In November 2018, I arrived at the Mexican-American border between Tijuana and San Diego. The largest (yet) number of refugees traveling north together had recently reached Tijuana amidst the political theatre of the Republican-orchestrated “crisis at the border.” The situation appeared to still be at a climax, complete with thousands of troops and public flirtation with a declaration of a national emergency. Mere days before I had landed, border patrol agents fired tear gas on peaceful refugees, including children, attempting to cross the border into the U.S.
My first full day there, it was pouring rain. In the middle of a long drought and wildfires devastating the region, that drenched day and the havoc it wreaked on the refugees’ material situation was a harsh reminder of climate change’s increasingly dominant role in spurring ever-worsening refugee crises all over the globe, including the one at our own southern border. The rain prompted an outcry and demands from caravan participants for officials to address the flooded, unsanitary, and generally inhumane conditions of their packed shelter.
Fed up with waiting to be treated like human beings, a group of mothers from the caravan held a press conference to announce a hunger strike. They demanded, among other things, an end to deportations from Mexico, more rapid processing of asylum applications, and that humanitarian visas be made available to those waiting in Mexico. When they tried marching to the border area to stage the strike, the mothers made it barely a block before lines of riot police stopped them. In response, allies able to pass the lines began a hunger strike encampment near the border to hold space until members of the caravan could join, which they did in coming days. My own participation lasted three days, but the strike eventually lasted, with rotations, for two weeks culminating in another longer march which was met, once again, by riot police. Even without making arrests, the persistent presence of cops in riot gear sent a clear message: the City considered organized action by the refugees and their allies to be criminal.
I don’t know what solidarity looks like in Hell, but I think I’ve witnessed it in purgatory. That is the best way I can describe what Tijuana felt like. The sin, of course, of those waiting in this purgatory, was being born on the wrong side of a line that should never have been drawn. Let us never speak of a crisis at the border, because the preposition here is everything: the crisis is not at the border. It is the border. The physicality of being there and crossing on a daily basis drove home the maddeningly arbitrary, casual violence of the border in ways no remote observation could.
Crossing was a necessary step to accomplish routine tasks, such as picking up donations or attending a meeting. Yet, exactly that same thing – crossing the border – was the central, life or death matter around which every action and every mind of the caravan revolved.
A glimpse into the refugee crisis is important not only for the sake of every individual currently struggling through it, but also because history strongly indicates this is a precursor to more frequent and more dangerous crises. We already see far-right movements successfully stoking xenophobic resentment to gain institutional power around the globe. Every day, catastrophic climate change creates more eco-refugees who are forcibly driven from the frying pan of their devastated homelands into the fire of borders, camps, and jails that await them in more “prosperous” countries. Every day, resources become ever more precious to the billions of humanity who are not the obscenely wealthy. We see all of this, and know that Tijuana, like Calais before it, is a harbinger. We are fighting not just for justice, but for the very lives of working and poor people living in the path of extermination.
Tijuana showed me some of the most incredible work of solidarity and mutual aid that I’ve been fortunate enough to witness. Solidarity there looked like an anarchist social center with a constantly humming kitchen, despite the ever-present language barrier between those chopping vegetables side by side, to produce meals capable of feeding hundreds of people a day, caravan refugees, Tijuana locals, and volunteers alike. It looked like meetings of caravaneros and volunteers, cooks and lawyers, old and young, Hondurans and Californians, and conversation inflected with myriad accents of Spanish and English and the background hum of translators whispering in ears. It looked like the self-organization of activities and spaces not only to feed, shelter, and clothe the people in need, but to create, against all odds, opportunities for sharing, learning, and joy. On my last day, I even had the good fortune to witness two weddings of caravaneros take place on our rooftop. These were beautiful moments of human warmth, snatched from forces bent on stripping people of their humanity.
The difficulty of fighting for justice and kindness at the border, though, can hardly be overstated. As I write, another even larger caravan is traveling north through southern Mexico. Its members are prepared for the journey and crossing, despite knowing the fate most refugees have met over the last few months. Riot police and tear gas. Crowded and unsanitary shelters. Hostile locals and even more hostile border officials. Even the luckiest few who manage to cross the border endure detention and yet more hostile immigration officials, with deportation still hanging over their heads.
This work will continue over the next months, years, and decades, as violence comes at the poorest and most exploited people in the world from all directions: from capitalist-driven climate change and “natural” disasters, from the borders and the imperialist state apparatuses that they reify, and from the capitalist class manipulating working class individuals on the other side of the borders into complicity with their reactionary agenda. In the face of this violence, like the dispossessed that Ursula Le Guin wrote about in her beloved and radical novel, we must come with empty hands and the desire to unbuild walls.