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State University Travel Ban Stymies Scholarship

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The U.S. State Department's travel warning for Mexico, based on its concerns about violent crime there, has put the brakes on cross-border collaboration in the San Diego-Tijuana region. Some federal agencies, police and academic institutions are now barred from visiting Tijuana. California State University's ban on student travel to Tijuana has put decades of research and relationships on hold.

The U.S. State Department's travel warning for Mexico, based on its concerns about violent crime there, has put the brakes on cross-border collaboration in the San Diego-Tijuana region. Some federal agencies, police and academic institutions are now barred from visiting Tijuana. California State University's ban on student travel to Tijuana has put decades of research and relationships on hold.

About a dozen graduate students sit behind desks in a classroom at San Diego State University. Their semester-long seminar is called "The Border from the Mexican Perspective." The border and Tijuana are just 20 miles away, but these students can't go there anymore.

"We had about seven classes in Tijuana," said Sam Cortez, who is in this class. He says he couldn't wait to cross the border every week.

"I remember the first class when we went to see the migrants. We got to walk, right by the fence. We run into a guy. He told us his story. He said 'I got deported.' He had lived in the states for 20 years. It makes it real. It makes it human. We miss that piece, you know," said Cortez.

The class traveled to Tijuana to meet with businessmen, environmentalists, artists, kidnapping victims, police, people smugglers, sex workers and politicians.

Professor Victor Clark says when he was invited to teach this class 11 years ago he told his department chair the idea was to go south of the border.

"This is the Center for Latin American studies, where I teach. Tijuana is the open door to Latin America," Clark said.

California's State University system put the kibosh on travel to Tijuana in mid-March. A U.S. State Department travel warning triggered the ban.

Gunmen had murdered three people tied to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez. That's across the border from El Paso, Texas, more than 700 miles away from Tijuana.

The U.S. government reacted by telling employees at all border consulates, including Tijuana, that they could evacuate their families if they felt they were in danger.

The warning did not tell people to avoid Tijuana, but urged them to be alert to security concerns in the border region.

Even so, Erik Fallis, who is a spokesman for the CSU Chancellor's office, says students aren't allowed to travel to Tijuana because the alert included the city.

"The overwhelming goal here is student safety. So that's going to be the primary factor used in the decision whether or not these activities continue," stated Fallis.

San Diego State officials appealed the decision. They said U.S. Consular officials and other sources in Tijuana assured them safety has improved.

Tijuana's murder rate has dropped over the past few months and the streets are calmer. In fact, the State Department's warning noted that, while violence in Mexico has increased, tens of thousands of people safely cross the border every day to work and study.

The CSU chancellor was not swayed. San Diego State officials were forced to call home students who were studying in Tijuana.

Clark's class, interns, volunteers and researchers must also stay stateside.

The chancellor did concede that students can go to Tecate, Mexicali, Rosarito and Ensenada. But, he says they can't travel through Tijuana to reach those cities.

Ironically, so many SDSU students live in Tijuana and commute to class every day, university officials had to tell them the ban does not prohibit them from going home.

Rebecca Moore is SDSU's director of religious studies. She had planned to work with students this summer to finish up her project to map religious institutions from Oceanside south to Ensenada.

"I think we're all losing the opportunity to really bridge cultural and geopolitical divides at a time in U.S. history where making those bridges and connections are crucial," worried Moore.

Back in the classroom, Victor Clark says he has an idea for how to maintain those connections next semester, if his students are still prohibited from crossing south. "Using the internet and cameras," Clark said with a smile on his face.

Clark says he'll beam people like deported migrants and sex workers in Tijuana to a big screen in a classroom at SDSU. He says it won't be the same as crossing the border.

Next weekend, a group of students plans to flout the ban and cross the border in protest.

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