What We Are Losing With Less Border Trips

What We Are Losing With Less Border Trips

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A lot has been said about the problems created by long border waits, how it affects the environment, San Ysidro businesses, how it left Revolution Street almost empty. Even more has been said about insecurity and how it has affected medical tourism and the maquiladora industry.

But beyond dollar amounts for certain industries, what are we losing when travel between Tijuana and San Diego is limited? What is our region losing when we limit cultural exchanges, volunteer programs or college student visits across the border?

The recent travel warning by the U.S. Department of State named a few cities in Mexico —including Tijuana— and that seems to be the latest stab against already dwindling cultural exchange and volunteer programs across the border.

Weeks after the warning was issued, the University of California system issued an order so that all students currently in exchange programs in Mexican cities named in the warning were immediately sent back to the United States. Students already approved to attend summer programs had to cancel participation in their courses and seminars.

The subject was discussed in the recent border mayors' meeting in Rosarito, where 15 mayors from California and Baja California talked about their shared issues with border czar Alan Bersin.

In the discussion about universities, participants agreed on the need to formalize exchange programs and strengthen existing programs such as the Fulbright Scholarships and the MEXUS program for undergrads.

Three people where chosen to lead the collaboration between universities; Dr. James Gerber of  San Diego State University (SDSU), Héctor Vindiola, from the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, Sebastían Serra Martínez, dean of Universidad Iberoamericana Tijuana, and Dr. Oscar Ávila Corrujedo of Universidad Rosaritense.

For Serra, the actions taken to prohibit academic exchanges in the region have been a huge loss --not only for Mexican universities that are limited in their mission of giving their students a global view of the world, but for foreign students who are missing a unique international experience, at an age when people are open and looking to challenge their own perceptions and prejudices about others.

“We believe the actions taken by the chancellors' office for state universities are exaggerated; their students officially can’t come to Tijuana, yet many of them grew up in Tijuana or still live here…It is a great paradox,” Serra said.

To counter the affects of the ban and other factors limiting student travel to the region, universities have united with tourism and education authorities to provide more accurate information about regional security and the measures taken to ensure safety for the students.

Serra sadly admits that for this year, the possibilities of change are very limited. But he trusts that the work with U.S. academics and Mexican universities will be fruitful in the long run.

“What I think is crucial is that public security keeps improving. If we have a set back it will keep staining relationships,” he said.

Less hands, less awarness

Cristina Ayala is the special projects coordinator at Los Niños, a local non-profit dedicated to community development and building infrastructure in local Tijuana schools.

Its interactive model includes an investment made by the community, along with volunteer work and resources provided by groups of American college students. Ayala explains they had an annual average of 30 groups, about 600 students each year, whose work allowed them to build classrooms, playgrounds and sidewalks in many Tijuana communities.

According to Ayala, this model created a virtuous cycle that created jobs, investment, infrastructure and closer connections between people.

“The biggest benefit was by and large the exchange between Mexicans and Americans; Americans were amazed at the degree of will power and determination of the Mexicans, while (Mexicans) learned a lot about the Americans' sense of social justice” she added.

But now, U.S. volunteer groups have become non-existent and Los Niños has risen to the challenge by turning to other volunteer groups in order to keep their community programs running.

“We see everything as an opportunity for growth, so we are approaching local universities and factories to establish volunteer groups,” she sighs, “but we hope this blows over and we can reactivate the rich cultural relationship we have worked so hard to develop with our neighbors.”