CROSSING THE BORDER TO MEXICO JANUARY 2006
In January of 2006 I traveled with an Urban Sociology class taught by a colleague, on a fieldtrip to Tijuana. I had been on that fieldtrip several years before, but this time I was looking with new eyes that had seen the gap between rich and poor in South Africa, Brazil, and India. In Tijuana we met with city leaders, housing officials, transportation planners, University professors and students, as well as union organizers, residents of shantytowns, migrants, and those providing shelters to children deported from the U.S. We were deeply moved by the stories of the migrants, and seeing crosses and coffins representing the 4000 people who have died trying to cross the border to seek jobs.
Tijuana is a border city, just across from San Diego and a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. During the 1920s, US citizens went there to drink when alcohol was illegal in the US, and it became a playground for people from Hollywood. Its bars are still popular with US college students since the drinking age there is 18 instead of 21. And, since the suppression of the drug trade through Florida, it has become a pipeline for illegal drugs to meet the high demand in the US.
Beyond that, it is a mecca for people from all over Mexico and Central America who are seeking jobs in the US or in the many maquiladoras in Tijuana and nearby cities in Baja California. Maquiladoras are factories in which supplies are imported duty free from the US and finished goods are shipped back to the US duty free. They provide jobs for Mexicans and cheap labor for international corporations. The employees work long hours for daily wages that are comparable to hourly wages for similar jobs across the US border. We visited a factory that makes uniforms for nurses; they used to make more labor-intensive clothing for retail stores but lost that business to factories in Asia. We also visited a union organizer who is trying to improve working conditions.
Every year ten thousand more people move to Tijuana, adding to the estimated three million people currently in the region. The city already is 50,000 homes short of meeting the need. As a result, many people build Òirregular housing,Ó from used garage doors, plywood sheets, scrap metal, tires, freight pallets, and whatever else is available. The freight pallets enter Mexico duty free since they are supposed to be used to return finished goods!
The two irregular housing settlements that we visited were worse than the ones I had seen in South Africa, Brazil, and India. One was next to a cemetery and was built on a dump with smoke from underground fires wafting through the community. The other was built along both sides of a river, which periodically floods. They have no sewage or running water, but the city brings a water tanker truck everyday. Electricity is appropriated through improvised wiring from adjacent power poles. The state provides an elementary school.
But at least these people, unlike many "homeless" people in the US, have shelter, a strong sense of community, and some government services. There are thousands of people in Los Angeles who are homeless without any shelter except cardboard cartons.
We were amazed that the people in the Tijuana shantytowns are able to have clean clothes and be well groomed under their living conditions. They have great pride in themselves, work hard in maquiladoras, and have a sense of community. The city has plans to create a park along the river to avoid the dangers of flooding, but the residents donÕt want to be moved farther away where they cannot get to work.
City officials are struggling hard to provide services, but the needs are overwhelming. We visited a housing project being built for those who lost their dwellings in recent floods. However, the minimum monthly earnings to qualify is $500, and many only make $300 a month in the maquiladoras.
We also visited a commercial housing project where dozens of identical nice looking middle class houses overlook rows and rows of less fancy housing. Buyers must earn $2700 monthly and have $10,000 down payment to qualify for a house that cost $100,000. That price is cheap compared with the median price of $400,000 for a house in Los Angeles, but it still requires an hourly wage of $18 per hour which is more than many workers in Tijuana earn in a day. Many of the buyers are Mexicans with green cards who commute across the border to work in San Diego, while others are US citizens who do the same.
The Tijuana-San Diego border is the busiest in the world, with more than 60,000 crossings daily. To alleviate the congestion, there are two crossing points and a third is planned connecting with a new freeway that we saw being constructed. The 25-mile freeway will bypass the city to relieve congestion, and will open up new areas for housing and factories.
Since the US fortified the border fencing in 1994, about 4000 people have died trying to get across the border illegally. We saw crosses on the border fence with the names and ages of victims, along with coffins stating the number who had died each year. The fortifications in Tijuana have forced migrants to cross further east, where many die in the dessert or are shot by ranchers in Arizona or Texas. Some are abandoned to die in trucks when coyotes they have paid to transfer them flee from the border patrol.
I saw a cross for someone my age, and many with ages similar to students in the Urban Sociology class, since many migrants are young men seeking jobs to send money back to their families. They are not seeking welfare, and those in the US take jobs that no one else wants to do. I read in the LA Times that half of the winter crop in central California is rotting because there is no one to pick it.
We visited a government processing office for children who have been deported from the US without their families. About 15 arrive each day. The lawyer and social worker match them up with relatives. We also visited a Catholic shelter for women migrants near the menÕs shelter I visited last time. One young woman told us she had traveled by train from Honduras, and had fallen off a train and lost her leg. She was deported from Mexico back to Honduras, where her former factory wouldnÕt hire her back with an artificial leg. She had come all the way again to Tijuana and was trying to earn money to cross the US border.
The migrants reminded me of my grandfather who had come to the US from a German village in Russia in 1901 during the unrest that preceded the Russian Revolution. He was illiterate, but worked hard, and I his grandson have a PhD from Harvard and am a college professor. I understand the desire of migrants to have a better life for their families.
While we were in Tijuana we ate fish tacos, which are famous in Baja California, and had wonderful food at restaurants. The first night we had dinner with professors and students from a university in Tijuana, and then those students took us to hear live music at Plaza Fiesta and then dancing at a disco popular with locals. The next day we visited two other universities and met additional professors and students. Meeting various people in Tijuana was one of the most meaningful aspects of the trip. The visits had been organized by a photographer friend of the course instructor who wanted us to hear different voices with contrasting perspectives.
After returning to Whittier, the three professors and twenty-three students on the fieldtrip met to discuss our experiences. Each of us had been affected in powerful ways, and we appreciated the opportunity to cross the border physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally.