Kevin De Leon
State Sen. Kevin De Leon talks about border issues at the U.S.-Mexico border fence in San Ysidro. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As the Trump administration’s immigration policies continue to dominate the news, San Diego is seeing an influx of politicians who drop by for quick photo ops at the border.

President Donald Trump visited the border prototypes in Otay Mesa in March. A few weeks later, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy just steps away from the U.S.-Mexico border in Imperial Beach.

Activists protested both visits, and some people who live at the border question the motives of the politicians.

“A lot of these politicians, they’re not here because they care about us,” said activist Manny Aguilar. “They’re out here trying to get re-elected.”

Many public figures have come to San Diego to speak out against Trump’s immigration policies, which have caused chaos in federal courts and the separation of families at the border. Rep. Juan Vargas, state Sen. Kevin De Leon, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Nancy Pelosi are among the politicians who have used San Diego as a stage for slamming Trump.

Yet even though their rhetoric often mirrors some of the concerns of many low-income families in the border region, Christian Ramirez, a community organizer who just barely missed the November runoff for a City Council seat, said politicians are ignoring the biggest issues that really matter to residents, especially in San Ysidro —  the neighborhood that stands at the doorstep of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“San Ysidro isn’t just about the border, it’s also about the fact that it is a working-class community, predominantly a Latino community.” he said. “It’s shameful that [the San Ysidro School District] is among the poorest school districts. Our businesses are falling apart down there. Our environment is creating health hazards for residents.”

Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S-Mexico Border Program, said politicians should take a closer look at San Ysidro.

“The more that people take the time to speak with residents, speak with different people with a diverse set of viewpoints, I think that’s how they’re able to have a better appreciation for what border communities are like, even how different they are,” he said.

Barrio Logan is another hot spot for visiting politicos who want to give border-related speeches.

The neighborhood’s historic Chicano Park, which is filled with murals depicting Mexican history and pride, has played host to several rallies in support of immigrant rights. That’s gotten the attention of lawmakers, who’ve used the park as the backdrop for their own press conferences.

At times, it’s backfired.

Villaraigosa, who at the time was running for governor, scheduled a press conference at Chicano Park in May, but the event was quickly moved to Friendship Park near the border after Union del Barrio, a local activists group, announced plans to protest Villaraigosa’s visit and accused him of disrespecting the park.

“We reject politicians who just comes in believing that they can just spew their politics without actually recognizing the leadership of the [Chicano Park Steering Committee], the organization that has ensured that the continued maintenance Chicano Park,” said Benjamin Prado, a Union del Barrio member.

Ramirez, the community organizer, said it is possible for politicians to come to San Diego to talk about immigration policies without just using the region as a backdrop. He said  De Leon’s visit is a good example.

De Leon met with the widow of a man who was killed by Border Patrol and an undocumented mother from Escondido, where immigration officials often conduct raids. Ramirez said politicians should take the time to talk to – not just talk at – people whose lives are impacted by the border.

“Often times, folks don’t fully get an appreciation of what it’s like to live here,” Ramirez said.

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