Seeing the Border, First Hand
A student-led border awareness trip took them to a place that’s become a crucible of our time: El Paso, Texas, an American city separated by a large wall from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. There, over five days, they put the heated rhetoric about immigration aside and tried to observe for themselves what is happening on the border.
“We saw this as an educational opportunity,” says Laura Savage’18, the trip’s lead organizer and international relations major. “It was a chance to learn about the human dimensions of migration, immigration, and border issues.”
Students recounted the trip in a variety of ways—none of them neutral. “Eye-opening,” “intense,” “immersive,” “emotional,” and “infuriating” were among the words they used to describe the experience.
First-year student Superior Murphy’21, an aspiring lawyer, says she wishes everyone could “really immerse themselves in immigration issues, not in the politics or the buzzwords, but in the humanity of it.” Staying on the El Paso side of the border in a migrant shelter allowed the students to do exactly that.
They started their days at 7 a.m. and continued visiting sites and talking with people until 11 at night. They toured a detention center and a border patrol museum. They observed court proceedings during a deportation case, hiked in the dusty heat, and visited with refugee advocates. Walking the border wall that separates Juárez and El Paso, they saw and photographed the oversized structure from the American side, where it stretches as far as the eye can see.
Because the majority of the Beloit group could speak Spanish, they were able to listen to the stories of refugees they stayed alongside in a shelter called Casa Vides.
Annunciation House runs Casa Vides, and its religious-based mission is to provide shelter for migrants, the poor, and the homeless. Founded in the 1970s, Annunciation House operates two shelters on the El Paso side of the border. Its namesake shelter serves those with ongoing needs, such as shelter during political asylum cases and in medical situations. Casa Vides is a temporary home to women who are widows of U.S. citizens and are entitled to a portion of their spouse’s Social Security. This was one of the eye openers: To collect their money, these women, most elderly and residents of Mexico, must either relocate to the United States or spend at least two weeks in the country each year. Many of the women have few resources to make the trip, and those who cannot travel forfeit the funds.
Murphy was moved by the plight of the people she met, especially children separated from their families, and the women who endured hardships to collect their survivor’s benefits. She’s always been interested in the law and cites U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as her hero, but the border experience put an even sharper point on her plans.
“My whole life I’ve wanted to be a civil rights attorney, so now I’m very interested in human rights and immigration law and how that process works,” Murphy says. She plans to double down on a major in political science at Beloit, followed by law school.
Alondra Guzman’20 also joined the group. A double major in health and society and Spanish, she was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago from the age of 3. As an immigrant herself, she had a powerful reaction to many of the experiences she had, including face-to-face interactions with border guards. “I never thought I would sit in front of a Border Patrol agent and not be questioned about my legal status,” she said.
One of the most difficult parts of the journey came during a visit to a detention center, which looked exactly like a prison to students. The building had a solitary confinement unit, though it was called a “Special Housing Unit.” The center detains people from all over the world who cross into the United States under a variety of circumstances.
“I got really emotional during the tour because of how similar it was to a jail, and these people hadn’t committed any crimes, other than coming to this country to seek asylum or fleeing here,” says Murphy.
“There were 50 men thrown in one room with no privacy, no comfort, and no contact with the outside world. The men stared as we passed through the hallways,” says Guzman. “We shouldn’t have to treat any individual the way immigrants are treated. These people leave behind their homes, their language, and their culture to come to the United States for a better life for themselves and their families. How is that a crime?”
Savage was also moved by the group’s visit to the detention center. “It was infuriating to see innocent people being detained,” says Savage. She explains that the center holds people caught crossing the border illegally as well as those who legally present themselves to officials as asylum seekers.
Inspiration for the border awareness trip came from previous student trips organized around immigration and border issues. Savage acquired funding from student government and Beloit’s Weissberg Human Rights program for the 2018 spring break trip. Students interested in border issues could apply to take part in the experience, which was fully funded.
With a Venture Grant during an earlier summer, Savage volunteered in Tabasco, Mexico, with a nonprofit organization providing temporary aid to South and Central American immigrants making their journey to the United States. “That experience combined with the current politics around immigration—with so many people talking about immigration and not having a lot of first-hand knowledge—made me want to go to El Paso.”
Savage says she hopes similar human rights trips will continue and become a longstanding spring break tradition at Beloit.
For her part, Murphy realizes she could have spent her precious week off from classes on a more typical, light-hearted spring break. “But I’ve already been to the beach,” she says. “This was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
Susan Kasten is the editor of Beloit College Magazine.