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Golden Cage: Stories from the U.S. - Mexico border along California

After a judge blocked lifting Title 42, a Trump-era health order restricting travel over U.S. borders, ABC10 went to Tijuana to see its impact on California.

TIJUANA, Baja California — The California-Mexico border has two sides; but there's no two ways of looking at it. 

After a federal judge in Louisiana judge blocked the Biden administration from lifting Title 42, a Trump-era health order that restricted travel over U.S. borders in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, ABC10's Andie Judson and John Bartell decided to go to the border to give northern Californians and Americans who don't live near the boundary a first-hand look at the issues, policies, faces and stories.

For those who've crossed and are living in the U.S. undocumented, the wall that separates them from their family in Mexico is what they call a "golden cage," as they left everything for a better life - but cannot return to their family or life they left behind.

Credit: Maria Fernandez
Citizens from both the California and Mexico side of the border meet at the wall to visit.

History of California's Border Fence

The border separating California from Mexico is just over 140-miles long. It was established in 1848 through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. 

It wasn't until after World War II that the United States put up its first man-made border, a small barbed wire fence near Tijuana. 

A portion of that fence would later be cut open in 1971 after First Lady Pat Nixon created what's known as Friendship Park, a neutral area where both friends and family from countries could meet freely with one another for more than 30 years.

Credit: Nixon Library
First Lady Pat Nixon at the dedication of Friendship Park on the U.S. and Mexico border in 1971.

In 2006, construction started on the current border wall. Since then, new additions to the wall have made it increasingly difficult for friends and family to meet and see each other.

Border Church

Talking over the sound of crashing waves at Friendship Park, Pastor John Fanestil preaches into his cell phone.

The sermon is then transmitted to a set of loudspeakers on the Tijuana side of the U.S.-Mexico border wall for Border Church.

Border Church is a tradition that Pastor Fanestil started back in 2011 shortly after the completion of the border wall.

"It's a very emotional space," Fanestil said. "We often hear in Spanish the word, 'agriducle,' or 'bittersweet' because there's some bitterness from the separation and sweetness from reuniting."

For more than a decade, friends and family on both sides have met in Friendship Park where Border Church is held to worship together, as well as catch up and be able to talk face-to-face.

"Many people over the years have brought their dying loved ones as sort of a final farewell," said Fanestil. "Not every family reunion is like that. Many are on different spectrums."

It's important to note that the Mexico side of Border Church is much livelier that the desolate, highly guarded U.S. side. 

Credit: ABC10
Pastor John Fanestil holds Border Church on the highly-guarded California side, waving to others in the congregation on the Tijuana side. He speaks into his phone for the sermon which is projected onto speakers on the Mexico side, where another pastor and church-goers also participate in unison.

Since Pastor Fanestil started at Friendship Park, the U.S. government has progressively limited access, first by adding mesh fencing, then by building a secondary wall with a small viewing area. Then, finally, limiting the number of people permitted inside the viewing area.

Credit: Maria Fernandez
In 2007, the border wall still separated families - but allowed for them to see and touch one another through it. Photographer Maria Fernandez captured a family spending a summer afternoon together, catching up and sharing treasured moments despite being separated by a wall.
Credit: Maria Fernandez
The mesh fencing was an addition to the border wall. This 2016 photo shows how it further separates families from meeting and the emotional impact. The mesh fencing was just the first step before a second wall prevented people from both sides from being able to get close at all.

It's impacted people like the Carmona family.

"There is a fence... we cannot cross over," Daniel Carmona said. "Getting really close [but] no, we cannot do it."

It's been nearly a year since Daniel has seen his sister's daughter. They hoped U.S. Border Patrol would let them through the secondary fence and into the viewing area, but because of a Trump-era federal mandate called Title 42, a distant cell phone video chat was all they got.

"Unfortunately, Title 42 has come and it feels like Title 42 is the culmination of a long, slow process of closing Friendship Park," said Fanestil. 

Title 42

According to Center for Disease Control, a 1929 meningitis outbreak in China and the Philippines was one of the first times regulations prevented people coming from overseas to the U.S.

This regulation was officially enacted 15 years later in 1944 during World War II as Title 42, but hasn't been used until March 2020 when the Trump administration and CDC invoked it as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19.

At the beginning of the pandemic travel was restricted worldwide, now it appears Title 42 largely only remains in place at the Mexico-U.S. border, despite the two countries having a similar vaccine rate of the U.S. having a fully vaccinated population of 67-percent and Mexico having 61-percent.

The U.S. code allows custom agencies, like Border Patrol, to swiftly turn people away rather than allowing them to seek asylum within the country, as permitted prior, leaving those desperate to come to the U.S. in limbo. Many get stuck waiting in Mexico - like Jose Giovanni Torres Morataya.

Jose Giovanni spends his days waiting at a Tijuana shelter specifically for the LGBTQIA+ community.

"I am a guy, but today I feel like a transgender woman that has gone through a really difficult process," said Jose Giovanni in Spanish, which has been translated.

In his home country, Guatemala, he was raped and beaten.

"These scars that I have here have a very deep story," Jose Giovanni said as he pointed to white scars on his elbow. "[It was from a] beating from my father."

Rejected by his society as well as his own family, Jose Giovanni decided to leave home and embarked on a 22-day walk from Guatemala to the border.

"During that journey, we go through hunger, thirst, humiliations, beatings," Jose Giovanni said.

Jose Giovanni witnessed pain, death and made two attempts to cross illegally, and was caught both times by Border Patrol. Because of Title 42, Jose Giovanni was sent back immediately.

"They would simply grab our stuff, throw them on the ice chest and would send us back," said Jose Giovanni. "Without asking for any justification."

Jose Giovanni is just one of the stories ABC10 heard from those who escaped violence and death threats, running for their lives and landing at Tijuana shelters.

"They beat me with a bat, I was left unconscious," one refugee told ABC10 from Honduras. She wasn't sure who beat her - but knew it was because she had recently come out as bisexual.

"They came to look for us at the house and they were going to kill us," another lesbian couple said, tears filling their eyes as they recounted the traumatic experience.

War, violence, discrimination, drugs and cartels are reasons people fled, and now are waiting for months and years hoping to get asylum in the U.S.

But for those from Ukraine, it was just a two-week wait.

Ukraine Refugees

"That was quite unusual," UC Davis Professor and Immigration Attorney Raquel Aldana said of the shorter wait. "In fact, I've never heard of it being done before."

Shortly said after Russia invaded Ukraine, an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Ukrainians arrived on the doorstep of the United States.

"We [went to] Romania. We got to Budapest. From Budapest, we got on a plane to Madrid,"  Ukrainian refugee Aliona Darmorost said as she sat with her cousin near their tent at a refugee camp in Tijuana. "From Madrid to Mexico City. From Mexico City, right here to Tijuana."

Many choose Mexico because it doesn't require a visa, then make their way to the border, including Darmorost and her cousin, who plan on heading to Sacramento once they cross into the U.S.

"Every person in Ukraine is dreaming to get to America," said Darmorost.

And those along the border did.

"Ukrainians and actually Russians were being exempted from Title 42. They appeared to also be exempted even from MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols)," Aldana said. "They weren't being returned to Mexico... but it wasn't clear, frankly, what was happening to them."

In April, the Biden administration extended the date of Temporary Protected Status that was already granted to Ukrainians -- something that surprised Aldana, who has been following the border crisis closely and recently traveled with UC Davis law students to Tijuana to provide legal aid.

Historically, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) has only been for those already on American soil -- it allows them to stay, live and work for a limited period of time, typically 18 months.

"And that allowed the administration to grant TPS status to these 10,000 who were at the border," Aldana said.

That opened the door for Ukrainians into the U.S.

"I support granting protections to Ukrainians and I want to express my solidarity with Ukrainians," Aldana said.

And while she believes, even more, can be done for Ukrainians feeling the impact of war -- she also said she is concerned about inequity.

"It seems really unfair, no matter who you are, to say Ukrainians are more deserving than Syrians or Ukrainians are more deserving than Afghanistans or Venezuelans," Aldana said. 

RELATED: Thousands of endangered Afghans trapped as U.S. Immigration Services remains stagnant

Other Refugees

If you want to see disparities in Title 42 and the U.S. refugee program, talk to Jimmy Marcelin about the Haitians.

"Border Patrol was chasing them with the horses in the river," recalled Marcelin. "They wanted to drown them."

Marcelin is a refugee coordinator with Safe Harbor Network, one of the largest refugee shelters in San Diego. He said the footage of Border Patrol's treatment of Haitians in Texas that made headlines in 2021 is proof that not all cultures receive equal treatment.

RELATED: Yes, photos of US Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing migrants are real

Marcelin believes that even if Title 42 were lifted, it wouldn't end this kind of discrimination.

While Ukrainians were welcomed to the border in a matter of weeks, Marcelin said Haitian refugees like Francina Fracois had much longer waits.

"Thieves stole everything. Sometimes they hit us, sometimes they'd rape women. That's life until we get here," Facois said. "I was in Mexico for eight months waiting for my processing."

A humanitarian group helped Facois get asylum because her son desperately needed surgery for an injury. Marcelin said without pro-bono legal help and a lot of luck, she would still be in Mexico.

"If we are going to open our arms to different cultures, we have to open our arms to everybody," said Marcelin.

A look at law in Tijuana

As the border's neighbor, Tijuana--by default--has opened its arms to all.

"I was born here in Tijuana so I've been watching the process... the transformation of this city," said Tomás Humberto Ochoa Ritcire, an attorney with U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

He and his colleagues have seen their city become a home for an array of nationalities -- spanning from Europe, to Central America, to Africa, to Asia.

"It's like a Mexican New York," Ritcire said.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is a worldwide advocacy organization that helps immigrants. Their Mexico-based team in Tijuana keeps busy assisting those desperate to come to the U.S.

"[We] provide assessments, orientation and representation," said Juan Manuel De La Rosa López, Head of Office USCRI-Mexico.

But because of Title 42, they're running into a literal and figurative wall.

Credit: ABC10
The border wall that divides California and Mexico extends 140-miles through vast desert to submerging into the sea.

"There's a lot of people that have a really strong asylum case," Ritcire said. "But [because of] Title 42, we cannot help them."

But it's not just asylum cases that are blocked by the U.S. code. In short, it's any form of legal refuge including Humanitarian Parole - another type of refuge that is specifically for those experiencing a humanitarian crisis and need the United States' protection to survive.

"Due to Title 42, it's near impossible for us to provide them with the help they need," said Axel Francis Hernandez, another attorney with USCRI.

"There's no pathways for them to do so," López said.

It's a complicated process full of confusion and misinformation for even these experts trying to navigate the system.

"The information that we have we don't have it directly from the government," said Angeles Rodriguez Flores, UCSRI's Coordinator of International Relations. 

"We have it from organizations or agencies that are involved in these kinds of processes -- but at the same time, it's not information that's precise or official. So, basically the information we can give [refugees] is simply to wait," Rodriguez Flores said.

Forcing those seeking refuge to forge their own path.

"As a response of that, they decide to cross the border illegally. And in most cases, it doesn't end well," said Ritcire.

Ritcre's organization has heard of several kidnappings of people who gave their information and money to smugglers, known as coyotes, in return for a promise to get them across the border.

"I mean... putting a fence like this one or strong walls, it doesn't prohibit people from continuing to cross," said López. 

A call for a bigger wall

California Republican Assemblymember Kevin Kiley told ABC10 more needs to be done to secure the border.

"We definitely need to secure the border in that way," said Kiley when asked about building a bigger wall. "Among many others."

Kiley, who represents sections of El Dorado, Placer and Sacramento County, said the border is creating long lasting impacts to his constituents.

"The drugs come everywhere. We've seen tragedies that have happened in this area. I've had constituents who've lost their lives... there was a young man who lost his life to fentanyl in high school in my district just a couple years ago," Kiley said.  "So these problems are by no means contained by a radius of the border. They affect our entire state. They affect our entire country."

To him, Title 42 isn't just about COVID.

"It would affect a host of problems in terms of homelessness, in terms of crime, in terms of housing costs," Kiley said.

He wants Title 42 to remain in place to further secure California's border.

"Title 42 has been the only thing that has been preventing the border situation from becoming absolutely untenable," Kiley said.

Life beside the border

When dogs bark in Jacumba Hot Springs, it's usually for a reason.

"There's still quite a bit of activity. I will see people running right past my yard. My dogs are my guard dogs, they let me know," said Michelle Graves.

From her front porch, retired school teacher Graves has an up-close view of the border fence and all its activities.

"There was this young girl in elementary school. It disturbed me because she looked 7 or 8 years old and they lowered her down over the fence and told her to, 'Run! Run! Run!" Graves recalled.

It's just one of the interactions she's had with those trying to cross. She and her husband once found a man with a broken leg and the bone protruding sitting in her front yard, asking them for help. 

Jacumba Hot Springs is a tiny desert retirement community 45 miles from any major city. Border Patrol is the nearest law enforcement, and though Graves has called them a number of times, she said she doesn't feel unsafe.  

"Building the fence higher did not keep them from coming over," said Graves. "I feel bad because they are just looking for a better life."

They call themselves the Border Angels

"We actually refer to this as the golden cage," Dulce Garcia told ABC10. "This wall is what keeps us inside."

If you follow the path of empty water bottles and eaten canned food, you may have stumbled upon blessings from the humanitarian group, Border Angels.

Credit: ABC10
Crates of water and canned food are found in shady tunnels along the path migrants travel after crossing the border illegally. These crates are left by the humanitarian group, Border Angels, and for many it is the difference between life and death.

"Folks that are reaching into this crate, it's because they are desperate to survive at this point," said Dulce Garcia.

Border Angles Executive Director Dulce Garcia and her team of volunteers place food and water along known migrant paths throughout the Jacumba Mountains. It's a part of San Diego County known for high temperatures and tough terrain.

Credit: ABC10
These mountains near Jacumba Hot Springs are what many migrants have to travel through once managing to cross the border. With scorching desert heat, freezing winter conditions they provide another dangerous hurtle in a long trek for a better life.

"We've talked to families that the loved ones reached a gallon of water and didn't survive because we didn't reach them in time," Garcia said. 

The Border Angels does not assist migrant non-citizens on their journey, they simply leave supplies and contact information for help.

"We can't really engage or interact with them," Garcia said. "The last thing we want to do is to give any appearance to Border Patrol that we are in any way helping migrants cross."

In 2021, U.S. Border Patrol reported more than 550 migrant deaths along all the U.S. southern border. That's not counting the unknown number of people who perished beyond the border in the desert mountains. 

"When people are very desperate they are going to try and cross in any way. One of the things we are seeing in the Biden administration is family separation in a different form," said Garcia. 

"Families choose to send their accompanied minors across the border so their teenage boys can survive while they remain in Tijuana. It's a different type of family separation."

Separated in Stockton

"She is my mother, and my mother helps other people," José Garcia told ABC10.

We found an example of family separation in Stockton where Garcia is 500 miles from the border.

"I crossed the border on April 6, 2021 and spent seven days in detention," said José.

Credit: ABC10
Jose Garcia crossed the border to California and made his way to Stockton. He was just 17. He lights a candle to honor his mother, who passed away after he crossed and left her behind in Mexico.

José was just 17 when he left Mexico. His mother, who has since passed away, used to care for traveling migrants in his hometown and encouraged José to cross the border too, in search of a better life.

"If they were Mexican or not, she helped," José said.

José was lucky enough to get help crossing the border and found housing through a migrant assistance program.

He has since joined a labor advocacy group called Farm Workers Organization of California. The organization is gathering data on the number of migrants coming to the San Joaquin Valley area and northern California.

"75-percent of people who cross the border come to northern California to work in the fields," said José.

Patrolling the Border

It sprawls below the scorching desert heat and eventually submerges into the sea, and the United States Border Patrol is entrusted with guarding every inch of the 140-mile wall that divides Mexico and California.

"They're looking for any cross-border traffic that may have been detected earlier on," said Division Chief Brent Schwerdtfeger as he drives his Border Patrol vehicle, eyes scanning the road ahead. "Or anything they might see visually -- footprints coming across the road."

Division Chief Schwerdtfeger has worked along our nation's borders for 24 years.

Credit: ABC10
A Border Patrol agent protecting California's border makes his way through the exclusive first fence. The land inside is federal, with another fence before the Mexico side.

"I've been from Arizona all the way to Texas and also in California as well," Schwerdtfeger said.

During that time he's seen a lot of change -- from the wall itself, to the technology that helps guard it, to who arrives at it.

"Different nations from all over are crossing here," Schwerdtfeger said. "(And there's been) a lot more infrastructure (than) from when I started."

But the one thing that hasn't changed is the continued attempts to cross it. In fact, it's gotten busier for his team.

Border Patrol data shows their number of encounters with people they've had crossing has drastically risen from 2020 to 2021, to 2022 so far. 

In 2020, Border Patrol says it came across over 353,000 adults traveling alone. In 2021, that number rose to over 1.1 million. In just the first half of 2022, it's already over 917,000.

Credit: U.S. Border Patrol

With the dangerous summer heat and freezing winter conditions, historically, Border Patrol used to see people cross more during certain seasons of the year, at specific places and times.

"Historically, traveling at night depending on the weather as well," Schwerdtfeger said. "But we do see people who cross at all times. At this point in time... this is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

Making for a physically and emotionally challenging job -- bonding the agents who serve.

"We just kind of bleed green," said Schwerdtfeger.

They share an understanding that's different from many far from the border's frontlines.

"There is a misconception that the border is completely open and that we don't have enough manpower out there, we don't have enough technology, we don't have enough infrastructure," said Schwerdtfeger. "That's absolutely false. I think we're doing a great job with what we have."

Witnessing the wall's transformation

The border looks different depending on what side you're looking at.

"They were able to touch, to get close, to share moments," said María Fernandez. "To share laughs... to share everything."

If you want to see the perspective of people separated by the border, just look at the photographs taken by Fernandez.

"My documentation is to be there and to see the struggle of the people. It doesn't matter if it is raining or flooding," said Fernandez. "The people come to see their families."

What started out as a photography class assignment is now a passion project.

As the first fence post went in at the border in Tijuana, Fernandez was there to document the separation of families.

"You see when they arrive over there and they start yelling, 'Mama! Mama!'" Fernandez said. "It just breaks your heart."

For more than two decades, Fernandez has documented the additions to the border wall: the mesh fencing, the increased patrols, the cameras and construction of a secondary wall which has kept families further apart since gates were closed during the pandemic and Title 42 restrictions.

"For me, it is a weakness of this country to protect themselves with this wall," Fernandez said.

She hopes a day comes when she can document the border wall being torn down. 

But with so many different perspectives about the border, it will require all Americans to take a hard look at the issues on both sides.

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