A sociology class spends a week exploring the U.S.-Mexico border, immersed in the immigration issues that affect the region.
Where do we go from here? That was the question weighing on the minds of 12 students as they departed the U.S.- Mexico border after spending a week exploring the borderlands, immersed in the immigration issues that affect the region.
The trip was part of “Borders and Crossing Borders,” a travel seminar taught by Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Johnson that examines the technological, economic, political and ideological forces that lead people to cross national borders as well as the motives for fortifying those borders.
Seven weeks into the course, Johnson and her students traveled to BorderLinks, an educational organization in Tucson, Arizona, to engage with the issues that they have been studying around the seminar table. During their week at the border, they walked a migrant trail in the Sonoran Desert, witnessed a courtroom hearing for apprehended immigrants, visited the steel-beam wall dividing the U.S. and Mexico, talked to Border Patrol agents and met with detainees seeking asylum from their home countries.
“This trip opened our minds to a new kind of applied learning that we have never experienced before,” Willa Moore ’19, a sociology major from Brooklyn, New York, wrote in a blog that the students kept throughout the week. They took turns writing about their daily experiences, describing what they heard, saw and felt at each location and articulating the questions they were left with at day’s end, including: “How can we use our experience with this travel seminar to make a difference?”
Here are some of their reflections.
Today was the first time this experience has felt real. We only arrived at BorderLinks, our residence for the next week, a few hours ago, but already we are starting to see that the issues we’ve been talking about in class exist and that we’re here with them. During the past couple of months, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about themes and the contexts related to borders, but it was helpful to have one succinct conversation about it with our group leader, Cy.
We spent most of the orientation session learning and listening, but we became much more engaged once we had the chance to start talking in smaller groups and write out our thoughts. We created group agreements to make sure everyone feels supported and ensure that this experience will be a positive learning space.
There is a general feeling of curious anticipation among our group. We’ll start doing the groundwork tomorrow. This is no longer a theoretical experience: It’s actually happening.
In Arivaca, Arizona, a small rural community of about 700 people on the U.S.-Mexico border, we met members of People Helping People, an organization that provides aid for those who are crossing or who have crossed. It also serves as a place for community members to call when they want to help immigrants but don’t know how. One of the organization’s leaders mentioned “the weight of human tragedy in a small community” like Arivaca.
We then drove to a migrant trail head in the Sonoran Desert. On the way there, we passed a surveillance tower and several green Border Patrol SUVs sitting and waiting. After dropping food at a point on the trail, we came across a shrine where we read a short prayer and a list of names of immigrants who have died on the trail in the past year. Many human remains are found in this zone, which is located within the U.S., but still 100 miles from the safety of a city.
While we walked the migrant trail, our experience was nothing like that of an immigrant walking the same trail. We entered the desert by choice and were accompanied by guides, with a safe home and citizenship waiting for us afterward. We also walked during the day, and our guides pointed out that immigrants would walk this area at night to avoid being seen. When we climbed up and down an empty waterfall bed, none of us could imagine attempting that in the dark while in fear for our lives.
Today, we felt small — in terms of the terrain and the issue. At the shrine and on the trail, we felt somewhat displaced; we didn’t really belong there, and we were intruding. We were not travelers, but simply guests, trying to fathom someone else’s struggle.
The emotions of the day brought us closer as a group. Now that we have been exposed to something we’ve previously only read about, we have to consider what we will do with all of this information. When we met at the end of the day, we ended with a question: Where do we go from here?
Today, we examined the legal component of immigration from different perspectives. In the morning, we listened to a talk by Matthew, a member of the End Streamline Coalition. He told us about Operation Streamline, a policy enacted to expedite the legal process for people apprehended for attempting to cross the U.S.- Mexico border. Through this policy, Matthew said that migrants are threatened with long prison terms to strong-arm them into taking plea deals. He also spoke about the complicated nature of the process, which he said confuses even a native English speaker like himself who has been studying the issue for years.
Many of the issues Matthew discussed were illustrated by what we saw in the courtroom that afternoon. First, we were surprised by the number of people present. In addition to lawyers, court clerks and staff, we counted 56 migrants sitting in long rows of chairs before the judge’s bench. This was the first time that we saw the very people whose stories and experiences we were studying in class. While we were unable to interact with the migrants involved in the hearing, we recognized looks of confusion on their faces as we filed into the courtroom. Though we knew our role in the courtroom was to silently observe, it was clear that the presence of a large group of college students made very little sense to them.
After our courtroom visit, we met with Katie, an immigration lawyer, who explained her work and offered more details about the immigration system outside of Operation Streamline. She talked about the difficult process of gaining asylum — only about 3 to 10 percent of requests are granted by federal judges. Applicants for asylum must prove that they are being persecuted for their political affiliation, social group, race, religion or nationality. Katie also discussed her interesting work with claims for asylum based on gender and sexual orientation.
Today, we felt intrusive. It seemed as though the migrants should have had a choice as to whether or not we were in the courtroom. We also felt powerless to make our discomfort known and to raise issues with the problems we saw. While witnessing this injustice was critical to our learning experience, it was hard to find the line between showing solidarity and intruding on an experience of which we weren’t a part.
We felt a lot of things today, and we’re still struggling with how to express them. For now, we are left with two important questions: Whose lives do we consider and recognize as valuable? What does a humane border look like, and can those two words even exist in the same sentence?
We started day four with a long drive to the border, stopping briefly in Douglas, a small historic town in southern Arizona. There we met Randy, a volunteer for Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry focused on education and aid in Arizona and northern Mexico.
Randy’s respect, compassion and understanding for all parties involved in immigration was a testament to the possibility of progress and left us feeling optimistic about our activism.
With Randy, we visited a community center focused on educating and empowering women in Agua Prieta, Sonora. The women, who maintain their own garden and livestock, told us their stories through a translator, which presented an interesting dynamic that we had not yet experienced. The variation of Spanish fluency among our group members served as a challenge, but our classmate Evie’s interpretation was helpful to our understanding.
When we arrived at the border wall, it was our first time seeing the gigantic steel beams that we have been studying in class for months. The wall seemed to extend for miles, riding the hills up to and beyond the horizon. All along the border were patrol agents, dotting the landscape with their green-andwhite trucks.
The day ended with a vigil that honored the deaths of immigrants in the region. The names of the deceased were inscribed on white crosses that were held up to a crowd of people who responded “presente” as each name was announced. The vigil leader proclaimed that each person who died “was made in God’s image, and was beloved by God.” The sentiment about human equity resonated in our hearts and minds and continues to do so. We crossed back through the checkpoint to Agua Prieta, where we talked about our experiences and went to bed at the New Hope community center.
We woke at 6 a.m. and loaded up the van to travel to Nogales, Arizona. Nogales, which borders the Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora, is Arizona’s largest international border community. Everyone agreed that the wall in Nogales felt different, because you could see it splitting a community in two, acting as a constant reminder of division for the people living in this zone.
After seeing messages of “RIP José,” we crossed to the Mexican side of the wall to visit the shrine for José Antonio Elena Rodríguez and learn about his story. Sixteen-year-old José was walking home from school in 2012 as two men smuggling drugs over the border wall were being apprehended. People began throwing rocks at the Border Patrol, which prompted the officers to open fire. José, who had no connection to the situation, was shot 10 times from behind. We continued along the border wall, observing art remembering José and others who have lost their lives in this zone.
We then visited Grupo Beta, the Mexican equivalent of U.S. Border Patrol. Grupo Beta provides resources to migrants who have crossed and have been apprehended, or who are planning to cross in the near future. There, we met with 15 to 20 migrants who were receiving haircuts. They seemed relaxed and were more than willing to share their stories with us despite our varying abilities to speak and understand Spanish. One man told us that he had been separated from his wife in Oregon, and that he wanted to be reunited with her. Another man from Mexico City told us that he had made three attempts at crossing. The last time he was apprehended, he spent two months in detention in Phoenix before being deported.
Back in the U.S., we headed to the Border Patrol station in Tucson. Upon entering the facility, we observed pictures of officers who lost their lives on active duty. We learned about the history of Border Patrol and the wall, and held a pepper-spray gun, thermal binoculars, a ceramic vest and other “toys,” as described by the agents. In the communications room, we witnessed live surveillance footage along the wall.
In contrast to our experience at Grupo Beta, where we heard difficult stories of human suffering, here we heard from the people who enforce the laws that cause their suffering. The officers explained to us that they “enforce, not interpret” the laws, and though they may have sympathy for migrants’ personal plights, they have “no choice but to apprehend everyone they see” since they have no way of knowing who is dangerous and who is crossing for a better life. They also were proud of the humanitarian aid they provide, citing an incident when one officer reunited a child with his aunt after he was sent to cross alone with a smuggler. Seeing the officers as humans who believe in their work complicated the border issue for some of us.
Today’s events left us with many questions, including: What would it look like if the U.S. Border Patrol aligned its mission with that of Grupo Beta? How can sanctuary cities be held accountable for protecting and not deporting immigrants?
We spent the day at our home base of BorderLinks, where representatives from environmental conservation and humanitarian groups talked with us about their work and their connection to the border wall. They provided us with new perspectives about actions that they take and actions that we can potentially adopt in the future.
Dan, an advocate and educator for the Sierra Club, focused on the environmental impact of the border wall, which not only acts as a dam during monsoon season, but also prevents wildlife migration. Belén, a mother of four and a wife of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee, spoke to us about her involvement with Paisanos Unidos, an organization that provides legal assistance to immigrants. With her daughters at her side, she told a story about driving down the highway with her husband and passing a police car, which led her children to be fearful that their parents were going to be taken away. Hearing directly from a family affected by immigration in this way showed us another human side of the issue.
After hearing from Dan and Belén, we brainstormed ways to address these issues within our own communities at Kenyon and at home. Our group leader, Cy, told us that college is the greatest place to test our activism. We can use Kenyon to find ways to be proactive. We can take advantage of the resources we have to keep moving forward and doing our part.
We leave today with hope, and with this question: How can we use our experience with this travel seminar to make a difference?
Our last stop was the Florence Correctional Center, a government-operated detention facility for undocumented immigrants from different parts of the world.
The day began with an orientation from a former detainee, Carolina, who represents Mariposas Sin Fronteras, an organization that provides solidarity to members of the LGBT community in detention. Sitting outside BorderLinks in the hot Tucson morning, Carolina spread out files on the detainees we would be visiting that day. All of them are seeking asylum, including a congressman who fled from political persecution in his home country because of his homosexuality. He since has spent nine years in various detention facilities waiting for approval of his asylum request.
We pored over the files during our drive to Florence since we wouldn’t be able to bring them, or any of our belongings, into the visitation room. Once we arrived at the center, we were struck by its resemblance to an actual prison, or rather the prisons we had seen on television or in the movies. Inside the visitation room, there were no windows, only fluorescent lights. Detainees sat at small tables wearing slip-on shoes and different-colored uniforms. We were not allowed to sit directly next to the detainees, which reinforced the sense that this was a prison holding dangerous criminals, rather than apprehended undocumented immigrants.
Many of the detainees spoke Spanish, so we had at least one interpreter in each of our small groups. At Carolina’s recommendation, we tried to avoid sensitive topics, or to only go as far as the detainees seemed comfortable. Some wanted to tell us about how they were apprehended; others looked down at their laps when we asked them to recall their lives before detention. We talked about books, weather, sports, religion, television, dancing and other mutual interests.
After discovering one detainee’s love of music, a group of us sang together. (Imagine the guards’ reaction to a hushed rendition of “Jar of Hearts” by Christina Perri.) One man showed us documents that chronicled important milestones throughout his life — a certificate of graduation from university, a high school report card, and other papers that revealed the successes of his life prior to his detention.
We didn’t notice the time racing by on the clock until we received a call alerting us that it had been nearly three hours and the van was waiting. As we said goodbye and exited the visitation room, we were acutely aware of the fact that while we could easily leave, the people behind us could not, and some of them didn’t know if they ever would walk freely into America.
We leave today with many questions, including: Why do we treat detainees as we would prisoners and criminals? Will any of the detainees we met be able to gain asylum from their home countries?
We also leave today, and our trip, with hope. While the sad truth is that Florence has one of the highest deportation rates — 90 percent — of detention centers in the country, we were inspired by the strength shown by the detainees we met today. Seeing their faith made us optimistic for their potential futures in the U.S.