On Sunday morning, Edsel Ariel Benitez got a familiar call from his boss, urging him to come into work and relieve the other cook at the San Diego KFC. For the 19-year-old community college student, who was born in San Diego and lives in Tijuana, picking up a shift means navigating the largest land border crossing in the world. And on Sunday, things were extra complicated: The San Ysidro Port of Entry was shut down as US law enforcement met a border protest by migrants with tear gas. So he made his way toward the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, about 15 minutes east.
“Once I got to Otay, you don’t even know the surprise that I got. The line was something I’ve never seen before,” he said. “Easily it would have taken three to three-and-a-half hours to cross that day.” He waited an hour, barely moving forward, the stress of angering his boss hanging over him. Then he saw the San Ysidro border had reopened after hours of closure. He headed there and found it nearly empty except for the armed border guards, the dirt mounds, and the barbed wire, all intended to ward off migrants.
“Honestly, it looked like a war zone,” he recalled.
It wasn’t until after he finally made it to his job after a seven-hour-trek, worked a two-hour shift that paid him less than $20 after taxes, and headed back home to Tijuana that panic set in. “I don’t know when it will happen to me that I’ll be in the border when the Central Americans think to cross again by force, and maybe in that moment the US agents grabs me and, I don’t know, beat me and blast me with pepper spray,” he said. “Just because I’m there.”
This is the new reality for transborder, or transfronterizo, students—young people who cross the border daily to go to school and sometimes work. The transborder experience starts as young as preschool for some, and extends to college for many others, including Benitez, who crosses to attend San Diego City College about 25 minutes away from the border. Crossing for these students comes with a particular set of traumas and anxieties. They endure intense scrutiny and discriminatory practices from Border Patrol agents, aren’t sure how long a crossing will take—a long delay can mean getting fired or suspended from school—and worry that a confrontation with authorities could lead to issues for them or family members who might be undocumented. Even those who are US citizens or legal residents can feel intimidated and dehumanized by the grind of this routine.
After 9/11, a crackdown at the border resulted in more walls, longer wait times, and harsher inspections and questionings. Under Donald Trump, the government has cracked down further on the border, with the president seeking to restrict asylum seekers’ ability to come to the US, spreading fear about the “caravan” of Central American migrants now at the border, and demanding that a border wall be built.
At the US-Mexico port of entry dividing Tijuana and San Diego, there is already a wall, and the people who cross it every day, including transborder students, are now concerned that a repeat of Sunday’s event will further disrupt their lives. “I’m afraid that this situation will continue this way because you never know when they’re going to close the border,” said Benitez. “Not only that it will affect those of us who have to work. It prevents us from getting to work on time, and that takes money away from us, or causes us to get suspended.”
While closures and violence at the border are far from new, the last few weeks have seen an uptick in closures. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told VICE that there have been five incidents of lane closure since November 13, which were caused by the installation of “port-hardening materials” (like jersey barriers and wire) to prepare for the arrival of the migrant caravan, the removal of portions of those hardening materials, and additional preparations for and responses to the demonstrations by migrants in the caravan.
The heightened level of militarization has given rise to a deeper sense of fear and intimidation for daily commuters. Countless photos and video have appeared on social media showing armed military personnel standing watch, barbed wire and fencing erected around sections of the border, and armored vehicles on patrol. An Instagram post shared by the arts group Border Click claims migrants, protesters, and one of their photographers were shot with rubber bullets by CBP officers on the US side during Sunday’s protests. In response to questions about the incident, CBP told VICE, “Trained CBP personnel employed less-lethal devices to stop the actions of assaultive individuals attempting to break into the U.S.”
Border closures and longer wait times represent fresh hardship for the thousands of students who cross the border in order to attend school. For years, it has been common practice for transborder students who are US citizens or green card holders to use a family or family friend’s US address on school paperwork to fulfill residency requirements. They make this decision along with their parents in the hopes of greater academic and career opportunities in the future.
Estefania Castañeda Pérez is a researcher studying and surveying the transfronterizo student community in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez and San Diego-Tijuana border regions. She's also the co-founder and co-president of UCLA’s chapter of the Transfronterizo Alliance Student Organization (TASO), a group supporting students who currently cross or grew up crossing the US-Mexico border to attend school.
“Throughout the studies I’ve done even before the shutdowns students often complain that there’s trauma associated with crossing the border,” she explained. “Although the vast majority of transborder students are US citizens, they’re often made to feel as if they’re not legitimate enough.”
In a 2015-2016 study, UC San Diego’s Center for US-Mexican Studies found that young people who have lived and studied in two countries from San Diego and Tijuana were at greater risk for depression than other students. While students told researchers they were willing to endure the stress of crossing the border for greater opportunities, the study found that these students are more likely not to graduate college. Violence at the border, an increased sense of intimidation, regular closures, and intensified military presence only put more weight on what is already a difficult adolescence.
“If you’re being subjected to discriminatory practices from CBP, and just seeing the military with their weapons there on a day-to-day basis, that normalizes the violence at the port of entry,” said Castañeda Pérez. “Having all this wire there and the military with all their weapons creates this trauma that can have long-term implications in how not only [students] see themselves but also how they interact with authority.”
Students use Facebook groups like Estudiantes Transfronterizos (Transborder Students) and Como Esta La Linea En Tijuana (How’s the Tijuana Border) to warn each other of long waits, gate and full border closures, or any other incidents that may affect their crossing. Still, adapting to this new reality on the border can be challenging. UCSD’s study reported that a third of students in San Diego and 20 percent of students in Tijuana have one or both of their parents living on the other side of the border.
Castañeda Pérez says many students affected by border closures reached out to TASO via social media and expressed fear of crossing back into Tijuana in case closures prevent them from coming back to school. Many students are choosing to couch-surf with friends or family members on the US side. Those who aren’t couch-surfing sometimes have to get to the border at 2 AM to ensure they can get across in time for school, according to Castañeda Pérez. Benitez is seeing which friends he can stay with and plans on helping those friends’ parents financially in exchange for letting him stay with them. He’s also considering getting a group of friends together to rent an apartment, since he’s unable to afford one on his own.
An English teacher I’ll call Jessica (her name has been changed because she feared for her job if she spoke on the record) works in San Ysidro, the city Tijuana residents cross into when entering the United States from the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Many of Jessica’s students live in Tijuana. She estimates about 20 percent cross daily, while 30 percent live in the US during the week then go back to their families in Mexico on the weekend. Sunday’s closures left at least one of her students on the US side, unable to get her computer and school supplies from home. The student is now living with an aunt in the US side out of fear of further closures. Another student mentioned that they will have to leave Tijuana and move into a motorhome with some family members, though they’re not sure where they will be able to park it.
Jessica said her students have expressed concerns about not being able to get to school, and talk about being frightened by the increased presence of helicopters in the area. They worry for their safety, and that they’ll end up stuck in Tijuana. Their thoughts on the situation are all over the map.
“[There’s] some racist ideology (close the borders to protect the country, send them back to their countries), some more empathetic and concerned with the humanitarian crisis,” Jessica wrote in an email. “Some believe it is planned by the current administration. Some don’t even know what to think as they are caught in this idea of a limbo.”
“I guess I was just used to it, crossing and seeing fucked-up things, seeing deported people, people struggling, people waking up really really early just to make money to support their families. But I don’t think I ever saw CBP in riot gear, and now they are,” said Andrea Dominguez, a 28-year-old student at City College. “It makes me sad. No one wants to leave their home country. No one wants to cross the border. No one wants to do all that. They’re strategies of survival for the working class in Tijuana, and people in San Diego, too, who are coming to Tijuana because of the housing crisis.”
Central American refugees are still waiting in uncertain conditions at the border, activists continue to provide aid and document the situation, and at least some of the troops are staying in place, where they could remain through Christmas.
When it comes to the refugees waiting in camps in Tijuana for their chance to apply for asylum, many transborder students are conflicted. The fears and frustrations they feel are often pointed at the migrants, though they are empathetic to their struggle.
“I understand what they’re going through. I don’t think the way they’re going about it is correct, but I’m not angry at them,” said Benitez. “I know they are also looking for a better life and looking for opportunities just like we are.”
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