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Solidarity at the Border

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Solidarity at the Border

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.

Migrant Caravan Support In Tijuana

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Migrant Caravan Support In Tijuana

I drove down from Los Angeles to Tijuana at the tail end of December 2018 because I’d heard there was a need for help transporting donations to shelters around the city. I’d been to Tijuana a few times before, and was traveling in the company of a trusted comrade, so I arrived feeling prepared. I wasn’t, but collectively the scores of volunteers who rotated through the doors of Enclave that week accomplished far more than I expected.

On my first day I drove a newly re-wed migrant couple to the shelter at El Barretal. They beamed with hope at the improved prospect of avoiding separation, promised by the documentation of the day’s ceremony. By day two, I found myself leading the tech team at Al Otro Lado. I don’t work in IT, hadn’t touched a PC in six years, and wasn’t exactly thrilled about office work, but it needed to be done, so I dove in and learned on the go. When a laptop wouldn’t print, I re-installed drivers. When a soft birth certificate image needed sharpening, I retouched it. And when an outreach lead was awaiting my redesign of the Creole version of the map to our building, and an officiant needed a document printed for a couple about to be married, and the printer went down, and I became visibly overwhelmed, a comrade saw my distress, calmly looked me in the eyes and said “take a break, I’ve got this.” And I did. And she did.

My techie role ended abruptly one night when I learned that my three roommates, all DSA comrades, had found themselves inside the warehouse where migrants were taking shelter near Benito Juarez. In an act of radical solidarity, they chose to stay inside when the entrance was blockaded, their bodies strategically stationed between the migrants and the riot gear-clad Mexican federal police. Seeing a need, another volunteer who’d just joined the tech team that day stepped up to take on my duties, freeing me to spend most of the next two days and nights supporting the occupation from the outside.

We coordinated watch shifts. We took up a collection and rented hotel rooms for migrants who lacked shelter from the rain. It was cold, and occasionally frightening, but it was joyous too. Street medics taught eye washing techniques in case of pepper spray (which U.S. Border Patrol used on migrants just two nights prior). Migrants inside passed extra blankets out to those of us in the street. We talked about how our involvement in DSA had brought us to Tijuana, and how we saw the struggle for these migrants as intertwined with the struggle against borders. But we were nearly always busy, so we expressed our politics mostly through acts of solidarity.

I don’t know how to gauge how much our work helped build DSA. We certainly built new connections among members across the country. Maybe more importantly though, we built a sense among all those who’d volunteered that we can contest oppression when we work collectively. We can learn from each other. We can self-organize. We can ask when we need help and step up when we see a need. We proved all this and more to each other, and in doing so I think we built confidence in the growing power of socialism.


To learn more about this caravan solidarity work, contact Andrew at: andrewjhall@gmail.com