Crossing the US-Mexico border on foot

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Photo: Ryan Bavetta

By Brandy Cochrane

A line of people snakes out in front and behind, evoking the geographical border which appears on the map between Mexico and the US, but this one leads south/north, not east/west. The weather is a dry 32 degrees Celsius even in late October and there is little shade to be found before the security gate. A small blind woman wonders through the crowd asking for change and a father plays a toy guitar badly while his children try to sell Chiclets and small toys to those waiting to get back to the States. People are weighed down by luggage and grocery bags full of belongings.

The electronic gate opens to allow through small groups of people at a time, making those who are waiting feel that all they need to do to cross is make it through that door. However, instead, you reach another queue in a large building with blotted out windows, concrete floors, and nowhere to sit. People are divided into three lines: one for those with special passes to allow them to cross easily, one line for the “general public,” and one line for those with disabilities. Even those with disabilities are not granted a bench to sit on during the almost two-hour wait at the San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana. This is the busiest border crossing in the world and this Friday was no exception.

Everyone in the line is weary and sweaty and ready to go through—children are crying and teenagers are talking loudly to pass the time. Two armed men wonder through the lines, staring down everyone and even the teenagers quiet when they come near. No one wants to have to start over again at the end of the line or be taken aside for questioning.

As someone who has studied border crossing for several years and has travelled to many countries where I crossed borders on planes, trains, and automobiles, but had never crossed a border on foot, my recent trek to southern California gave me the excuse to experience it. Walking into Mexico was barely a process—a long walk down a corridor, a few border guards, and a drug-sniffing dog dotted the landscape. No lines, no stopping, no long looks of suspicion.

Coming back through was a completely different story. Because we were crossing on foot, instead of by car, I was given no basic comforts of even shade for the first half of my wait. This process of border securitization and extreme measures serve to strike fear into people and make them as uncomfortable as possible. Even I, as a white US citizen, was at the end of my rope by the time I reached the front of the line.  I imagined coming up against this border as someone was not white and whose travel may have been deemed illegal by the United States. The experience of the elderly and pregnant women and what those with children might be feeling weighed heavily on me. While experiencing this was important in my own understanding of borders, the reality that people crossed back and forth across this border weekly and sometimes even daily was quite an awakening.

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