One border line and two very different views of the immigration crisis played out in stark terms Saturday in San Diego.
One group, led by a congregation of faith leaders, marched and prayed under the theme of “Freedom to Migrate: No Forced Migration,” while a couple hours earlier a small group held an “America First” rally calling for stronger immigration controls, with many of them wearing red, white and blue.
Later in the day the disparate groups eventually collided, facing off near the U.S.-Mexico fence.
The morning started near the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where 30 or so supporters of President Donald Trump gathered with signs and American flags to call for heightened border security.
“Build that wall, nice and tall,” chanted the participants, a few with bullhorns, as cars and pedestrians steadily moved past on Camino de la Plaza. Some passersby responded with honks of support, while others shouted their opposition and offered an occasional obscene gesture.
Lesa Antone drove about six hours from her home in Phoenix to participate.
“I love legal immigrants,” Antone said, but not the flood of unauthorized immigrants coming by caravan hoping to get into the U.S. “This is illegal aliens,” she said, adding, “Illegal aliens are going to change the demographics of our nation.”
Vaughn Becht, an Orange County resident, wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat and held a “Secure the Border” sign. He said he’s been involved with a group called We The People Rising for up to 10 years, and its members demonstrate almost weekly throughout Southern California.
“Our main thing is illegal aliens,” he said. “We’re quite vocal, and we move a lot … we want a strong border, a strong ICE, and we support Donald Trump 100 percent.”
As that rally started to break up midday, another gathering of a different flavor began not too far away. A group of about 130 commemorated the Biblical search by Mary and Joseph for an inn by walking about 45 minutes from Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach to Friendship Park on the beach where the border wall meets the ocean. While the event is a Christmas tradition, it has taken on new meaning in light of the immigration and asylum debate.
“All people should be free to migrate for the safety, security and well-being of their families,” said Jamie Gates, director of Point Loma Nazarene University’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation.
The opposing groups had brief encounters after the immigration control activists trekked to the beach and briefly decamped as the gathering of faith leaders stood on a nearby bluff to take part in what they called the “La Posada Sín Fronteras,” or “Inn Without Borders.”
As the event broke up and congregants walked back to Border Field State Park, about six supporters of the Trump administration’s border policies called out to them.
“You are raising your children to hate your country,” one shouted.
“Jesus calls us to love everybody,” someone from the opposing side responded.
The situation never escalated, as a small group of Border Patrol agents watched nearby.
“To leave your home and to risk the difficulties that are implicit with that signals a kind of desperation and need that many of us can’t even connect with,” Melissa Tucker, pastor of First Church of the Nazarene in Mission Valley, said about the challenges facing migrants. “So my hope would be there would an openness to circumstances that have forced people to do something so risky.”
The Posada participants recited the names of people who have died in the past year along the U.S. border with Mexico, and the event wrapped up with a call-and-response song about the Bethlehem story with a group on the other side of the border fence that appeared to be roughly the same size.
In previous years, the U.S. and Mexican groups were able to meet close enough to see each other’s faces, but this year, border authorities kept the two sides about 100 feet apart. The spot has been the frequent site of illegal crossings and demonstrations since the Central American migrant caravan arrived in Tijuana a few weeks earlier. Many are seeking asylum in the U.S.
“They’ve decided that security issues are tense enough they’re not going to allow us to go all the way to fence,” Gates said.
The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra of the Southwestern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church criticized what she described as an asylum process that is moving too slowly.
“We’re paying for troops to deal with vulnerable women and children who have walked for thousands of miles instead of interviewing them and determining whether or not they are eligible for asylum,” she said.
Bishop John P. Dolan of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego attended the Posada for the first time.
“These aren’t just throw-away people, they’re human beings with hearts and souls and bodies,” Dolan said.
Ernie Griffes and his wife, Carol Hamilton, retirees in their 80s, attended the “America First” rally to promote respect for the law. They live in Imperial Beach.
“We can see Tijuana from our front yard,” Hamilton said. “I have compassion for immigrants.” But she wants everyone to enter the country legally, as her Italian father did in 1916.
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