Borderlinks: Humanizing an Issue


Assumptions are easy and comforting to make, and are most often the product of incomplete or imperfect information or understanding. Over winter break, I joined eight other students from the Brown/RISD Catholic Community in an attempt to flesh out our understanding of the current immigration issues we face with our southern neighbor, Mexico.

We spent about a week with Borderlinks, an organization based in Tucson, Arizona that is devoted to “cross-border relationship building opportunities, issues of immigration, community formation and development, and social justice in the borderlands between Mexico, the U.S., and beyond.” We set out on an extensive examination of various aspects of the current immigration situation.

For me, the primary function of the trip was to humanize both sides of the argument, which greatly deepened my ability to empathize and understand the true complexity of the issue. Shura Wallin, a member of the Green Valley Samaritans, a group that combs the desert offering food, water, and other bare necessities to struggling, mobile migrants, took us on a walk through a route commonly taken by immigrants through the stark desert landscape outside Tucson. After guiding us past the vicious cacti and tangles of barbed wire, she welcomed us into her own quaint home, where she had amassed a collection of abandoned keepsakes she’d found throughout her years with the Samaritans. Seeing family photos and long-forgotten personal garments added gravity to the fact that the people some would call “aliens” are in fact every bit as human as we are, although perhaps not as fortunate.

The Borderlinks experience was thorough and fair, allowing those who attempt to prevent the entrance of undocumented people to speak their piece. A veteran Border Patrol agent offered us a refreshing perspective on people in his line of work. He acknowledged that his job occasionally calls for a certain level of toughness, but that respect and love for peoples’ inherent human dignity ultimately governs everything he does. His humble, unfiltered testimony made it clear that Border Patrol agents are not just the belligerent jingoists they are sometimes made out to be, but thoughtful, level-headed people working towards a future they believe to be desirable.

Borderlinks afforded us the opportunity to put ourselves in direct contact with these people, a luxury that no amount of at-home research could replace. The opportunity to engage in direct dialogue with experts in every organization we encountered allowed us to receive immediate specific answers to every thought or question that crossed through our minds; no sentiment was left behind to fade or fester.

Kim Clifton, Brown ’14, said of the experience: “It’s always been hard for me to relate to people through media because the snippets of conversation included in an article can never substitute for the dialogue that is possible when meeting someone in person. Tucson gave me an opportunity to meet people whose voices I’d only read as quotes. Seeing their tears, frustration, and passion as they spoke allowed me to empathize much more fully with immigrants and desire justice for them.”

The level of personal interaction also impacted James Blum, Brown ‘14: “I was really surprised by two things; both of which had to do with my personal interactions with the people we met. The first was that I didn’t find anyone I could be personally mad at about the injustices. Frustrated maybe, but not mad. This helped me realize that the dysfunction in the border area results, in large part, from systemic failures. The second was that I didn’t realize the ripple effect of a deportation or the threat of deportation. The impact is far larger than just the person at issue, but deeply effects family, friends, coworkers, community members, and entire social circles. This allowed me to look at all the problems through a different lens that is experiential rather than academic.”

In addition to the personal, emotional, and philosophical connections we managed to make, we were also introduced to concrete institutions and the immediate ways in which they affect people’s lives. We were lucky enough to be allowed to witness a series of trials of migrants caught crossing the border illegally. The hearings were the result of a program called “Operation Streamline,” an attempt to give each defendant the trial they are entitled to by law. However, given the relatively similar nature of their charges, they were brought to the stand shackled and convicted in groups, about five at a time. Although each person had a chance to plead as they chose and offer any additional detail or testimony they wished, none of the approximately 70 people we saw opened their mouths other than to plead guilty and receive their sentences, ranging from 30 to 120 days in length. Later, Jay Sager, one of the attorneys appointed to Operation Streamline (and coincidentally, a Brown alum!) told us afterward that the reason for the speediness was that lawyers get very little time with their clients before the trial, sometimes as little as a few hours, nowhere near enough time to build a decent case.

Later that same evening, we met with Murphy Woodhouse, a graduate student in Latin-American studies from the University of Arizona. He told us a bit more about the public reaction to Operation Streamline. A widely held opinion seems to be that it is unjust in addition to inefficient. Not only do people believe the program to be a travesty of justice, but even at their accelerated pace, courts are only able to process a tiny fraction of apprehended migrants.

Murphy left us with a sobering thought: “If you leave this trip thinking you have it all figured out, then we did something wrong.” He was right. The current issues with immigration are far too complex to be understood, let alone solved, in a week. For all the insight our experience with Borderlinks offered us, it raised just as many questions and introduced just as many more nuances to the situation. But Borderlinks succeeded in their mission, to educate people about the issue and inspire them to continue pursuing a solution.

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