As the hot desert sun beat down on sand and concrete, a woman waved to us from behind a chain-link fence. “We love having visitors,” she said with her words easily passing through the metal barrier that separated us. “We need help.”
This woman, along with approximately 1,500 other undocumented immigrants, is a detainee at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona because she illegally entered into the United States, which is typically a civil rather than criminal offense. Privately owned by Corrections Corporation of America and federally regulated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, EDC is one of the largest for-profit detention centers in the nation and generates millions of dollars in revenue for CCA each year. EDC has received criticism for its apparent failure to comply with federal standards regarding treatment of detainees, particularly in terms of mental and physical health. While some detainees have served prison time for criminal offenses in the past, none of the individuals currently at Eloy remain there under conviction of an actual crime. Yet they too face prison-like conditions before, in most cases, being deported and often leaving family, including small children, behind in the United States.
I, along with 12 other members of the Georgetown community, toured EDC as a part of the Kino Border Immersion Alternative Breaks Program. Strongly influenced by the Jesuit values of reflection and social justice, Kino seeks to humanize the almost-maddeningly multifaceted experience that characterizes the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona by listening to the perspectives of diverse individuals and organizations in the region. Faith leaders like John Fife, a human rights activist and retired Presbyterian minister, described their struggle to provide adequate humanitarian aid for migrants crossing into the United States, while environmentalist Sergio Avila discussed the disruptive impact of the border wall on the flora and fauna of the Southwest. Border Patrol and EDC, which I had previously demonized as the enemy, are in reality law enforcement organizations that operate under a flawed national legal system rather than through individuals with malicious agendas; this further complicates the situation on the border. Recently deported migrants in Nogales, Mexico shared stories of the unfathomable suffering they experienced when they made their arduous journeys to the United States, only to be denied asylum upon arrival or deported after years of working and starting a family. The sheer breadth of human experience that characterizes our southern border with Mexico rendered our group incapable of categorizing its actors as “good” or “bad.” Instead, we were forced to reckon with and recognize each actor whether a Border Patrol agent or a migrant deported that very morning.
The wall on the U.S.-Mexican border exists beyond an arbitrary line drawn between the two nations. With the glass partition at Border Patrol that separated us from migrants and the metal fence keeping the Eloy detainee at arm’s length, the border sharply divides. At the beginning of the day we spent in Mexico, our guide from Kino Border Initiative emphasized the idea of accompaniment, not division, as the core concept for understanding the border experience and developing a capacity for empathy and respect as we traced the path of recently deported migrants back into Mexico. We walked beside the chutes that corral and direct deportees out of the United States like cattle and crossed the border into Nogales undisturbed by customs agents who judged us solely by the merit of our U.S. passports. Gazing at that towering wall, I was struck by the absurdity and glaring injustice of the border. This boundary, which divides indigenous communities and partitions their native homelands, which drives desperate, innocent individuals to cross miles on foot through the hostile desert terrain, is merely a line in the sand, a single latitude that has generated incalculable human suffering. Each night countless migrants make the trek to cross that boundary, and we, as a nation, continue to fail them when they arrive.
Perhaps the most revealing yet frustrating part of the program was our inability to formulate a solution to the multilayered conflict of the border experience. Although I returned to Georgetown without a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, I brought with me the understanding of a key facet of the ultimate solution to the humanitarian crisis at the border: Whether you are a politician or a college student, you have to go to the border, to the physical wall that separates Mexico from the United States, to fully comprehend and humanize the conflicting experiences that characterize migration. If you are able, cross the border, trace the steps taken by migrants along desert trails and across man-made boundaries and listen to the stories of the people with whom you think you cannot agree. Kino taught me to open my heart and mind in order to recognize the humanity in each and every person, and that there is no black and white in a conflict as far-reaching as that which resides at our Southern border. It is this acknowledgment, through empathy and kindness, of common membership to the human community that enables social justice to manifest as informed, effective advocacy. I challenge Georgetown students and faculty to visit the border at least once, because only there will you undergo the experiences necessary to compel you to create positive and enduring change from the Hilltop.
Grace Laria is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.