by Anna Alicia Chavez, JSRI Migration Specialist with reflections from the group
The U.S.-Mexico border is a crucial place of encounter. It is the only place in the world where the developed world literally comes face to face with the underdeveloped world. This place is like no other where the boundaries that separate “us” from “them” become blurred. It is a place where one easily becomes confused, not quite clear on whether one is stepping on U.S. or Mexico territory. Here the dominant anti-immigrant rhetoric and the rationale for “enforcement only” policy is naturally contested.
Early Monday morning on May 10, 2010, a group of Loyola students set out on a 17-hour drive to El Paso, Texas to participate in a U.S.-Mexico border immersion experience. The trip was sponsored by the university’s Office of Mission and Ministry under the Ignacio Volunteer program. The goal of the immersion experience was twofold: To learn first-hand about the realities of immigration and Catholic social teaching as it relates to immigration; and, in the Christian spirit of service, to be present to the people we encountered—and through our presence—to affirm their dignity and serve however we were asked. The agenda for each day was packed with lectures, visits and guided tours to various places along the border. West Cosgrove of Casa Puente was our guide. I had the privilege to accompany the students on this trip. What follows is a collective reflection on our experience.
Ignacio Volunteers at Franklin Mountains State Park
Confusing the boundaries
We began the experience with a border tour designed to analyze the meaning of the border. West took us to three distinct locations that marked the boundary of the U.S.-Mexican border. Our first stop was to a look-out point in the Franklin Mountains State Park where we were able to get a wide-range view of the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez (better known as sister cities) metropolitan area. From this view, any tangible marking of boundaries is impossible. The geographical landscape is seamless and the boundaries that seem so fragile are invisible. From here the concept of “we” is clearly a non-issue. The interdependence of the sister cities becomes at once obvious.
Our next stop was to a desert area where a chain-linked fence marks the boundaries of the two countries. The fence borders alongside a very impoverished and underdeveloped neighborhood on the side of Ciudad Juarez. While we were there, a few curious children came to the fence to say hello. It was a moment of truth; a stark reality of the fact that this fence divides “us” from “them”.
The border patrolmen also showed up, warning us to be careful. Of what, we asked? Within the U.S. immigration discourse, the rhetoric of national safety and security is linked to the construction of this fence. It was difficult to grasp the idea that these innocent children are thought to be a threat to us. For this one moment, we came face to face with the absurdity of the billions of dollars spent to build this fence, which, by the way, ends only a few hundred yards away. As we looked into the eyes of the children, it became evident that the symbolism of this fence—a fence that divides the “haves” from the “have nots”—represents our fear of the “other.”
Our third stop was even more confusing. It was a place where Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico meet. The boundary here is marked by a row of white rocks strategically placed on the ground. Indeed—depending on where we stepped, we were in and out of two nations. And we wondered, “does this make us ‘illegal’?” After all, we literally had one foot in the U.S. and the other in Mexico.
Children at the fence, colonia of Anapara in Ciudad Juarez
A row of white rocks marks the border
Insights of the Drug War
Our first lesson was met with disappointment as we learned that we would not be able to cross the border due to the increased violence caused by the ongoing bloody war of the drug cartels along the Mexican border-towns. This war has caused as many as 15,000 deaths over the years. Since 2008, the death toll in Ciudad Juarez alone is over 5,000. As the violence intensifies in Ciudad Juarez, tens of thousands of people have migrated to this side on the border. Ironically, while Juarez is rated as possibly the most dangerous city in the world, El Paso is known to be one of the safest cities in the United States.
We were reminded that although the drug war is fought in Mexico, it is intrinsically linked to the U.S. It is our nation’s drug habits that feed this war as the drug cartels fight over who will control the lucrative supply of drugs to the U.S. Furthermore, the weapons employed for this war are purchased in the U.S. and smuggled across the border. We were left with questions regarding culpability for the bloodshed in foreign land.
Blessed are the workers
We visited with farm workers who openly shared their stories of laboring in the fields. We were at once keenly aware that these hard working men and women made it possible for us to eat well for an affordable price while they do not always have enough to feed their own families. We walked away with a sense of great appreciation for having met the people whose hands pick our daily food. We did not take this lightly; but rather, at our very next meal, we began the ritual of giving thanks for our brothers and sisters who labor hard and long hours for an unfair wage.
Farm workers preparing for a night’ rest before a hard day’s work that begins at midnight
and ends in the late afternoon.
We witnessed with our own eyes the consequences of our country’s unfair economic practices that have resulted in the devastation of the livelihood of millions of Mexicans. One of the stipulations that the U.S and Canada placed on Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 (NAFTA) required Mexico to amend her constitution. Written into the 1927 Constitution, Article 27, was a fundamental protection of the land and her people. This article recognized the land as sacred and as such, the source of life for all her people. The land was divided and commonly owned by families (called “ejidos”) and could never be sold by an individual.
Doing away with this article resulted in grave devastation for Mexico. Mexico quickly lost control of her most sacred staple crop, corn. With it came the loss of a way of life for the people. There is a popular saying in Mexico, “Sin maize no hay pais,” meaning without corn, there is no Mexico. For the first time in history, Mexico was unable to produce enough food to feed her people. Over 2 million farmers in Mexico lost their lands because they could not compete with the U.S. corporate agriculturalists. We gained a better understanding of why millions of people in Mexico and other countries in Central and South America have no other option but to migrate north to the United States.
Ironically, as the U.S. government gets tougher on migration enforcement and seals the border, it simultaneously approves foreign policies such as NAFTA. While current foreign policy allows for the easy flow of commodities, services, currency, and even contraband, including drugs and weapons, across international borders, human mobility is not as easy. Nation-state migration laws too often deny poor people access to a given country. In conclusion, the root-causes of the push and pull factors of immigration to the United State are difficult to deny.
With every story we heard and every sight we saw there was a consistent theme of contradiction. Perhaps Briana puts it best:
"…we live in a country of such blatant contradiction. Split are the values America claims to hold and the realities that lie beneath the illusions—what America “wants to be,” and what we really are. We saw these contradictions constantly come up surrounding the issue of immigration as it is detachedly addressed in politics and the press, rather than it being a very human story. We advertise freedom and respect for the civil rights of all in a supposedly “unified” nation, while we push more and more to the margins our dark-skinned brothers and sisters, leaving them a step away from needing to wear a gold star in Arizona. On one hand, we say to the immigrants: “You are not welcome here, and we will make it as difficult as possible for you to enter our country.” On the other hand, we say, “We have just the job for you.” We say “immigrants are a detriment to society” (but we all enjoy our fruit).
We felt the contradiction upon viewing the different vantages of the border: A senseless $4.7 million-per-mile fence not meant to stop immigration flow, but to “slow them down,” as reported to us by a border patrol official. A seemingly random arrangement of white painted rocks marks the imaginary line between “us” and “them” in another spot. Then there is the “grand” river, ankle deep. And the division of mountains marked by a manmade fence, as if such a thing were possible.
One foot in Mexico and the other in the United States. Confusing? It was for us.
The contradictive lines exist not only externally, in our policy and its enforcement, but in our imaginations as well. That drug-cartel violence is “over there in poor Mexico,” far-off in some other world corner, unrelated to us, of course (and yet we fund it). We declare that we will not have our country “taken over” by “illegal immigrants” (and yet, where did we come from?). Existing in a country and culture of such contradiction, what needs to be to recognized, acknowledge and named are the borders that exist in our minds, the borders between truths and untruths. Both lands cannot exist side by side, separated by only a thin, permeable line. There is bound to be cross-over, and it will become more and more difficult to distinguish the two."
Not all is bleak
A border experience like this one can be quite overwhelming. Day-in and day-out we were challenged to see through the eyes of another, to hear the contradictions of the slogans we often naively buy into. Everywhere we turned there was another reminder of how broken our immigration system really is; but, in the midst of this reality, we were also reminded that with faith there is hope. The virtues of faith and hope and, indeed, joy were an obvious feature of all the immigrants we met along the way. Despite all the adversity, the people in El Paso persevere and their community development efforts are a sign of great hope for a better world. Here is Brittany’s reflection that speaks beautifully of the gift of hope that we walked away with following our experience:
"I left El Paso having extremely mixed feelings; a mixture of hope, longing, happiness, and a touch of despair. On the one hand, I am hopeful that with projects such as Fair Trade, the world has a chance of becoming a better place, a more just society in which everyone can exercise their basic human rights. On the other hand, there are many who are blinded by the masks they wear on a daily basis, refusing to witness the horrors that take place in this so-called great country. Nobody wants to see the reality as it is. Nobody wants to admit that the United States is indeed at fault for allowing Mexican workers to work without benefits and below the minimum wage. Instead, many Americans would rather turn a blind eye and assume that everyone else has the same basic rights that we as citizens have.
When I got home, I talked to a few people about the new laws in Arizona concerning ethnic studies and immigration and, to my surprise and disappointment, I saw that many people supported both of those laws, thought that they were great, and that other states should follow. Frankly, I am scared for our society. I see no logic to these laws. I once talked to a friend of mine who currently lives in Phoenix who said "Honestly, I am ashamed to live in Arizona" after the laws had been passed. At this comment, my heart sank. Now not only are Mexican immigrants being targeted as bad, evil people, but Mexican-American citizens are also targeted. I remember a time when I was a little girl and my dad told me, "Honey, I know this doesn't sound good right now, but you will be discriminated against in life and things will not be fair for you." I remember asking why and he gave me two solid reasons: "You are a female, and you are Mexican-American. People won't think you can do things because you are a girl. The Americans will never fully accept you because you are Mexican, and the Mexicans will never fully accept you because you are American." These words have stuck with me throughout my life. I've always wanted to prove him wrong, but to my disappointment, these statements have been true. Visiting with the immigrants and the women from Mujer Obrera has only reinforced these statements and shown me how completely unfair life can be. However, not all hope is gone. Sometimes the best motivation comes from criticism. Personally, I am motivated to achieve when others tell me that I cannot, and that is what all of the women at Mujer Obrera, Gloria from Clinica Guadalupe, and the immigrants from the Farm Worker Center believe. They dream big and they never stop when people tell them they can't.
The human spirit is strong and carries with it the capacity to love others and share, even in their darkest moments. If there is one thing I can carry with me from everything I learned in El Paso, I would like to take with me the strength and heart that the people we met shared with us. If we could all be as strong, loving, hard-working, and hopeful as they are, the world would be a better place."
The way of Transformation
As we embarked on our journey to the border, we took some time to name our expectations. We entered the experience in search of truth and we returned transformed by the experience. The late Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuría taught that the act of truly understanding a reality had the potential to bring about personal transformation. This act employs both our cognitive and affective faculties. Ellacuría believed that in order to affect our understanding of reality, we must enter the actual reality to see and touch it and within its true context be in the “really real.” It is not enough to know about the reality but rather one must know the reality. In the act of being in the really real, one takes on the burden of that reality, meaning that one understands the moral implications that the reality demands. Finally, once understanding is affected ethically, one is ready to take responsibility for the reality; this is what Ellacuría believed to be the practical dimension of understanding. 
As we entered the reality of the borderland region, the people carried us away with their stories. We had the opportunity to touch and be in the really real. As we spent time reflecting on our daily events, we began to understand the moral implications for us and we knew we were being invited to live differently. We will continue to unpack this experience with all its implications for us. We are hopeful because we know that we can pass on the lessons learned to fellow classmates and anyone else willing to listen. Today we know firsthand that small steps such as drinking fair trade coffee, being mindful of the fragility of the earth’s resources, using less water and electricity, and shopping for clothes in places that honor the workmanship of the people who make our clothes can make a huge difference to our global family. You might say our new motto is, “Live simply so that others might simply live.”
Ignacio Volunteers at the Border Museum in El Paso, TX.
Left front: Briana Renfrow; left center: Brittany Chavez; left back: Raelynn Cambre; right front: Chad Landrum; center: Bri Powell; right back: our fearless leader, Josh Daly, Josh Daly Associate Chaplain, University Ministry)
 As Quoted by Hilary Cunningham, Ph.D., “A Gate That Opens And Closes: Globalization At The U.S.-Mexico Border,” Catholic Rural Life Magazine 43 no.2 (Spring 2001).
 John Sobrino, Jesus The Liberator, (Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 1993), 34-35.
Office Location: Mercy Hall, Room 306 | Mailing Address: 6363 St. Charles Avenue, Box 94 New Orleans, LA 70118