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When San Diego-Tijuana Border Closes, Interconnected Life Is Disrupted


President Trump's threat to permanently close the border between San Diego in Tijuana, Mexico, has worried a lot of people, including those who live on one side and commute to work or to school on the other. Some are blaming President Trump, others are blaming the thousands of migrants the president is trying to keep out.

Jean Guerrero covers immigration for our San Diego member station, KPBS. She's the daughter of a Mexican-born father. She grew up in San Diego, and she frequently went back and forth across the border. She spoke with our co-host Rachel Martin about just how interconnected life in the two countries really is.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: How do you describe life there for someone who's never been close to the southern border?

JEAN GUERRERO, BYLINE: I mean, tens of thousands of people cross the border every single day to go shopping, to go to work, to go to school. People go down to Tijuana to have tacos, to have a cheap beer, to go down to the beach to go surfing. People have brothers and sisters on both sides of the border. Some go to school in San Diego. Others live in Tijuana. It's just this constant movement back and forth across countries that's really interesting and dynamic.

MARTIN: So when President Trump talks about shutting down the U.S.-Mexican border, what would that even look like? I mean, it did happen on a temporary basis for a few hours on Sunday. Can you just give us a picture of the impact that shutting the border down has?

GUERRERO: When it was closed on Sunday for five hours, people had no idea what to do. People just waited for hours so that they could try to get back across and eventually did. And San Diego and Tijuana are so closely interlinked that, when you close the border, it's like you're dividing a body in half. You're cutting off the flow of blood. It's just impossible for people to live their normal existences.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that you've been able to talk with some people in Tijuana about the impact of that shutdown and the broader immigration crisis right now. What have they been telling you?

GUERRERO: There's a lot of people on both sides who are very worried about future closures. So what we're seeing is actually an increased animosity towards this migrant caravan because people are afraid that the ports of entry are going to be closed because of the caravan again and possibly on a longer-term basis and that this will affect their own abilities to live their lives. So upper-class Mexicans who live in Tijuana are saying they really want the caravan to leave. They've actually verbally and physically attacked the caravan during mass protests, approaching them when they were trying to sleep on the beach.

MARTIN: So the anger isn't directed at the Trump administration. The anger is directed at the Central American migrants.

GUERRERO: Exactly. I mean, you see both people who are angry at the Trump administration. You see people who are angry at the caravan. It's wearing at many people's psyches.

MARTIN: Yeah. Have any of those folks - are they starting to make contingency plans? Are people starting to map out what that would look like if the border were shut down even, again, just temporarily?

GUERRERO: I mean, it depends on what side of the border people live. But, for example, I spoke to an older woman, a woman who retired - an American woman who retired in Tijuana. And she's decided that she's just not going to cross into the U.S. as often because she has a lot of medicine that she has to take, and most of that is in Tijuana.

So when the border was temporarily closed on Sunday, she didn't have access to her medicine for like five hours. So there's people basically trying to think, OK, might there be a protest today? Might there be tensions associated with the caravan? If so, I'm going to stay on the side of the border that is most safe for me to be on.

MARTIN: As someone who spent so much time going back and forth the border, how are you watching all of this unfold?

GUERRERO: I've never seen anything like this before. Tijuana has never seen so many homeless migrants on the streets. There's more than 5,000 people potentially. We're seeing thousands more coming. Tijuana does not have the resources to deal with it. And it's just a real unprecedented situation.

MARTIN: How is the Mexican government dealing with this?

GUERRERO: The Tijuana city government has transformed a sports complex into a migrant shelter for thousands of the people from the caravan. And Tijuana is really just running out of spaces for the migrants. There's a handful of shelters that were at capacity before the caravan even arrived because Mexico is seeing its own problems of violence. So those were full by the time that the caravan started to arrive.

So you see people sleeping on the streets, on the sidewalks. And it's really unclear what the Mexican government is going to do. I mean, there's talks with the Trump administration right now to allow asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed in the United States, but these people don't feel safe in Mexico.

MARTIN: When you've spoken with people in this caravan, what have they told you about the messaging that they've gotten? I mean, the Trump administration will admit they've bent over backwards to put out a message there that you're not welcome. So were these people getting that message? What did they think was going to happen when they got to the border?

GUERRERO: So the conversations I've been having have made it clear to me that most people didn't know what to expect. People are expressing shock and surprise by how difficult it is to get into the United States. And that's why we're seeing dozens of people already signing up to go back home. There's - the International Organization for Migration has set up a booth outside of the main shelter, and they're helping people find their way back to Central America.

And - but then you have many families who are willing to wait because they're so desperate and they're terrified about the prospect of going back home, where they've received death threats, where they've had uncles and brothers and sisters killed. It's just a very diverse group of people, but one common thread is that people - most people did not think it was going to be so hard to get into the United States.

MARTIN: Jean Guerrero is a reporter with our member station KPBS in San Diego. She's also the author of a book titled "Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir." Thanks so much for talking with us.

GUERRERO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jean Guerrero