by Nicolo Orozco (C'19)
I was recently privileged to participate in Georgetown University’s Alternative Breaks Program’s Magis Kino Border Immersion trip, a remarkable experience which profoundly deepened my understanding of immigration and our southern border. This trip could not have occurred without the support and partnership provided to us by Kino Border Initiative (KBI), an invaluable program serving migrants and refugees at the border, whose staff members constantly reminded us our mission there was threefold: Humanize, Accompany, Complicate (HAC for short). While humanizing and accompaniment was emotionally challenging at times due to my relative powerlessness in many of the situations we experienced, I was most challenged to complicate my understanding of immigration and the debates around our southern border.
While immigration is often portrayed as a two-sided issue, I learned that all there is with two sides at our southern border is the wall: there is the Southern side and the Northern side. Despite the divisive national rhetoric involving the wall, I hardly encountered persons with such dichotomous views living on the border.
Through the KBI, though, I was able to hear the perspective of some ranchers who live along the southern border and hold a rather stern view of the wall. They say there should be a wall built along the southern border because they staunchly believe that large amounts of drugs pass through their ranch and people crossing through their property pose a threat to their lives. To support their claims of the large amounts of drug trafficking occurring on their property, the ranchers showed us photos taken by cameras on their property, which showed young people with backpacks and water walking through the desert. They claimed the backpacks had to be full of drugs, because “why else would their backpacks be so big?” The simple answer to that question is: there backpacks are likely full of water, not to mention all their other belongings, because the amount of water necessary to healthily cross the desert is more than a human could possibly carry. I would challenge those who assume migrants are bringing drugs and danger in to this country to complicate their views and accompany migrants.
The next day, we were able to cross in to Nogales, Mexico and work in El Comedor, a KBI kitchen which provides aid to migrants recently deported from the U.S. or arriving at the border from Southern Mexico or Central and Southern America. Our group rotated between working in the kitchen itself and talking to those waiting in line outside since the kitchen was serving nearly four times its intended capacity. Beyond the sheer number of people we encountered at El Comedor, what was most striking was how many women and young children we encountered who had been forced to flee their homes for their own safety. While the archetypal migrant might be a young man crossing in to the U.S. for work, I was able to personally observe the sharp increase in women and young children arriving at the border. In fact, single men made up a very small minority. Speaking to these families, I learned that nobody wanted to flee their home. These were peoples of all backgrounds: teachers, police officers, business owners, parents, and children. At some point, they all realized they were not safe at home, so they gave up everything and undertook an arduous journey in hopes of finding safety and refuge in the U.S.
Our visit to Mexico did complicate my view of immigration and reinforced the journey of migrants is complex and cannot be accurately portrayed in statistics or news coverage with eye-catching headlines. Many of the families I encountered at the border were missing siblings, children, or parents, driven here by the deaths of their family members or left with no choice but to leave them behind. When violence and oppression drive these men, women, and children to leave their homes, their physical journey to the U.S.-Mexico border is only the beginning of their struggles.
For many migrants, their first interaction with U.S. authorities is negative and frightening. I had the opportunity to do a ride-along with U.S. border patrol during our time at the border. During this ride-along, the border patrol officers compared themselves to “bag boys at the grocery store” and likened the migrants they were apprehending to groceries to be bagged. For me, this language showed the stark beginning of the intense dehumanization and stripping of dignity involved in migrating to the U.S. This dehumanizing treatment continues at ICE detention centers, where migrants are often transported after being apprehended by border patrol. During a tour of an ICE detention center, our group saw the actual cages boys and men were being forced in to, solely for crossing in to the U.S. When we first arrived, we witnessed guards taping paper over camera lenses on surveillance feeds to obstruct views of what was going on within parts of the detention center. This incident was representative of our time there as a whole, as ICE staff largely discounted our questions or were unwilling to entertain criticism regarding the conditions of their center.
Our last interaction with U.S. immigration authorities occurred at Operation Streamline, a joint initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice which seeks to criminalize border-crossings en masse. In the course of less than two hours, we witnessed more than seventy migrants’ criminal trials in which they were criminally prosecuted and sentenced to either deportation or more prison time. These men and women were brought in to the courtroom in shackles and chains and tried nearly ten at a time. Each person’s case was over in a matter of minutes. Listening to the dates and ports of entry the judge shared, it occurred to me that these migrants could have been people we encountered when we were in Mexico several days earlier, and less than a week later they could be here in this courtroom being sentenced to deportation or prison.
The U.S. immigration system is riddled with a lack of solidarity, respect for human dignity, and care for the vulnerable, all of which are core teachings within Catholic social doctrine. Catholic social teaching calls us to stand in solidarity with our migrant sister and brothers, because we are one human family. Yet throughout my time at the border, I saw systems which impose division with walls, cages, and armed force. It is more apparent to me than ever before that comprehensive immigration reform is needed in this country. I realize we are not all in positions to implement comprehensive policy reform, so I would echo KBI’s call to each of us: HAC.
Humanize. Humanize the experience of migrants by recognizing their pursuit of safety and livelihood which all humans deserve. Catholic social teaching recognizes that life is sacred, so we ought not to judge those who flee a place they fear for their lives. Further, humanize by not making assumptions about what migrants bring to this country as the ranchers we encountered did. To the best of your ability, speak to migrants themselves and those closest to them and share their stories.
Accompany. Accompany migrants by sharing your support for the organizations and individuals which provide such critical aid to the border region such as Catholic Charities and the Kino Border Initiative. Accompany by supporting policies that will ease the journey of migrants and refugees and provide aid to countries that face violence, unjust political systems, and poverty that force their citizens to flee to the border.
Complicate. Lastly, complicate the issue by challenging dominant narratives, recognizing our privilege as residents of the U.S., and realizing that humanizing and accompanying actually isn’t as complicated as we always make it out to be.