I have had many experiences with United States Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) over the course of the time that I have lived in San Diego. There was the time in medical school when I went down to Tijuana with my friends and I was the designated driver but I had forgotten my wallet. The agent was friendly and helpful. There was the time that a whole bunch of narcotics had been donated to clinic and we didn’t discover them until we got down there, then had to go back to the border and surrender them. Supervisor Adams was friendly and helpful. There was the time that I wanted to bring a dying orphan from Rosarito to fulfill his last wish to go to Legoland. Border Community Liaison Tony was friendly and helpful.
On Sunday November 25th I awoke to the news that CBP agents had fired tear gas on asylum seeking refugees at the San Ysidro border, including women and children. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and I had had a lovely weekend up to that point, I had been able to give thanks for my wonderful life with some of my closest friends; I had spent the day prior seeing patients at work in East County helping families with their sick children; I had slept in for the first time in weeks. But now I was confronted with the reality of an America, and a CBP, I don’t recognize, one that is not welcoming and forgiving, one that is hostile and aggressive.
So I asked myself, “what do I do now?” It tuns out the answer was simple: I rely on what I have always relied on, the people and institutions around me that I trust to do the right thing. It, of course, started with International Health Collective (IHC); our ongoing work in Baja gives us a unique ability to interface with groups on the ground and deploy resources where they are needed most, so that’s what we decided to do. Daryn and Javi, as presidents, did what IHC does, they went down and did needs assessments, they made local contacts, they scoped out the landscape, and they created a plan. Jia and I, as faculty advisors, provided our medical and low resource expertise to see patients and advise regarding resource allocation. Matt, as chairman of the community advisory board, helped us to start a fundraiser, which with the help of his army of followers and our greater IHC community raised almost $7000. Rebeca, Psyche, and Judy, our IHC hearts at large, educated us on how care is provided in downtown Tijuana to the constant streams of migrants who come through looking for a better life.
The communities that IHC normally works with in Baja are not migrant communities, they are small communities of indigenous people working to create better lives for their children where they are. El Centro Tijuana, being so close to the point of entry in San Ysidro, has a different community. My eyes are now open to the community that this artificial line in the sand (and ocean) creates. Asylum seekers from other countries, deportees from America, opportunity seekers from within Mexico, marginalized groups from all over melt together in Tijuana and form its melting pot. The current influx of people from South and Central America is more than usual, but they are not unusual in the least.
Over the past two weeks IHC has been going down to Tijuana frequently to work with other people providing aid. Enclave Caracol is a community center in El Centro de Tijuana that is coordinating aid (nutritional, medical and legal) between many organizations and those in need of those services. Because of WhatsApp and Facebook groups people are able to stay in communication across wide spaces in both distance and time and experiences to help provide relief. Our experiences there, working with like minded people from both sides of the border, have been inspiring, the exact opposite of the images of American officials tear gassing women and children which were our call to action.
We have also seen and heard of heartache, people in difficult situations looking for a way out or back to the life they want to lead, there are over a thousand children that came with the asylum seekers. Families broken up by deportation, families escaping violence, women about to start new families, people sleeping in the streets, sick children all drowning in the rain that has seemed to fall in torrential bursts recently. The main place where the Mexican government was housing people when the caravan first started arriving was Benito Juarez, a stadium not far from the San Ysidro border where people need to go to get processed. Rain flooded that pretty quickly and turned it into a muddy mess. People were then shuttled farther away from the border to a drier space, Barretal. Not everyone went, and now tents are being erected all over the city by desperate shelter seekers.
We learned of the network of shelters in Tijuana that provide care not only when there is a large influx of people but all year long for any disenfranchised individuals requiring help which are now bursting at the seams. We have been using our funds to provide supplies and medical attention to people seeking help at Enclave Caracol and shelters in and around the city. We are grateful to all of the people who donated who made it possible for us to provide this service.
I wish our government had sent immigration lawyers, judges, social workers, and medical professionals, instead of the military, to greet these weary people with open arms and reaffirm the possibility of the American Dream. I am heartbroken that this much desperation exists in the world and that our government can vilify or worse yet turn a blind eye to these people. I am proud of our team and our network here that operates with compassion. I always say that the reason to work in this space is multifold: innovation happens where it is needed most; mentorship provides us a path for legacy; and collaboration widens our horizons. But the most important reason is that every human has the right to pursue a better life for themselves and their families. I am humbled by my experiences over the past two weeks, I know that we have now expanded our reach into this community and we are not going to leave, we are going to continue to work here. Because that’s just what IHC does.