Beyond the Wall

Both sides of the U.S./Mexico border


The ways that the country’s southern border can be viewed are as varied as sunlight refracting through the angles of a prism. But one thing, at least, is clear: As the only Catholic university in the nation situated less than 30 miles from that border, the University of San Diego has a core commitment to supporting those who experience marginalization.

“We are called to learn about the stories and journeys of [migrants seeking asylum], so that we might come to see them as our brothers and sisters — part of our one human family” said President James Harris in December 2018.

As part of that process, USD Magazine reached out to people across campus this spring to get their first-hand perspective about their work on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

While consensus may not always be possible, this particular divide cannot be breached without, at a minimum, sharing our varied perspectives and stories.

Guardians at the Gate

Finding balance and empathy on a deeply personal level

There is no such thing as a typical workday on the U.S./Mexico border. “It’s always a different scenario,” says Jazzma Rainey ’16 (MS). She would know; she’s been working for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for 16 years.

Recently promoted to supervisor, Rainey says the job has always required officers to be on high alert. “It’s never the same. There’s always a new plot, a new plan,” she says. It’s important to note that Rainey stresses that all of her commentary about her job is personal observation, not CBP policy.

USD alumna Jazzma Rainey

Jazzma Rainey ’16 (MS).

“Vigilance is one of CBP’s core values. But given the heightened political controversy along the southern border, our environment has become increasingly dangerous. Although we’re trained to carry out our duties with the utmost professionalism, in concurrence with civil rights laws, officer safety is paramount.”

That’s because the job itself has an element of real danger. “Oftentimes, rocks are thrown at officers, children are used as shields, weapons are carried by those who are determined to get into our country at all costs,” she says. “When crossing the border has a detrimental effect on the safety and quality of a person’s life, they can become desperate.”

CBP works closely alongside the Border Patrol; both entities are under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. “We work on the front line,” Rainey explains. “Ours are the first faces you see when you enter the U.S.”

When asked about specific memories over the years, Rainey pauses. “During the Haitian migration influx in 2015, the facilities were crowded with asylum seekers. At that time, I realized the power of healing in diversity. “

That experience still resonates. “The little Haitian girls would speak to me in French — although I don’t speak French — and engage with me a little more than the other officers because they felt a sense of comfort and familiarity. Some had looks of shock of seeing someone with hair like theirs, skin like theirs, and facial features like theirs in a CBP facility, oceans away from everything they’d ever known.”

Interacting with those kids had a big impact on Rainey. “I love children. A simple smile and a little extra compassion to those who are most vulnerable is powerful. Seeing those little girls light up when I came to their area gave me a sense of purpose. That was a defining moment for me. It highlighted the humanitarian aspect of my job.”

When asked about the need for a border wall, Rainey takes a moment.

“The U.S. is definitely in need of immigration reform and a strategy to increase the efficacy of border security,” she says. “But according to public data and statistics, the majority of illegal immigrants are not climbing walls.” — Julene Snyder

Esprit de Corps

Exploring our shared humanity through the power of song

Music is magical. As divisive rhetoric about the border inundates the news, music enables us to engage on a deeper level and to create solidarity — even when the divide appears too deep.

A step toward understanding was taken on a cool March evening on the University of San Diego campus. Twenty-eight singers gathered to rehearse a set of songs inspired by the border and their shared humanity. Coordinated harmony and passionate lyrics conveyed a sense of urgency, deconstructing rhetoric and countering divisiveness by adding new voices to the discussion.

“Music is a really powerful way of communicating what it means to be human,” says Emilie Amrein, DMA, assistant professor of choral studies at USD. “It’s really remarkable. If you come into a space and make music with another person, you feel strangely connected to them. It’s mystical, almost spiritual.”

Singers in actionAmrein’s most recent project, Common Ground Voices (CGV)/La Frontera, was in-spired by the CGV reconciliation program in Jerusalem, which aims to “generate a meaningful collaboration through music.” In partnership with Boston University professor of music André de Quadros, Amrein established this immersive community music initiative to bring together singers from all over the United States and Mexico for a weeklong residency at the border.

“Like a lot of people, I’ve been struck by the polarizing rhetoric about the border,” she says. “We need to be doing something as culture-makers, as musicians and artists about what it means to live here, separated from other people just across the border who are going about their day-to-day lives like we are.”

These singers are taking an active role in the border debate, listening and bringing their own voices to the discussion. Being in solidarity begins with “an ear for listening,” says Amrein. For the singers participating in this project — which include four USD Chorale Scholars and several student interns — it means experiencing both sides of the border and understanding the common humanity of one another. Residing in Mexico and the U.S. over the course of the week, singers had the opportunity to perform in Barrio Logan and at Friendship Park, with participants singing on both sides of the border.

“I think music has a special capacity to change space. To change the energy in the space and so, to me, the idea of making music is a little bit defiant,” says Amrein. Music can transcend, and for Amrein, bringing many voices together makes them stronger, especially as a response to divisiveness.

“We are doing something active. We are engaging in conversation and dialogue. We are listening. We are putting our voices into the mix,” she says. “We are no longer bystanders.” — Allyson Meyer ‘16

Coming and Going

Making sense of a complicated reality is key for students

“Politically, I don’t want to get into, ‘Do we need a wall or don’t we need a wall?’” says Alan Lerchbacker. “The real issue is this: Let’s make sure that the people who really belong here are able to get here.”

President and CEO of San Diego-based Naval Coating, Inc., Lerchbacker has taught at USD since 2008. While all of his employees are U.S. citizens, roughly one-third of them live in Mexico and commute to the States to work each day. But when the San Ysidro Port of Entry was briefly shut down in November 2018, these folks couldn’t get to work. “That was very significant for our employees,” he says.

Map showing proximity of San Diego to Mexico borderHe’s quick to say that border enforcement officials on both sides have subsequently done a great job of making the crossing process as smooth as possible. “Our governments are working well together, and access to the U.S. is really good for them now.” That experience reinforced his belief that the University of San Diego has a responsibility to make sure that its students understand the complicated reality of the border situation.

“We’re an educational institution, first and foremost. While it’s really important that we listen to what that students have to say, and to listen to their ideas, they need to understand how important the relationship between our two countries is.”

In the global leadership course he teaches at the USD School of Business, he’s made it a point of getting his students up close and personal with businesses looking to expand internationally. “I approach CEOs of companies in Southern California and ask them, ‘What is your biggest international problem?’” He then charges his students with finding solutions.

“For example, Niagara Water has nine water bottling manufacturing plants in the U.S., and they wanted to expand to Japan. Our students found that while it would have taken the company six years to get a plant in Japan due to rules and regulations, they could have a plant up and running in Mexico in less than six months. So they made that recommendation to the company and helped them figure out the best way to do that.”

Lerchbacker is quick to give the credit where it’s due: “Our students are really great. They’re super-motivated, very, very smart and just phenomenal all around.”Julene Snyder

Under the Same Sun

Latinx students explore identity and faith across the border

Twenty-four miles separate Alcalá Park from San Diego’s sister city, Tijuana. To many, the border represents rigid separation, but in the world’s fourth largest binational region, exchanges across the border shape daily life. Every day, goods, workers and some USD students flow across ports of entry at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.

On a sunny February weekend, 11 representatives of USD’s Latinx faith community crossed that border to share in a University Ministry retreat: El Encuentro Espirtual, which is held exclusively in Spanish to facilitate an immersive experience. The gathering at San Eugenio Parish on the crowded east end of Tijuana’s city limits is the second annual retreat to connect members of two faith communities.

“The fundamental goal of this joint retreat is to allow students from USD and youth from San Eugenio to share in understanding their faith and identities,” reflects Maribel Orozco ’20. As a student leader and Mexican-American, Orozco has used the interactions with San Eugenio parishioners to deepen her understanding of place within her own church community.

Highway into Mexico from San DiegoThis collaboration has built upon a relationship developed over three decades. University Minister Julia Campagna ’09 (BA) has crafted and executed a number of events with her counterparts at San Eugenio in addition to the retreat, including service projects and homestays. This particular retreat was aimed at students who seek their faith in the Spanish language and to help bridge generational gaps with their parents and grandparents. 

Campagna recalls her days as an undergraduate visiting San Eugenio and her appreciation of residents’ open-arms welcome. “Having the opportunity to interact with communities in Tijuana was so valuable to my undergraduate experience,” she says. While the neighborhood has changed since then — now filled with more residents and big-box stores — its hospitable environment remains.

The retreat featured an animated atmosphere; participants particularly enjoyed sharing in the Holy Hour of Adoration and small-group reflections. “It was such a beautiful experience to share these genuine moments with another youth from San Eugenio,” says Orozco. When night fell, talk about faith and identity blended together over s’mores and mugs of champurrado, a thick chocolate drink. Lit by the fire’s flicker, students connected in ways that promoted mutuality.

The role of language barriers in celebrating faith is understated for younger generations of Latinx Catholics in the U.S. today. Orozco admits to some insecurity about her own fluency in Spanish, even though she was raised attending Mass in Spanish. Working one-on-one with Alejandra — a fellow 20-something completing her own undergraduate studies in Tijuana — Orozco says the retreats have helped her to understand her multicultural background and its relation to her faith.

“I wouldn’t trade my identity for anything, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt like an outsider within my own culture,” she reflects.

Campagna says like Orozco, many Latinx students share heritage across the border, but still have difficulty reconciling their multifaceted identities of faith and hyphenated nationality. “If we’re able to build meaningful relationships that allow us to see each other’s humanity, share experiences and recognize differences, I would be proud of that.” — Michael Bennett ‘19

A Better Life

Health screening crucial for asylum seekers awaiting hearings

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in San Diego’s Normal Heights, a church courtyard is empty but for puddles and a rotating digital sign that offers up notices of upcoming services. Once inside the doors, through a corridor, around the corner, here and there, pockets of people are gathered, some talking around tables, a few clustered in pews, another group of adults and children chatting and cooking in a kitchen area.

Down yet another corridor, a group of nursing students are clustered just inside a crowded room, talking in low voices.

“How long has she been coughing?” asks Professor Jodi Barnes. “This baby is having a hard time breathing. That’s concerning.” After some back-and-forth, it’s decided that a trip to the E.R. is in order for the wheezing infant.

This building is part of the Safe Harbors Network, which provides shelter for refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers. Every Saturday, students from USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Sciences come here to address the immediate needs of the mothers and children who are temporarily housed here.

close up of mother's hand holding baby's foot“They’re all here legally,” Barnes says. “Once they’re released from detention centers by ICE, these people are distributed to various churches in the network. Mental health assessment is a big part of what we do. Most of these mothers have suffered severe trauma, and they tend not to get the care they need for themselves since they’re afraid of being deported.”

Bunk beds crowd the room. Refugees and asylum seekers from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Central and South American and Russia are currently in residence. Since many languages are spoken, a complicated back-and-forth is necessary to get questions and answers translated so that everybody understands what’s happening.

USD MEPN students interact with the children, cuddle the babies and take the time that’s needed to establish trust with a group that’s vulnerable to trauma, toxic stress, anxiety and depression.

“We talk with the kids and their moms about where they’re from, how their health is, find out how they’re feeling,” says O’Brien. “We’ve fast-tracked this as a clinical site and have developed a validated mental health screening tool for these people.” Those efforts helped them to earn second-place honors in USD’s Fall 2018 Changemaker Challenge.

USD students find the experience of interacting with the refugees and hearing their stories to be personally impactful. Second-year MEPN student Lihini Keenawinna said this in a recent blog post about the project: “I keep coming back to this idea that they went through such immense traumas, but are incredibly resilient in their desire to have a better life. It’s the most fulfilling feeling to be able to help, even in the tiniest of ways.” — Julene Snyder

Reframing the Issue

Coming Together to Support One Another and Make Positive Change

“Growing up in a border town gave me direct experience in understanding the very many different issues that exist along the border,” says Maria Silva ‘12 (BA). Born in the U.S. and raised in Nogales, Mexico, Silva and her siblings commuted daily into Nogales, Arizona to attend school.

“It was just life,” she says with a shrug. “It was normal. It was strange to me to find out later that people didn’t country hop the way we did.” Life seemed simpler then, even after 9/11 brought longer wait times, stricter U.S. entry requirements and much tighter security.

“Today, the way the border is militarized looks completely different,” Silva says. “The fencing, the number of border patrol agents, the drones and the helicopters. For kids who are crossing on a daily basis, I think it’s changed significantly.”

Border fence in Nogales, MexicoIt’s a difference she experiences firsthand, crossing from San Diego into Tijuana weekly as part of her job at USD. Since arriving as a first-year in 2009, Silva has devoted much of her time to working with migrants and asylum seekers. Today, she’s a director for the Mulvaney Center for Community Awareness and Social Action, overseeing an impressive operation that links the university with nonprofit groups on both sides of the border.

“We are a binational anchor,” Silva says. “It’s an opportunity and a responsibility for us, being so close to the border, to reach out to partners in Tijuana the same way as we do here.”

Dealing with the ongoing political crisis and its human collateral can be draining, as it was when Silva picked up a young Guatemalan girl and her dad from San Diego’s emergency immigrant shelter. The two were released after a difficult, month-long journey north and two nights in detention. Silva drove them to the airport to be reunited with family on the East Coast.

“The girl was just ecstatic. She kept looking out the window and pointing out everything she saw,” Silva remembers. “We got to the airport and I asked for an escort pass to take them to the gate. I’ve done this many times before, but this time, the airline agents wouldn’t give me one.” Silva explained to the duo that they’d have to get through security and find their gate themselves.

“The girl kept looking back at me. You could tell that when they see someone in uniform, that’s immediately triggering. She started shaking as she got closer to the TSA agent. That’s just one manifestation of the political climate we live in.”

But there are encouraging signs, and they give Silva a measure of hope. “I’ve had great experiences as well with TSA agents and airline folks. And every day working with organizations that are tirelessly serving these communities, I’m reminded that we’re coming together to support each other,” she says.

”I think this political time will be seen as a critical shift. We have to reframe the way we think. The problem is not immigration. The problem is us and the system we’ve created. We have the power to change it.— Karen Gross

Building Hope

Baja Service Project makes lifetime connections for scholar-athletes 

In the quiet, pre-dawn hours of a fall morning in 2016, Chris McCready and 34 of his USD baseball teammates assembled at Fowler Park for a trip into the unknown.

Sure, they had taken many bus rides together, squaring off against rival baseball squads across Southern California and beyond.

But this was something special — and maybe a little intimidating. This was a trip across the U.S. border into Northern Baja California to build homes for families in need.

USD baseball students on site at house-build in MexicoLike many of his Torero teammates, McCready was nervous — but in a good way. As a first-year player, he hadn’t experienced anything like this, and could never have guessed the indelible impact the trip would have on him … even if it got off to a less-than-auspicious start.

“I remember getting on the bus early in the morning, and no one really knew what we were going to do,” McCready, now a senior, recalls. “Everyone was kind of quiet, waiting for something to happen. Then the bus wouldn’t start, and everyone started laughing. It broke the ice a bit.”

The next 72 hours (engine malfunctions notwithstanding) would provide McCready and his teammates a life-changing look into the lives of underserved communities just outside their San Diego doorstep. Head USD Baseball Coach Rich Hill had connected with nonprofit organization Hope Sports — which conducts service projects in poverty-stricken communities around the world — about taking his team to the outskirts of Tijuana for a four-day service immersion trip. There, they would break the 35-man roster into two teams that would build two homes for local families.

Now, some three years and three service trips later, the annual project has become a source of pride for all members of the Torero baseball family. “An experience like this is so important to our athletes,” Hill says. “It shapes them, it provides perspective, and shows them how lucky they are to have the opportunities they have.”

Everyone who participates understands that the house builds are much more than the melding of plywood, glass and concrete. It’s an opportunity to make a deep and meaningful connection with those less fortunate, and to share that amazing experience with coaches and teammates.

“It’s really difficulty to get access to a project like this where you’re making such a direct impact on someone’s life,” says Hunter Mercado-Hood ’17, a former Torero outfielder who still makes time to participate in the Baja service project, despite having to commute from Northern California. “There’s a line out the door of alumni who want to still be part of this. The gift and gratitude swing both ways; the families are so grateful to us for building them a home, but we all are so grateful to them for helping us appreciate everything that we have.”

“Anyone who participates in this service project gets so much out of it,” adds McCreary. “I hope we do this as long as the work is needed.” — Mike Sauer

Overcoming Obstacles

Trans-Border Institute Delves Into the Region’s Complexities 

Ev Meade looks at the U.S.-Mexico border as more opportunity than obstacle. His perspective and that of his students — through internships and courses featuring pioneering field research — is the result of firsthand knowledge of the area and its people.

“The land border is kind of a red herring,” says Meade, the director of USD’s Trans-Border Institute (TBI) and Kroc School professor of practice. “There’s this huge binational relationship that dwarfs, by any measure, the illicit relationship. It’s just so much bigger.”

He notes that two million Americans live in Mexico. “The size of commerce, the cultural exchange, the number of trips people make back and forth while doing business, being tourists and staying with their families, is so much bigger than the illicit piece,” he explains. “But it’s the illicit piece that gets the attention.”

Meade’s educational expertise is Mexico’s history, U.S. relations with Latin America, human rights and researching individuals and families who’ve fled violence in Mexico and Central America. He pursues creative avenues to build peace and trust. Toward that end, he and Kroc School students conduct nonpartisan research and analysis of the border’s most pressing issues in an effort to encourage solutions to localized conflicts.

Their newest project is in Culiacan, Sinaloa. There, Meade and local emerging leaders are pioneering an oral history project in partnership with a non-governmental organization called Construyendo Espacio para la Paz (Building Spaces for Peace). Using long-form interviews, the project asks locals to document, then analyze their everyday experiences of violence over the course of the last decade in the area, which is the epicenter of the drug war in Mexico.

Six Kroc School graduate students and 80 local volunteers are working together on the project. “Sinaloa was at the core of the drug war. It’s a shared problem and the root of this violence we’ve had since 2007 or so,” Meade explains. “But it also very clearly relates to the border. Illicit commerce is what fuels it. It’s about the border, but it isn’t on the border. It’s 800 miles from us.”

Powerful stories have been shared: “We’ve heard from spouses and mothers of the forcibly disappeared, survivors of kidnappings and sexual assaults, widows of fallen police officers and many other witnesses to and victims of acts of violence.”

Meade says there are plans to make policy recommendations and produce a book, as well as to consider repeating this exercise in Tijuana. “It’s not being done by the government, or a prosecutor or the U.N. It’s a group of citizens interviewing fellow citizens,” he says.

Meade offers everyone a chance to join the conversation and learn about the region through his TBI Opportunities Certificate summer program. In it, working professionals, students and aspiring civic leaders can gain essential tools to better engage with border issues.

“We can do things in a course where our students can go to the heart of a conflict and not just be there, but be involved in a major peacebuilding effort.” — Ryan T. Blystone

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