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Formative Experience at the US/Mexico Border and How it is Sharping How I See the Community Around Me

27 May 2019 1:04 PM | Anonymous

by  Kara Sappington, ORTESOL Post-President and Associate Director – Corban Language Institute

I knew going into my trip that I would have a “formative” experience at the U.S./Mexico Border but I did not realize how challenged I would be to see in agendaless wonder, immerse in community, and process what contending and restoration could look like both on the border and in my own community in Oregon.  

I had the privilege to participate in an immersion trip with other professors, leadership, staff and students from my university.  It was an intense three days of hearing personal stories from immigrants, learning about different perspectives on the topic of immigration, and seeing creative ways communities have worked to meet needs -- an immersive experience that would have otherwise been inaccessible to me.    

Two native women from Tijuana shared about both the positives and negatives that have stemmed from non-profit and faith based groups coming to their region.  They stressed the importance of relationship and having both parties contribute to help solve a problem. We walked thru part of the city that has medical tourism and a red light district filled with brothels.  One woman caught my eye as she stood with a short skit and heels reading a book on the sidewalk in front of a club. I wondered what her story was, what access to education she had, and what her hopes were for the future.  Each person had a story.

At a local café, I was able to hear from two Dreamer moms who had been deported from the U.S. and separated from their children.  Dreamer children, also referred to as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), are those who were raised in the United States since before they were 16.  One Dreamer mom had a short term visa to the United States but when they went to Mexico she was unable to enter back into the U.S. It has now been 10 years, she has experienced her children getting married and having kids all by distance.  She said how it was hard each time they had a video call to be strong for her family. Dreamer Moms USA/Tijuana was formed in 2014 to support other deported parents whose children are still in the United States with services offered include legal assistance, housing referrals, therapy, food pantry, and other support.  

Another population that hit close to my heart was deported Veterans.  Hector Barajas-Verela is the director of DVHS (Deported Veterans Support House). The mission of the Deported Veterans Support House is to “support deported veterans staying at the “bunker” on their path to self-sufficiency by providing assistance in the realms of food, clothing and shelter as they adjust to life in their new country of residence.  Ultimately, they hope to see an end to the need of our services as people advocate for political legislation, which would prohibit the deportation of United States Veterans, both former and current.” I met a veteran that was honorable discharged after serving in Vietnam and continued additional years serving in the coast guard. He understood at recruitment that he could gain citizenship while serving in the military but it appeared there were not clear steps or support on what he needed to do to become a U.S. citizen.   

There are thousands of men, women and children who continue to make their way to Tijuana with hopes of finding a job, resettling or seeking entrance into the United States.  I was able to visit and stay overnight at a men’s shelter, Casa del Migrante, that supports deportees and migrant men. They process around 10,000 men at the shelter each year and provide holistic services including basic care, education, employment services, legal advice and counseling.  Here is an old video on Casa del Migrante shelter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvVHlcFKI84   Historically, single men have been the primary populations but over the last few years the demographics have changed.  This required a quick response from the community to house women and children. I was able to visit the Salvation Army Women’s Shelter, which has been in existence for four years now in Tijuana to meet the needs of migrants and deportees.  A mom from Guatemala with her 11 year old son and 5 year old daughter shared her story of feeing the local gangs who were targeting her son and threatening her family. Families like her need to make a decision if they will continue their application for asylum even though their chances for approval are low or look for other options for resettlement.  

As shelters continue to grow in the Tijuana area, there is a new effort to have better collaboration, sustainability and empowerment across the dignified shelters network.  For example, a local orphanage was often visited by groups that would bring junk food. This is high cost, not healthy for the children and youth and can promote a dependable attitude. As an alternative, the dry dead ground on the campus was revitalized and now houses a garden.  The children and youth have been taught sustainability and now are grow many items in the garden.

The last day of my formative experience I got to hear from two very different groups: U.S. Border Patrol and Border Angels.  The U.S. Border Patrol shared about their goal of “catching the big fish” and tracking the cartels. It was evident that there would be a benefit on additional funding for judges to process the back log of immigration and asylum requests, additional agents, updated holding facilities that could accommodate women and children and more resources at the ports of entry.  Border Angels is a humanitarian and activist group that was formed in 1986. Enrique, Executive Director of Border Angels, is quoted as saying, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not watching”.

As I traveled to the border, this was really a physical illustration of the walls that have developed in hearts.  One leader said it well, “walls in our hearts, breeds walls outside”. At Friendship Park you could see the pillar that years ago was the only line separating the U.S. and Mexico Border.  Now you can see two layers of fence that separate San Diego and Tijuana. One thing I continued to remind myself throughout the journey is how important it is to hear personal stories and understand both side of a controversial issue such as immigration and not form opinions by one media source.   

There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. (DHS.gov)  Immigration isn’t an issue reserved to the halls of politics, it’s a daily reality in your city. How might schools, businesses and non-profit organizations be mobilized as an instrument of peace in this human reality? How are students and families in your classroom being impacted?  How might we approach immigration from a human perspective?

During our debrief, we got to hear from Adam who was a math teacher for 12 years and now works with helping bring together communities to address immigration issues.  As a teacher he didn’t realize how close the issues of immigration were until he was helping some of his students apply for college and financial aid and they didn’t have social security numbers.  He saw a need and continued to follow doors that were opened and now uses his understanding of education and desire to help others in a new way. Another woman shared about how she got involved in a community center when she moved to a new neighborhood in Tijuana.  Her Zumba instructor approached her about tutoring her and having English conversation after the classes. This relationship allowed for her to advocate when the Zumba instructor had a confusing insurance bill from a hospital visit. Having opportunities to see, immerse and contend can come from the classroom, the community or personal relationships.   

The trip compelled me to move the topic of immigration from a polarizing, political issue to a human, social issue to really think about how I can be more aware, advocate and care for the strangers or students in my midst.  I am continually challenged by how I can see, immerse and creatively contend for those in my sphere of influence.

What can you do to learn more?

  • Walk around your neighborhood with open eyes.  Meet those around your neighborhood, community centers and other spheres of influence.  Take time to learn and listen.

  • Learn about immigration resources in your area.  

  • Learn about Oregon programs such as ORSAA (Oregon Student Aid Application), which allows Oregon residents who are undocumented to apply for higher education financial aid.

  • Learn about relevant House Bills in the Oregon State Legislature.  For example:

    • House Bill 2015 would eliminate the requirement that a person provide proof of legal residency to obtain a non-commercial driver’s license, driver’s permit, or ID card.

    • House Bill 2508 would requires Department of Human Services to award grants to refugee resettlement agencies to provide specified services to refugees.

    • House Bill 2019 establishes a fund for Student Success in education.

How can you see?  Where can you sit and listen, longer than you normally would? How can you creatively contend by advocating?    

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