Orcas Island community members held an informational talk on personal experiences at the U.S.- Mexico border, hoping to serve as an educational catalyst for others to reflect and discuss issues.
The session offered a unique perspective on the geography of the border and how service organizations are managing the crisis. Organized by retired immigration lawyer Eleanor Hoague, it drew a large crowd to the meeting hall at the Eastsound Fire Station Thursday, Aug. 8. A video of the event will be posted by sponsor Orcas Women’s Coalition in upcoming weeks.
Paul Pineda — who grew up along the border in El Paso and whose grandparents crossed from Mexico into the United States as adolescents some hundred years ago — and his son Nick wanted to gain a more accurate picture of the borderlands by hiking it at length. From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the duo planned to speak with people on both sides of the border and document their experiences. Pineda shared photographs and stories from the first leg of their journey: hiking the California-Mexico border. They expect to return to Arizona for a second leg in late October.
The Pinedas began their journey along the border at Tijuana, recalling how the border splits the large metropolitan areas of Tijuana and San Diego, each of which house upward of 1.4 million people. Downtown Tijuana hugs the border along a wall that runs east from the ocean for 16 miles until it abruptly stops. California and Mexico have six legal ports of entry along the border. Immigrants are allowed to cross only at these checkpoints, often located in urban areas where resources, manufacturing and services are shared.
There are 147 miles along the California-Mexico border. There is no barrier at all for 25.2 miles of it.
As they hiked, Pineda and his son said they were stopped and questioned by border patrol along a deeply arbitrary border where at times the wall diverged entirely from any true line. This seemed especially apparent along the Colorado River. However, crossing the border illegally is a criminal offense in the United States.
“I have to comment on how random the building of fence was in certain areas. Very rarely is the terrain flat. One road we were on was very steep. We could not have hiked up the hill where the fence is built. I’m not even sure how they got their machinery over there. Seven miles further, the fence stops again, for no apparent reason, in an area that seems more accessible for construction,” Pineda said while clicking through a slideshow of images taken on his journey.
Pineda wondered if the haphazardness of the line was strategic. “It is not always the case that the border line along the patrol road is straight, either. Oftentimes, on Google GPS, we would see ourselves in Mexico on the map, because it’s impossible to tell where the actual border is. The wall in some places is no longer there,” Pineda said.
According to the 2018 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report, the Department of Homeland Security is working not only to remove more immigrants from the interior of the country but also increasing the number of border returns. The report shows an 11 percent increase in border returns in 2018 and a 30 percent increase from 2016 to 2017. This is what the New York Times has deemed “desperation in thousands;” pushing migrants who fear being denied legal asylum into remote, dangerous rural areas where they may risk crossing illegally. At one point, Pineda and his son came across a makeshift tombstone remembering a man who died attempting to cross the desert on one of the hottest days of the year.
“The areas east of Tijuana where there’s no wall at all, it’s rather mountainous,” Pineda said.
According to a 2004 Research Policy Institute evaluation, under the Clinton administration strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence,” policymakers did not outfit the entire length of the border with a wall because they knew that parts of the terrain were so harsh that it could cost people their lives, weaponizing deserts and mountain ranges.
“The logic of this ‘prevention through deterrence’ strategy was that if the four main corridors in the San Diego, El Paso, central Arizona, and south Texas area were effectively secured, geography would do the rest,” the report states.
Pineda recalls, “People ask, how does the border patrol keep people from coming if there’s no wall? Well, there’s radio towers and hidden camera equipment used to track people’s movement. I knew they knew we were there.”
On their hike, covering an average of 20 miles a day, Pineda said he and his son saw individuals south of the border only twice. The two never saw anyone on the American border patrol road except border patrol and military, who were there predominantly to install concertina, or razor wire, which is currently going up all along the border. The border patrol road is closed to American citizens.
“Trump must know someone who owns a concertina wire manufacturing company,” Pineda posed.
In some rough migration corridors, Pineda and his son began to spot unused food packs, blankets, clothing and water, some dated six months ago, left by “border angels” — volunteers from organizations like No More Deaths/No Más Muertes who leave basic necessities along remote trails of the Sonoran Desert, which spans Arizona, California and northwestern Mexico.
Spring Street International School graduate and Orcas resident Aliza Diepenbrock recently volunteered for seven weeks at Annunciation House, a refuge hospitality and assistance warehouse shelter for migrants located in El Paso, Texas. She had originally hoped to intern with No Más Muertes before finding her way to Annunciation House.
Diepenbrock gave a firsthand account illuminating the response of religious support shelters like Annunciation House to a city relatively unresponsive to a massive immigration crisis. In addition to receiving groups of migrants, sometimes 250 in a day, the shelter also sent groups out daily to bus stations and airports in the city where they traveled to meet family and friends across the country to await trial.
“Eventually some city metro systems offered bus rides for free,” she said. “It was one very small thing the city stepped up to do.”
Diepenbrock said initially when she arrived at Annunciation House, beds were full, and the charity had a hard time housing everyone.
“When these migrants from Central and South America arrive, they’re on foot and are picked up by border patrol. They are detained in processing centers for around a week, eventually released with papers they can travel with because they’re seeking asylum. These papers list their ‘A’ or ‘alien’ number and a photo ID enabling them to travel by plane or by bus. Border patrol is disorganized. Oftentimes the ID would have no photo, not because it wasn’t taken, but because it wasn’t printed. From the processing centers, we would intake guests, never sure of exactly how many we’re receiving or when each day. It was a constant state of helping people get to the bus station or airport with food so they can unite with their families. The soonest court dates for these people are in spring of 2020,” Diepenbrock said.
Diepenbrock experienced a drastic shift in Annunciation House’s ability to support those seeking asylum when the Trump administration unveiled a U.S. program known colloquially as “Remain in Mexico,” now called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” which denies asylum seekers American protections, support systems and legal representation by sending them back to Juarez, Mexico, to wait while their asylum cases are adjudicated in U.S. courts. Since April, the U.S. government has sent more than 8,000 migrants from El Paso to Juarez. This, she feared, was more dangerous than migrants returning to their home countries.
In a closing Q&A, Diepenbrock commented, “One of the community volunteers I worked with, who is also an artist and working to open a protected migrant trans-shelter, commented — having grown up in El Paso — that he doesn’t feel a sense of national pride one way or the other, because to him, the border is this influx area of neighboring families to the north and to the south. El Paso has a deep love that I think is truly at the core of any border region.”
Diepenbrock will share more stories from her recent work at the border at a meeting scheduled for Wed. Aug, 21 at the Emmanual Episcopal Church.