At border's edge, open-water marathoners swim for migrant aid

A dozen elite swimmers from five countries will dive into the waters off San Diego, California on Friday. Ten kilometers later, they'll come ashore in Tijuana, Mexico, raising funds for families whose loved ones disappear along the migrant trail.

Rodrigo Abd/ AP
In this Tuesday, April 4, 2017 photo, a man who gave his name as Hugo stands on the shore of the Pacific Ocean as his friend films him, backdropped by the US-Mexico border fence that separates Tijuana, Mexico, from San Diego, Calif.

Leticia Orozco and Manuel Aguirre are leaning against a fence, listening as their granddaughter recounts her latest swimming accomplishment. She’s ten years old on this sunny Saturday afternoon, and despite her proud smile that beckons a congratulatory hug, she and her grandparents don’t move any closer. The giant, rust-colored slates of the US-Mexico border wall stand between them.

The physical structure separating the United States and Mexico takes on many forms along the nearly 2,000-mile border, but this is one of the most dramatic points. The fence runs through a small square in Tijuana known as Friendship Park, where loved ones on either side of the border often gather on the weekends to catch up, cry, and sometimes protest. But several yards from the park’s concrete plaza, the fence undulates down a sandy hill, jetting out into the Pacific Ocean – where it abruptly ends.

The imagery is striking: A man-made structure dictating strict territorial lines fades away into open waters that run freely from one town, country, and continent to the next.

As children splash in the surf, it’s easy to question if anyone’s tried to swim across this border.

Park officials say it’s not common. But today, 12 people from five countries are doing just that. The participants are adamant this isn’t a political protest – they are trying to raise money for families whose loved ones died trying to cross the border.

The swimmers say any symbolism one might read into a group of international athletes swimming past a border wall amid a moment of tough-on-immigration talk in the US is not the message they’re trying to send.

“The wall already exists, we know it exists,” says Mariel Hawley, the first Mexican woman to finish the so-called Triple Crown of open water swimming, referring to the segments of a border wall that already spans the US-Mexico frontier.

“Maybe it will get taller, but this swim goes far beyond [a wall],” she says. “It’s about helping grieving families, about people who risk their lives for opportunity somewhere else.”

The group of open-water swimmers, including Mexicans, Israelis, South Africans, Americans, and a Kiwi, take off from San Diego’s Imperial Beach Friday morning and will swim to Tijuana, Mexico, raising funds for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, based in Tuscon, Ariz. The organization focuses on supporting families whose loved ones disappeared or perished along the US-Mexico border.

The swim is above board, its organizers say, with the US Coast Guard and the Mexican Navy informed about the event. The swimmers won’t have to tread water to go through customs: A group of kayakers will accompany them, carrying their passports and visas and handing them off to other kayakers waiting in Mexican waters.

Politics aside, “when you are in the ocean, you are always thinking about liberty,” says Antonio Argüelles, the founder of Mexico’s Triathlon Federation and the first person to complete the Triple Crown of open water swimming twice.

The high tensions surrounding today's conversations around immigration in the US – where President Trump's campaign and first 100 days in office often focused in on border security – may overshadow the long history of migration between Mexico and the United States.

For decades, families have migrated north for seasonal work and then returned home to Mexico. But in the 1990s, crossing the frontier became more difficult with the implementation of stronger border controls, essentially closing that circular loop of migration. As a result, more migrants began trying deadly desert crossings. Since the turn of the century, crossing clandestinely has become increasingly dangerous, with the rise of drug cartels that rely on income from human trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. It’s become nearly impossible to cross the border without hiring a “guide,” who, despite charging a hefty sum of money, doesn’t always deliver on getting migrants safely across the border.

It’s now common for people to embark on the journey north, only to disappear. Between 1990 and 2000, the average annual migrant death toll in southern Arizona was 12. Between 2002 and 2014, that average jumped to 173 deaths per year.

“When I talk about the swim in Mexico, people aren’t asking me how much money I’ve raised or what the swim will be like,” says Ms. Hawley, who was drawn to supporting the Colibrí Center’s work helping grieving families and aiding them in their search for closure. She lost her own husband recently, after an illness.

She says Mexicans “are asking me for more information about the [Colibrí] center. Because so many families here have someone who has left and who they haven’t heard from, and they never knew this kind of center or support existed.”

The swim is 10 kilometers in cold water of about 60 to 63 degrees Fahrenheit. For athletes who have world-famous swims like crossing the English or Catalina Channels under their belts, however, the difficulty factor is relatively low.

“My longest swim was 23 hours and 18 minutes. So to swim 2.5-3 hours; it all depends on what you consider hard,” says Mr. Argüelles, who went to the US to finish high school and attend Stanford University with the support of a Speedo executive. Argüelles was inspired to swim competitively after Mexico hosted the 1968 Olympics, and met Bill Lee, then president of Speedo, when he was selling swim caps at a local meet years later.

“We might see a shark, but you can’t [get angry] about that since we are swimming for migration, after all,” he says with a chuckle.

The event is not a race, and the swimmers will glide through the water as a pack, in solidarity, Hawley says.

“Any of us could be migrants,” says Argüelles. “I saw this as an opportunity to lend a hand and embrace a theme that is increasingly global…. We want to contribute to a better future.”

The swimmers are expecting to be greeted by roughly 200 high school students on the beach in Tijuana. Hawley hopes the teenagers will be inspired to overcome their own challenges.

In Mexico, she says, many grow up hearing positive stories about migration. Not just that aunt who crossed the border and sends back money to help build new homes or put relatives through school, but Hollywood-style happy endings. Stories like the brain surgeon at John’s Hopkins who entered the US without proper documentation, or the astronaut who grew up as a migrant farmer in the US.

“But not all migration stories are like this,” she says. “All four of us Mexican swimmers live and work in Mexico. And these are kids who might migrate one day. We are trying to tell them that there are great opportunities here. But you have to keep working and studying. I want to be a motivation for them.”

Argüelles sees it another way. He’s one swim away from becoming the first Mexican (and the seventh person in the world) to complete the “Ocean’s Seven” swim series, which includes tackling The English Channel and the Tsugaru Strait in Japan.

“This group includes some great swimmers of the world,” he says of today’s team. “To do this, you need to put in a lot of effort and you need to persevere.”

“That’s something all of us have in common with migrants. We all have dreams we want to achieve and we have to work hard to achieve them.”

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