had seen people jump the border wall, pretending to blend in. Occasionally some dart into America, only to be caught almost immediately. Other times, migrants who jumped over climb the wall back into Mexico after they see that border patrol agent. The agent went to lock the gate from the inside, placing another metal barrier between Edgar and Mexico.
“It’s closed, I can’t believe it,” he said over and over to a ThinkProgress reporter, his voice rising each time. “I want to see my family. My brothers. I can’t see them.” Composing himself, he politely asked for a moment. He grabbed his cell phone and called a brother. As though following directions, he sharply looked west, this time beyond the double fence. His family. He walked beside the landscaping planted along the outer fence until he faced them, this time through two fences. They were there, each person grabbing onto a part of the Mexican side of the fence that was not interlaced by steel mesh, but under heavy American border patrol surveillance. A child shouted at him. Seeing his niece frantically waving, Edgar finally broke down.
Couldn’t he come back again next week? No, he responded, already mentally calculating when he would be able to see his family next. “It’s too long, I drove from San Francisco,” a nine-hour drive. “I can’t go out, I can stay in the United States, but I can’t go to Mexico. I have the permit to work, but not to travel.”
I think it’s enough if I can go to Tijuana.
Edgar, it turned out, has a temporary work permit through the DACA program. Working two jobs as a janitor and as a driver, this was the first weekend in a very long time that he had been able to coordinate a day to meet with his family at the border wall. He had come to the United States in the early 2000s, “to give my mother and my family a better life.” He was grateful for DACA because he was no longer scared that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials would “take us out.”
He said that his family has never come over to America because they don’t have skills that could allow them to easily qualify for a permanent visa. Edgar hopes that the President could pass executive action soon, one that would allow him to travel. “Obama made a lot of promises,” he said. “Some people say it’s not only him but also Republicans. But if he can get Obamacare, he can do something for immigrant people.”
“I think it’s enough if I can go to Tijuana,” Edgar said, struggling to keep his composure in front of reporters and a family across two fences, ultimately conceding to a tight embrace with Bishop Dermot Rodgers, who had come over to help. He excused himself to call his family again. When ThinkProgress reporters glanced over from the parking lot 15 minutes later, Edgar was still standing with his back to them, cell phone pressed to ear. His family was also still there, waving and crying.