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I-House Field Trip to US-Mexico Border Explores Trade and Immigration

The US-Mexico border has been one of the most divisive topics in the US in recent years. But this issue has often been misrepresented and misunderstood in the media. What, exactly, is the border? Is it an area of opportunity, community, and belonging? Or an area of conflict, uncertainty, and fear? From March 16 to March 20, 2019, 12 Resident members of the International House New York community were selected to go on a trip to San Diego to get a firsthand view of the US-Mexico border and learn about the complexities of immigration in the US. Residents were invited to tour several border facilities, such as the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and Cross Border Xpress (CBX); visited institutions like the San Diego Museum of Man and the New Americans Museum to learn about race and diversity; met with local business and nonprofit leaders to discuss border issues; and went sightseeing, including going on a whale watching tour to witness migration in nature. “Our goal for this trip was to provide I-House residents with different perspectives of the border,” said Cassandra Hamdan, Assistant Director of Programs at I-House. “To witness the fusion of Mexican and San Diego border communities working alongside one another through business, trade, and environmentalism was quite different from the dividing media coverage Americans witness every day. The experience focused on building bridges rather than walls between these different, yet similar communities.” The San Diego-Tijuana border is the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, with 25,000 people and 50,000 vehicles crossing every day. Southern California makes up the fifth largest economy in the world, while Tijuana serves as a strategic access point to the rest of Mexico and is recognized as one of the most visited cities in the world. Often missing from the national narrative of the border debate is how San Diego and Tijuana run as a cross-border economy—a continuous economic region with shared industry in manufacturing, aerospace, biotechnology, and other sectors. Both sides share a production model, with Mexico making many of the product parts and the US assembling the products. Products are often passed back and forth three to four times before finally being exported. Both sides are thus critical to one another’s economic well-being. The border is not evenly marked by geographic, cultural, or linguistic differences. Drawn in 1849 by policymakers far removed from the on-the-ground realities of the region, the border encompasses a fluid identity, especially since much of California once fell in Mexican territory. Today, many families still feel ownership and belonging to both sides—living in Tijuana, for instance, and walking across the border every day to work in San Diego. Both sides also share a natural ecosystem, with the Tijuana River Watershed collecting rain, snow melt, and urban runoff from both sides and impacting the countries’ water sources. The 1,750-square mile region thus demands for shared efforts in environmental conservation. On the trip, the resident members were given a unique inside look at Cross Border Xpress (CBX), an extension of the Tijuana International Airport that enables travelers to cross from Tijuana into the US more easily, and vice versa. Created in 2015 and since serving over 5.5 million passengers, CBX has eased congestion in the Tijuana-San Diego border and created easier access to American markets. More than that, it is a symbol of bi-national cooperation. Construction of the massive, modern facility and 390-foot bridge was only made possible from collaboration between both governments, requiring presidential permits and years of planning. Residents also met with local business leaders to discuss the pragmatic issues in developing a healthy border. At a business round-table, representatives from the Smart Border Coalition, US-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership, the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, and US Customs emphasized the role that civil society plays in filling in the gaps left by national policy—like narrowing the distance between bi-border crossings, improving infrastructure for pedestrians, and creating expedited lanes for people seeking medical care. “[Our focus is on] what’s the best way to get people and goods across faster,” said Jason Wells, CEO of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, which represents some 800 local businesses. “What’s good there is good for us.” Tax cuts for Mexico, for instance, would benefit San Diego, driving Mexicans to come to the US to shop with the extra money saved. Meanwhile, at a nonprofit round-table featuring leaders from Alliance San Diego, Alianza Fronteriza de Filantropia, and Survivors of Torture International, residents learned about the crucial resources and services available to border communities—such as torture treatment for refugees and asylum seekers, and volunteer groups that search for the bodies of migrants in the Arizona and California desert so that families can have closure. “This trip was rewarding and fulfilling in so many ways,” said Jonathan Reveil, a Programs Fellow at I-House. “As a Black and queer immigrant from Haiti who is currently residing in America, US border issues are close to my heart as I have personally witnessed how my people have been and continue to be victims of negative stereotyping…I enjoyed learning about the profound complexity of the US-Mexico border and the thousands of Haitians who are stranded in Tijuana and elsewhere in northern Baja, California.” The field trip enabled these residents to witness the realities of the border, meet the people who make up the heart of the community, and experience the economic and cultural vibrancy of the area firsthand. For many, it was revealed, the border is a place of community, not division—partnership, not prejudice—and above all, a place of enduring unity and strength.