Postcards from the southern border

In October, Astrid Munn traveled to Tijuana to provide free legal consultations to migrants planning to claim asylum in the United States.


As an immigration attorney, I advocate for immigrants seeking protection and benefits under U.S. immigration laws. Pursuant to that advocacy, I traveled to Tijuana last month to provide free legal consultations to migrants planning to claim asylum in the United States. Because Civic Nebraska is a nonpartisan forum and because immigration can be such a polarizing subject, I refrain from writing about specific laws and policies – past and present – and how they factor into the migrant situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, I give you this string of postcards, drafted after the fact, capturing one Nebraskan’s sensations while volunteering in Tijuana. 

Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019

Upon landing in San Diego, the first thing you notice is the air. You ask your Uber driver about the smog and he corrects you. It’s just haze, he says.

It’s not until you reach the pedestrian crossing – with its serpentine lines pulling you farther and farther from the Peet’s Coffee and closer and closer toward the farmacias – that you see smoke. Great plumes of black smoke rising from the hillsides surrounding Tijuana. Is that supposed to be there? Who started that? You’re afraid to ask.

You blow your nose. What comes out is gray with dark specks.

Yeah, that’s definitely not just haze.

Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019

You need groceries, so you take an Uber to Costco. With the dollar-to-peso conversion, the 20-minute ride costs $5.

The Uber weaves through canyons and hugs the mountainsides. The whole time, a wall follows you to the north. It’s one orange beam after another, never touching but still together. The beams soar to the tips of mountain tops only to plunge, deep down, to the bottom of steep ravines. When your Uber rounds the edge of a ravine, you see the beams marching out the other side, still in a perfect line, carrying the same cadence as before.

You feel a lump in your throat. It’s the lump you felt when you stood by the St. Louis Arch and looked up. It’s the lump of “whoa – people made this.”

You picture laborers toting beams down deep ravines and onto rocky summits. Back in real life, their construction equipment sits nearby. It’s that fresh. 

Your Uber driver drops you off at Costco, and the app recommends a tip. You choose the highest suggested tip. It’s 20 pesos, or $1.  

Monday, Oct. 21, 2019

You’re on your lunch break in downtown Tijuana. Directly under the Tijuana arch – which looks just like the St. Louis arch but with a giant TV dangling from it – you and an older man cross the street at the same time.

The crosswalk dumps you both into a busy plaza of souvenir kiosks. You wander from stand to stand, wondering whether all the little marionettes and glass tchotchkes were actually made in Tijuana.

You look over your shoulder and see the older man again. You think nothing of it, because of broad daylight and cops everywhere.

“And what are you selling?” he murmurs.

“Nothing,” you say, puzzled, until it sinks in. And then you’re like, “NOTHING! OH MY GOD. NOTHING.” Except you say it in Spanish.

The older man apologizes profusely and scurries away. Also in Spanish.

How could he mistake you for a sex worker, you ask. With your cardigan, high-waters, and boat shoes, you had accidentally dressed like Steve Urkel that day.

Maybe it’s your unusually good posture, someone suggests.

It’s not until you return to the feminist anarchist enclave hosting your work that their barista informs you that you’re essentially in a red light district.

Welcome to Tijuana, an expat tells you.

Tuesday-Thursday, Oct. 22-24, 2019

A lot happens. You eat a lot of tacos. Ride in a lot of Renault Ubers. Feel a lot of discomfort.

The stories you hear cause discomfort. The crime scene photos and fresh scars you’re shown cause discomfort.

Maybe you saw some gory stuff at your old job in personal injury law, but this is different.

The gore from before came from negligence; it didn’t come from governments or mobs or narcotraficantes bent on punishment and vengeance. Nobody was getting fired or beaten or jailed or killed for having a child out of wedlock, being Evangelical, or failing to have a political opinion.

To escape the discomfort, albeit momentarily, you check Facebook. For a moment, it takes you back to Nebraska. You scroll through single moms living their best life, inspirational memes, and posts expressing way more enthusiasm about Disney+ than about political dissent.

Although you’re not a single mother, devout, or a fan of the Disney canon, you also can’t fathom anyone wanting to persecute any of that.

Friday, Oct. 25, 2019

Your work is over. You’re back in that plaza of souvenir kiosks, where a waiter with perfect English persuaded you to stop into his pavilion for a margarita. You oblige and sip on some chartreuse sludge while The Doors plays nonstop and a long table of Chinese tourists poke at the too-soft burritos set before them.

It’s somewhere between that pomelo-sized margarita and the subsequent, cantaloupe-sized michelada that you see her.

She glides into the plaza, her head held high. She’s wearing clothes that you would wear. She carries her purse just like you carry it. Her posture is impeccable. She’s you, if your Adam’s apple showed.

Suddenly, Monday makes more sense.

Astrid is the Child and Family Managing Attorney at Immigrant Legal Center in Omaha. A native of Scottsbluff, Astrid began her career as a journalist. She previously practiced immigration law in the D.C./Baltimore area and personal injury law in Western Nebraska.

For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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