Immigration

Divided Families Meet to Touch Fingertips Through Tijuana’s Border Fence

"With the cameras, and the guns, and the helicopters—sometimes it really feels like a war."

Woman at the border fence.
Photo Credit: Roc Morin

In order to see Enrique Morones, I had to press my face against the steel-reinforced wire mesh of a 20-foot wall. I was in Tijuana, Mexico and the immigration activist was inches away in the U.S. city of San Diego, California. “This is how we shake hands here,” he explained pushing the ends of his fingers through several of the narrow mesh openings. “We touch fingertips.”

I reached up my hand and cordially pinched his thumb. It was a shade-less Sunday afternoon, and the wall was crowded on both sides with divided friends and families jostling to do the same before the weekend visiting hours ended.

“My wife is over there,” a man beside me said as he gestured toward a dark form on the other side of the fence. “Her name is Janet.” The form came closer. I glimpsed an eye. “She hasn’t met her family for eight years,” the man continued. “She’s in the process of getting papers.” Fingertips appeared through the mesh. Janet’s mother grasped her daughter’s fingers. 

“We meet here every Sunday, and I just want to hug my mother,” Janet lamented. “I can’t give her a hug, but I feel happy, because at least I can talk with her. At least I can see her.”

When asked how much longer she would have to wait for that coveted embrace, Janet was uncertain. “A year?” she speculated. “Maybe two?”

We paused a moment to watch a crouching father on the Mexican side attempt to kiss his two-year-old son on the U.S. side. “Julian!” he called. “Un beso, un beso!” The child approached the fence gingerly, before suddenly turning and running back to his mother.

 


“It wasn’t always like this,” Morones interjected. The activist was standing roughly where Patricia Nixon had stood in 1971 when the binational Friendship Park opened. “May there never be a wall between these two great nations,” the former First Lady stated, “Only friendship.” Photographs from the day show Nixon shaking hands across a border delineated by widely spaced strands of barbed wire. 

“People would duck under the wire to spend an afternoon eating tacos or playing soccer,” Enrique Morones remarked.

The barbed wire was replaced in 1994 as part of Operation Gatekeeper, a U.S. measure aimed at controlling illegal immigration. A chain-link fence was erected in its place with spaces still large enough for Pastor John Fanestil to dispense communion wafers to parishioners in both countries during his mass there every Sunday. 

“We’re not allowed to pass [the wafers] through anymore,” the pastor complained as he prepared for the day’s liturgy. The new policy was established in early 2012, concurrent with the erection of the site’s present border wall. The ban itself was redundant, as the wafers could no longer fit through the small openings of the barrier’s mesh. 

Morones interprets the U.S. security enhancements as a sign of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. “With the cameras, and the guns, and the helicopters—sometimes it really feels like a war. A lot of these border patrol agents have animosity in their eyes."

“The border is 2,000 miles long and a third of it has walls,” he continued. “The people who cross over now have to travel through really dangerous areas. They travel through deserts and they die; little boys like Marco Antonio Villasenor who died with 18 men crossing into Texas.” 

He pointed toward the wall's end, 150 feet offshore in the roiling waters of the Pacific. “They die crossing here too, in the ocean. It looks like an easy swim, but there’s a strong undertow. The current just pulls them away until they drown.”

I walked down toward the ocean looking at the colorful graffiti hearts painted onto the rusted metal barrier along with words like PEACE, LOVE, FORGIVE U.S. and THE RACES UNITED. Pastor John’s stereo-amplified voice boomed with the lyrics of an old gospel hymn as a seagull wheeled in the air above the wall. “Why do I feel discouraged? And why do the shadows come? And why does my heart feel lonely and long for heaven and home?”

The hymn was about a sparrow, which was fitting. Three separate people I had met that afternoon talked about how they wished they could fly. 

Photos by Roc Morin.

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Roc Morin is a journalist based in New York and the author of And, a book of short stories. Follow his latest project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.