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Two Border Tales: San Ysidro Bustles, Eagle Pass Overwhelmed

The “Take Our Border Back” convoy that drove to San Ysidro on the outskirts of San Diego last month served as a reminder of the raging debates surrounding immigration policy. Targeting San Ysidro, the city with the busiest border crossing in the Western hemisphere, the anti-immigration convoy protested President Joe Biden’s border management.

The convoy began in Virginia and traveled to US-Mexico borders in Texas, Arizona, and California. Although originally intended to include 700,000 trucks, observers counted less than 200. Leaders of the convoy cited drug cartels, human trafficking, and terrorism as their main concerns. 

But for Mexico native Ilse Robles, who was not even aware that protests occurred, it was just another day of commuting to Starbucks in this city of 30,000 people. “I always go back and forth,” said Robles, 28, who was born in Tijuana but now lives in San Ysidro and crosses back into Mexico four times a week. “They always ask me, where do you go? Why do you cross so often? And I'm like, because I'm a resident, I'm not a citizen yet,” Robles said. “I tell them I take care of my mom. And then they understand.” 

Robles’ easygoing attitude doesn’t reflect the growing frustrations a few states over in Eagle Pass, Texas. That border city, another one of the convoy’s targets, has been pressured by historic rates of migration. During one notable week in December, some 12,000 migrants crossed from Mexico. Backlash from Texans prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to implement his own state-run initiatives to counteract what he calls the ‘invasion’ of migrants.

In order to increase border security, Abbott repeatedly defied federal regulations. On top of his migrant bussing efforts, Abbott signed a law allowing state troops to make arrests. The result has been a humanitarian disaster with incidents including drowning, razor wire injuries, and migrants being pushed back into the water. Meanwhile, the town’s residents don’t seem very concerned: “I think Greg Abbott is doing the right thing,” Eagle Pass resident Elias Mata told The New York Times in early February. “We appreciate the convoy coming here,” Mata added.

“US border agents in Eagle Pass, Texas, are outnumbered by migrants 200 to 1,” the New York Post reported last December. “The diversion of manpower has extended beyond Texas, with CBP personnel flying in from areas around the US to help.”

Daily life in San Ysidro presents a different side of the story surrounding the border crisis. The predominantly Spanish-speaking district is proof of a functioning immigration system. Amidst the significant number of crossings in San Ysidro, residents like Ilse Robles have been able to build a life in the United States.

Robles has lived in San Ysidro for more than 10 years. She graduated from Southwestern College with a degree in literature. During the pandemic, she bounced from job to job, eventually landing at Starbucks. She started her own jewelry business on the side.

Aside from occasional comments about her pink hair, Robles reports little difficulty crossing the border. “I Uber a lot. So I'll take an Uber from here to there, and then I walk across the border. So that'll take me 12 minutes to walk back,” Robles told me outside the Starbucks before starting her shift.

Kevin Chapa, 20, who lives in Tijuana, shared similar sentiments: “There’s really no issue for me,” he said on a break from his job at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop in San Ysidro. “As long as you have the necessary paperwork, you’re fine.”

Chapa lives with his family 20 minutes into Tijuana. He crosses the border every weekend for work, a routine he has followed for the past two years. And it’s not just Robles and Chapa. “The jobs I've had here, more than half of my coworkers are residing in Mexico,” Chapa told me. 

The contrasting situations in San Ysidro and Eagle Pass reflect divergent policies between states. As a “Sanctuary State,” California prioritizes community safety per the California Values Act (SB 54), signed into law in October 2017. This legislation restricts state and local resources from being utilized to assist federal immigration enforcement efforts. Conversely, Texas’ SB 4 prohibits these kinds of sanctuary policies and mandates that state and local authorities enforce federal immigration law. While a federal judge ruled SB4 unconstitutional on the grounds that border security enforcement is solely in the federal government's jurisdiction, Abbott appealed the ruling to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

San Ysidro Walmart employee Nick Dillinger’s attitude is emblematic of those asking for increased border security. “I don’t speak Spanish, brother,” Dillinger said when I first asked to interview him in Spanish. Dillenger claimed he is primarily concerned with safety and resource allocation. He lit a Marlboro cigarette and shook his head. “You got people living on the street, you got veterans living on the street, they need help, and you haven't helped them. That's the problem right there,” Dillinger said.

The immigration debate on the ground will only intensify as the 2024 election looms. In February, Republicans in the House voted to impeach DHS Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas, over what critics called standard policy differences and not constitutional issues.  


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