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Immigration immersion: From the border to the center

{{youtube:medium|9IauMPOXEUQ, From the border: Studies in immigration.}}

In the borderlands, Latino immigrants, residents and border patrol agents share an awkward existence in the foreboding desert and rugged hills that separate the United States and Mexico. Blistering by day, freezing at night, it is the intersection for immigrants who seek to cross the border and those charged with keeping them out.

Though thousands of miles from the campus of William & Mary, professors Jennifer Bickham Mendez and Robert Sanchez have a keen interest in this region that is ripe with reports of human rights violations. In January, Bickham Mendez, Sanchez and nine students spent a week on the U.S.-Mexico border. Upon their return, the faculty members taught seminars on immigration issues and hosted a spring symposium in the nation’s capital as a platform for the students to vocalize their experiences.

In Tucson, Arizona, the group met with ranchers who had been unaffected by immigration until they discovered the remains of immigrants who perished trying to cross their land. Faith-based and human rights organizations explained the importance of providing assistance and shelter to migrants who often come seeking help wearing nothing but a thin T-shirt and jacket in sub freezing temperatures. In Agua Prieta and Nogales, Mexico, recently deported migrants told personal stories of why they had attempted to cross the desert and being apprehended by border patrol. They expressed nervousness and apprehension regarding how they would get back to their home communities. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents outlined the dangers posed by drug cartels and human smugglers.

“Everyone we met reminded us and urged us in the same way,” said Bickham Mendez, co-director of the William & Mary Border Studies program and associate professor of sociology. “They asked us to bring the struggles, the voices and the daily realities of those living on the border to the (nation’s capital), where national policy and decision making take place.”

They did just that. On April 19, the Latin American studies program at William & Mary hosted the first “From the Border to the Center: A Symposium on Comprehensive and Compassionate Immigration Reform.” The daylong event, held at the Carnegie Center in Washington, D.C., brought together W&M students and faculty with practitioners, activists and experts who routinely work with immigrant communities to engage in meaningful discussion and debate.

{{youtube:medium|fBjvZR5FEH8, W&M symposium: From the border to the center.}} 

“Part of the idea of this program is for students to become informed citizens and for them to feel empowered to talk about the issues they witnessed,” said Bickham Mendez.

“We want our students to capture and deepen their understandings of the complexities of an issue, such as immigration, and look at the topic from multiple viewpoints such as economics, social costs, social capital, labor and the moral issues.”

Strangers before the trip, the students were thrust together on the border to confront human rights issues such as racism, abuse, deportation conditions and inadequate medical care. Some students were immigrants, some second or third-generation Americans. Three members of the faculty-student delegation were or had been married to an immigrant.

Izzy Castorena ’14, a first-generation immigrant of Mexican heritage, said that before the program, he never paid much attention to immigration issues aside from signing his citizenship papers and helping his parents study for naturalization exams.

“Being on the border was very powerful for me,” he said. “It was an extremely humbling yet learning experience and I believe that I have gained a greater appreciation not only of my family… but I’ve also come to see just how interconnected we all are in our effort to reform immigration. At the same time, I’ve learned to place a great emphasis on human rights.”

Mariel Tavakoli ’13 said she was interested in the program based on her academic interest as a public policy major and sociology minor. 

“For us, even though we spent more than half of our trip in the United States, even in Arizona we felt like we had arrived at some kind of mythical place,” said Tavakoli. “There is definitely a unique border culture with two worlds colliding of so many different identities and points of view.” 

Maria Arrellano ’13 had personal reasons for going on the trip. As a young child she twice crossed the dangerous Arizona desert with her mother and father, who were both undocumented at the time. 

“Although my siblings and I were born in the United States and my parents are now naturalized citizens, immigration and border issues have had a large presence in our lives,” she said. “I knew that it would be a powerful experience for me to be physically present at the border, but I never expected to learn so much from the trip.”

After returning from the border, the students enrolled in linked seminars to study immigration from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

“When we created the program in 2009,” said Mendez, “we intentionally wanted a program where students had the intellectual framework so that they would come back and have a way to articulate and work through what they saw.”

Last spring, Mendez taught “Latino/a Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Studies,” which examined the social and cultural dynamics of Latino immigration to the United States and their implications for the larger issues of democratic participation, freedom and social membership.

Sanchez, visiting assistant professor of philosophy, taught “The Ethics of Immigration.” In his course, students examined the conflict between a legitimate state's right to self-determination and an individual's right to move freely in an increasingly global society, as well as other specific moral issues, including what criteria a state can use to include or exclude immigrants, the morality of guest worker programs, and the racial dimensions of exclusion and expulsion.

“I’m sure there is a lot of vested interest in how this [immigration reform] turns out, but from an ethical point of view, we’re talking about people’s lives, the legitimacy of a state and democracy,” said Sanchez. 

“One of the things we learned and discussed about being on the border is the lived experience of this ‘other culture,’” explained Sanchez.  He described it as a “third culture,” which he calls “not just Mexican, or Latin-American cultures on one hand and the U.S. or North American cultures on the other, but this culture of living on the border.

And so you see how a specific community of people are affected by the policies.”

As policymakers continue to examine the complications of border security issues, Bickham Mendez and Sanchez both agreed the stories of those who are trying to cross the border and willing to sacrifice everything to do so is a constant reminder of how legislation impacts the lives of so many people.

“We were at the ‘ground zero’ of immigration,” said Bickham Mendez.  “You don’t get much closer than that.”