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San Ysidro is a vibrant neighborhood with a rich history. Yet for decades, it has existed within the tension of being both a part of the city of San Diego itself and not part of the city — a mere passing point between other worlds.
When the U.S. Customs and Border Protection abruptly shut down the San Ysidro Port of Entry last November, reporters from all over the country parachuted onto the scene to explain what happened. They were eager to tell the story about how the recent influx of migrants affected life on the border — specifically in San Ysidro, which sits at Mexico’s doorstep.
Other than mentioning the port of entry — the busiest land-crossing in the Western Hemisphere — most media outlets barely considered San Ysidro beyond its relationship to the border. Those that did reduced the neighborhood to a kind of suburb of San Diego defined by its “sprawling strip malls.”
But San Ysidro is a vibrant neighborhood with a rich history. For decades, it has existed within the tension of being both a part of the city of San Diego itself and not part of the city — a mere passing point between other worlds.
Part of that is because it is quite literally disconnected from the rest of the city.
To get to the U.S.-Mexico border from downtown, travelers must leave and then re-enter San Diego, passing through National City and Chula Vista first. The neighborhood of San Ysidro, home to approximately 53,000 San Diegans, is physically separated from the city’s urban core.
“A lot of the residents that live there don’t know that they’re part of the city,” Antonio Martinez, a member of the San Ysidro School District board, said last year while running for City Council.
Since its inception, San Ysidro residents have felt disconnected from the city of San Diego and as they find themselves in a historical moment, under the eyes of the nation, that feeling has never been stronger.
Chances are you will be hearing more about San Ysidro as immigration rhetoric continues to escalate under the Trump administration and in the run-up to the 2020 election. So to help better understand the community, a few minutes of history may help.
San Ysidro’s physical separation from the rest of San Diego is especially ironic when one considers that the community was born out of a vision of utopia.
In 1908, William E. Smythe, an idealistic journalist and agriculture reformer from Massachusetts, saw the development of the area as a place where every settler would be free to live off an acre, according to a historical report produced by the city. Back then, it was called “Little Landers.”
The success of the settlement was short-lived. In 1916, Little Landers was destroyed when a series of storms and flooding of the Tijuana River Valley inundated the town.
The water woes continued for San Ysidro into the 1950s due in part to the growing population in Tijuana, which decreased access to and the quality of water, according to the city report.
In 1957, a small group of residents petitioned San Diego to annex their community. Those in favor, according to press reports at the time, argued that joining with San Diego was the only way to solve the water shortage. Meanwhile, those against it believed annexation would only lead to more taxes on residents.
For San Diego, access to San Ysidro meant access to the U.S.-Mexico border and helped connect the region.
Residents approved the proposition, but not everyone was happy. Charlotte Hazelton, a San Ysidro resident, filed a lawsuit arguing that the city had illegally annexed her community by seizing a strip of land underneath the San Diego Bay. For a city to annex a piece land, it must be physically connected.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with Hazelton, and ruled that San Diego had acted in compliance with state statues. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The effort to de-annex San Ysidro did not end, though.
In the 1970s, the Local Agency Formation Commission — which oversees the formation of cities — allowed residents to collect signatures for a ballot measure that would have separated the neighborhood from the city. Residents were upset that local officials had decided not to build a concrete flood channel for the Tijuana River and felt that their voices weren’t being heard “in distant City Hall,” according to a Chula Vista Star News article at the time. That effort eventually fell through when residents could not afford the campaign.
Juan Orendain, one of the residents who pushed for de-annexation, told the San Diego Reader the city had done everything possible to keep San Ysidro and San Diego as one and struck a condescending tone in the process.
“The most insulting part,” said Orendain, according to the newspaper, “was when they said we weren’t capable of ruling ourselves.”
In some ways, San Ysidro residents’ sense of neglect from the city has manifested itself into a culture of self-reliance.
Organizations that were created in the 1960s to provide health care services still exist and have taken on bigger roles. Casa Familiar, for instance, offers residents a variety of tools such as immigration services, affordable housing, programs for young adults and more.
“Casa Familiar has taken on the different kinds of services … to help make sure that there’s access for low-income residents of San Ysidro and the South Bay,” said David Flores, the community development director for Casa Familiar.
San Ysidro Health, which grew out of “El Club de Madres,” or Mothers Club, also formed around the 1960s to provide affordable health care in the community.
Residents continue to advocate for better access to these kinds of resources in San Ysidro.
The recent attention on migrants in Tijuana, Flores said, offers an opportunity for governments to re-evaluate their relationship with communities that host federal sites. And a new legal challenge has given folks like Flores hope that they may have a louder voice in the region’s public affairs going forward.
Recently, the Department of Homeland Security changed the way it releases migrants into the country. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel used to review the plans of every migrant family to make sure they had travel arrangements so they could reach sponsors elsewhere in the United States.
In October, however, ICE stopped reviewing those plans and instead began releasing migrant families onto the streets of San Ysidro, regardless of whether they had resources or plans to make it to their destinations. Several nonprofit organizations, such as San Ysidro Health, had to step in to help.
In response, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors filed suit against the Trump administration, arguing it should be forced to resume the program and to reimburse the county for the expenses it had incurred while caring for and sheltering migrants in the meantime.
“What ICE is doing is basically just dropping these people off with nothing — no shelter, no medical care, no travel assistance and then it’s been up to the county and all of you to help these folks,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said, referring to the local service providers who have been running the current shelter.
Residents of San Ysidro know her frustration well. The influx of migrants in need of help but nowhere to turn is yet another problem hoisted on the community and over which they have little control.