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Coming to America

Students Learn the Horrors of U.S.-Mexico Border Crossings

Our spring break trip to Mexico was spent not on the sunny beaches of Cancun but in the barrios of Nogales, Sonora. Our group of 16 students and a professor in a Univ. of Michigan social science class traveled with Borderlinks, a nonprofit organization that coordinates trips to educate students about the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border. We visited the U.S. Border Patrol station and Immigration Services and saw the many maquiladoras (factories, mostly foreign-owned) and stayed with the people who worked in them. We spoke with community organizers and activists who work for labor rights and migrants’ safety. We saw the contrasts between rich and poor, well-serviced industries and neighborhoods lacking sewage systems, anti-immigrant policy and social activism to help those making the journey al otro lado.

One such migrant outreach group that we visited is called Center for Attention to Migrants in Exodus (C.A.M.E.), run by a local Catholic Church in the city of Agua Prieta. It offers food, shelter, and information to migrants making the treacherous journey through the desert to Arizona. During our brief stay at C.A.M.E., we met Luis, a migrant from southern Mexico.

We met Luis on the third day after he was separated from his family in the Arizonan desert. He stood in front of us, eyes fixed on the ground, and pled with us to help him find his wife and children. He believed they were being held for ransom by coyotes, people who charge a commission to smuggle immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. Luis’s son had a damaged leg and the family was taking him to the U.S. to get medical attention. They were led through the desert with a group of other Mexicans by a coyote. When Luis’s son could not keep up with the group, the family was left behind.

Stranded in the desert, Luis left his family to look for food and water in a town they passed through. There he was caught by the Border Patrol. His daughter in California received a call from a coyote saying he had the family and demanding ransom to set them free. Luis had no way to contact his wife. He was not sure if the coyote was lying to him or even if his family was still alive.

Our bodies trembled as we sat and listened, each of us imagining ourselves in his position, with no resources and nowhere to turn for help. Immediately, some of us began to collect money to give to him, but we realized that all the money in the world would not help if he was unable to locate his family. C.A.M.E. offered all they could for him: a bed to sleep on, a plate of food, and as much support as the volunteers could give to put him in contact with his family. Yet his situation seemed hopeless.

Luis’ story is only one of thousands like it that take place every day as desperate Mexicans attempt to cross the border into the U.S. Last year alone, hundreds of human beings died attempting to make the journey to the U.S. and the number of deaths is rising.

Our experience on the border of our country led us to a feeling of solidarity with the people we encountered. Upon our return, we tried to turn these sentiments into positive actions. Through presentations, publications, and the formation of a student group we have attempted to raise awareness about the labor conditions and the dangers faced by the people whose voices we heard.

Luis asked us for help. Although our first reaction was to give money, it became apparent that what we can do is help Luis to find a voice—to raise awareness about the conditions along the U.S.-Mexico border and to encourage others to make the same journey we did.

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