Earlier this year, in the spring, I accompanied my mother to Tijuana. She had announced to my sister and I that what she wanted for Mother’s Day was to go to the border and distribute care packages to members of the caravan. My sister was unable to come along, but I put a call out on social media for donations and asked for time off of work. Dozens of people came through with donations of cash, which I used to buy things to make hygiene kits: combs; shampoo; tins of Nivea cream; and toothbrushes, reserving some money for when we went across and to be able to meet people’s unanticipated needs. Julian gave me a ride to Costco to buy massive boxes of sanitary pads; others dropped off donations of diapers and panties and lotion at my apartment. Konrad gave me a ride to the airport, and I flew with two heavy rice bags into San Diego, where my mother met me. That evening, Caritas Tijuana, a Catholic shelter in the Cañón K neighborhood of Tijuana, was attacked. Migrants were robbed of their identification, money, and jewelry. A mattress was put up against the door to a room where others were sleeping and set on fire. The next morning, as we drove into Tijuana via Otay Mesa, trans members of the caravan that had been staying at Caritas decided to leave the shelter.
We ended up at Movimiento Juventud 2000, a shelter in the Zona Norte, literally across the street from the border fence. We were met by Cynthia San Gabriel, a North American nurse originally from Inglewood who, alongside its founder, manages Movimiento Juventud. Cynthia had ended up on this side after her boyfriend, a Salvadoran, had been deported. She followed him over, and he helped her with logistics. We did inventory: a few of the women were delighted over the pastel plastic combs with wide teeth I had brought. “Qué lindo el peine,” one of them murmured, pulling it out of the Ziploc bag, and immediately began combing her pre-teen daughter’s hair. As I watched them, I felt the same soft and salted warmth that floods my chest whenever I experience a feminine, careful touch.
“Movimiento Juventud is known from here to Chiapas,” Cynthia told me. In a couple weeks, she would be on her way to Chiapas to work at the sister shelter there in Tapachula, on the Mexican-Guatemalan border. Founded in 1993 by social worker José María “Chema” García, Movimiento Juventud was originally meant to function as a repatriation shelter for Mexican citizens that had been deported from the US. What Chema soon realized, however, was that the majority of folks being deported into Tijuana were actually Central Americans and Haitians. Along with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an immigrant rights organization, Movimiento Juventud had been doing outreach and advocacy work in Tapachula for years, and had been making calls for the Mexican government to provide the largely Black and Indigenous Central American migrants with asylum and protection from brutal — and more often than not — gendered violence. In 2017, responding to Mexico’s inaction, Sin Fronteras began organizing a “Viacrucis del Migrante” (or “Migrant’s Way of the Cross,” referring to Jesus Christ’s journey along the Via Dolorosa towards Golgotha, where he was crucified), leaving during Holy Week. Informal caravans have existed since at least 2010. The one that my mother and I were meeting with had left Tapachula on the twenty-fifth of March, and had initially been composed of seven hundred migrants; it was estimated that 80% of them were Hondureñx. From Tapachula, they went on to Oaxaca, then continued on towards Mexico City, and then split off into groups towards Hermosillo, Mexicali, and Tijuana, riding atop La Bestia, a colloquial name for the network of freight trains that criss-crossed Mexico (other names include “el tren de la muerte,” or the train of death; and “el tren de los desconocidos,” the train of the unknowns). Others rode buses, their journey to Tijuana ending at Friendship Park, at the beach, where the border wall extends into the Pacific Ocean. There were ninety-four people staying at Movimiento Juventud when my mother and I arrived there; thirty-one of them were children. Most of them were Hondureñx; a few were Guatemaltecx and Salvadoreñx.
That morning, we had missed a group who had decided to take a chance on Mexico and take a bus towards Hermosillo, in Sonora, in order to apply for six-month humanitarian visas. After the visas expired, they would be eligible to apply for two-year residency visas, allowing them to work in the Republic. Since Mexico doesn’t have compulsory education, migrant children on humanitarian visas aren’t allowed to enroll in school. Families of migrants who had decided to continue on to the United States spent business hours waiting in el chaparral, the brushy area at the entrance of the pedestrian bridge, waiting for the numbers given to them by immigration authorities to be called; when they are, they cross the bridge. As my mother said in her email report to friends: “That is another story.”
There is a recurring dream I started having in 2015, around the time Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency. In it, I am hiding in a wicker trunk. Light leaks through the weave, and I can hear voices. Someone kicks it, and it topples over. I roll out of it, finding myself on my Aunt Linda’s backyard patio, surrounded by family and some sort of unidentifiable law enforcement. They arrest me. I’m taken to Ferry Plaza in San Francisco, and put in charge of several children while they prepare a train to run us over with. I somehow understand that all of the children’s parents have been murdered. I try to distract them; we play games. I begin to make eye contact with commuters making their way toward BART or the ferries, and they understand. They discretely take a child’s hand and walk away quickly. I have written about this dream before.
My mother and I returned to the shelter the next day, to bring things people had requested: snacks; undergarments; coloring books, and small toys. I visited with Cynthia while my mother talked to Chema, taking notes. Cynthia told me about Love Thy Neighbor, a Catholic food pantry in San Diego County that supplied the shelter with foodstuffs and Nido, an infant formula popular in Mexico. She also told me that once a week, doctors and dentists come to the shelter to check in on migrants and do things like make sure that the children’s teeth and shots are in order; a psychologist also visited. I overheard my mother tell Chema that she supported abolishing ICE, which surprised me. Neither Chema nor Cynthia seemed aware of what was happening on the other (this) side; Chema related how even if he knew, and informed the people who passed through the shelter, they would continue on.
Family separation isn’t something special or new to this administration. I could go on about it, but there is plenty of information on how things played out on this side. I will say that the second Bush Administration, which produced the Patriot Act (and begat the Department of Homeland Security, which begat ICE and Border Patrol), produced a lethal architecture that made policies like it possible. Operation Streamline, a 2005 joint-initiative between the DHS and the Department of Justice that was instituted along all border states (with the notable exception of California), criminalized unauthorized entry into the United States. Until 2006, “catch-and-release” allowed migrants to be free until an appointed appearance before a judge, who would hear their claims of credible fear and be able to grant them asylum. Streamline made things like mass trials of shackled defendants (up to seventy at a time) and expedited deportations commonplace. If a migrant had a claim of credible fear, but was found guilty of either a misdemeanor (primary entry) or felony (secondary or repeat entry), they would be required to serve their sentence (in a private prison contracted by the DHS and DOJ), then be able to present their claims in order to receive asylum.
I didn’t write a report as soon as I came back from Tijuana; perhaps I should have. After leaving Moviemiento Juventud, my uncle Juanito and his wife drove us toward Playas de Tijuana, where I ate a mangoneada while the adults visited. My uncle’s wife is from Michoacan, where he, my mother’s stepfather, and her step-siblings are also from; I had spent summers there as a kid. They had married in Mexico, but were waiting for her papers to come through so they could cross back into the US together. My uncle, a former Department of Water and Power lineworker, is a deliberate and careful man. He had been my guardian when I was very young, and I remember him tenderly combing my unruly hair. He is my mother’s exact age, and the two of them refer to each other as their twin sibling. It was remarkable to watch them, the way they interrupted each other while recounting events from their childhood. It was then that I learned, in the mid-1960s, after my grandmother had re-married and had given birth to my aunts Mary and Alexia, the family had gone on a trans-continental journey from South Los Angeles to Nicaragua, where my grandmother had immigrated from as an unaccompanied teenager. The objective was to leave my mother in Nicaragua; but when they arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border, in the same Tapachula, my mother didn’t have sufficient papers to cross into Guatemala. So my grandmother, forced by her new husband, left her there. Juanito volunteered to stay with my mother until her Nicaraguan family came to get her; they ended up staying with one of his aunts for months. It was an act of tender solidarity. On the way to cross, I leaned my head against the window and wept, thinking of my mother being left behind.
The stories of family separations hadn’t even broken yet. At Otay Mesa, I showed an arbitrarily holographic and laminated document featuring my photograph to leave the country of my birth and enter the country in which I now live. My mother dropped me off at the airport, and continued onward to Santa Paula. My flight was delayed. I watched the Warriors beat the Rockets at an airport bar, casually dissociating from my surroundings as I took in the ease with which I was moving from place to place.
When the stories did break, and it became clear that the zero-tolerance separations under this administration had begun as early as October 2017, an overwhelming sense of despair and guilt overcame me. It got even worse when the death of Roxsana Rodriguez Hernández came to light. Roxsana was a trans Hondureña who came to the US with the caravan seeking asylum because, in her own words, “they kill trans people in Honduras.” I couldn’t help but wonder if she had been one of the individuals who had decided to leave the shelter in Cañón K that morning. Roxsana had contracted HIV from a brutal gang rape committed by members of the MS-13, a gang that was exported from Los Angeles to El Salvador through deportations, then spread across Latin America. “Dehydration superimposed upon untreated HIV” had been listed as the official cause of death.
At the end of October, the Trump administration announced the possibility of 15,000 troops being sent to the US-Mexican border in order to support the Border Patrol, an agency that fashionable calls for abolishing had missed, but which is largely responsible for acts of gruesome violence against people crossing by land. I spent the next month somewhat paralyzed: I made tentative plans to make another journey to Tijuana and/or Nogales; Wendy and I talked; the fires happened; the troops were sent to the border; I walked around a mall for exercise; I thought about total revolution; I watched children wearing N95 respirators play. Through an independent autopsy, it was found that Roxsana had been beaten and subjected to blunt force trauma while either in the private detention facility or in ICE custody. Friends with young children who could afford it traveled to Seattle or Monterey Bay to get away from what were at one point the most toxic air quality levels in the world; much like how parents from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras elect to walk with their children to the United States despite their knowledge of the dangers of cartel violence and xenophobia, and that they might be separated from their children once they cross into the States.