On the San Diego / Tijuana border: Bearing witness to legislated suffering

by Rev. Benjamin Perry

In December, I traveled to the Tijuana/San Diego border with Union Theological Seminary students. We witnessed the deepest cruelty in how humans can treat their neighbors, but also how God moves amidst unimaginable tragedy.

The situation on the ground in Tijuana is incredibly dire. When we arrived, an immigration attorney with Al Otro Lado told us, “Welcome to the apocalypse.” They did not lie. If apocalypse is an unveiling or uncovering, this lays bare the inhumanity of our immigration policy.

2018 1210 LoveKnowsNoBorders March-6


Between 5,000 and 6,000 people were waiting to file their asylum claims.

Our first day there, on December 8, the U.S. government decided to hear just thirty claims. They heard forty the next day. At this rate, the line never ends, as more people arrive at the border each day. Meanwhile, thousands of refugees huddle together in an abandoned nightclub. It’s hard to describe just how bad things are. The air inside the building used to house family units is fetid. Each breath feels thick. We saw dozens of people in clear respiratory distress.

There are children everywhere. Kids who have walked thousands of miles now face an interminable wait in appalling conditions.

Their strength of will trumps anything I’ve seen, but you can see just how weary they are, how deeply they yearn for a home. Yet our government expresses only bigoted disdain for their plight:  To walk around the camp and speak with people — to hear the dangers they’re fleeing and the hope they carry — is to be filled with blinding rage.

But, despite all of this, love breaks through in a million, myriad ways. Folks laughing, playing soccer; a young boy sharing his only bowl of food with his infant brother, a girl making an immigration lawyer a play-doh heart as she helped her mom understand her asylum claim.

The dedicated team of Al Otro Lado lawyers, and volunteer attorneys coming from around the country, run a makeshift pro-bono clinic out of the third and fourth floors of a bare concrete warehouse — while hundreds are fed on the floors below. Their clinic has also become known as the spot where people can go to be married.

As clergy, we performed five ceremonies in two days. It was humbling, watching people pledge their lives to one another even as they endure our country’s horrific attempts to extinguish that life. Against hate, love breaks through.

On our last day, December 10, we gathered with more than 400 faith leaders in San Diego, and hundreds of other activists, and marched to a militarized border that shouldn’t exist. Attempting to bless migrants through the fence, 32 clergy were arrested by border patrol. Evidently, freedom of religion covers people who break the law to discriminate against LGBTQ+ folks but not faith leaders who want to walk across a beach to pray with people through the fence.

Our government sent guns to greet us.

But, even as the government’s reception embodied national inhumanity, I watched as people sang together, prayed together, stood together, and were arrested side by side. And no policy can extinguish this love, God cannot be contained by fences, guards or concertina wire.

It’s time for people of faith and conscience to embody this Love, to lay it at the feet of those who legislate hatred. Drive your love between the spokes of that unjust wheel, that our border may be rewritten as “Welcome” to thousands who desperately need it.


Rev. Benjamin Perry is the Deputy Director of Communications and Marketing at Union Theological Seminary and works with the New York Poor People’s Campaign. His writing on the intersection of faith and politics has appeared in outlets such as Slate, Bustle, Unbound, Huffington Post and Sojourners. You can follow him on Twitter at @FaithfullyBP.


One response to “On the San Diego / Tijuana border: Bearing witness to legislated suffering

  1. Pingback: Exodus and Central America | Committee on U.S./Latin American Relations·

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