For most people, what is unfolding with the so-called “migrant caravan” on the Mexican side of our southern border is confusing, muddled by the piecemeal coverage of mainstream journalism, and muddied by the hyperbolic and inflammatory rhetoric of the immigration debate.
That’s why five faculty members traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, in January: to experience firsthand what life is like among those who have traveled from their home countries to seek refuge in the United States, and to put faces and real stories to the views of the mainstream news. The trip was funded by the FLC Foundation.
For five days, the team stayed in Tijuana, volunteering with several organizations. The multilingual team was also able to talk with and assist many people who had arrived in the caravan. All five say that the experiences they had have already reshaped their personal perspectives, and are having impacts on their roles as instructors and mentors.
“It was kind of amazing to suddenly walk into what felt like the eye of the hurricane of the social issues that are happening in the United States right now,” says Professor of Sociology & Human Services Janine Fitzgerald. “Although I had no illusions about saving the world or being able to significantly change this situation, to sit down and talk to a woman who had faced abuse, who saw a nephew murdered, who received death threats scratched in the dirt, who was afraid to be separated from her daughter, who could not read and write, was profound.”
The team was in Tijuana January 10 – 14. While there, they each volunteered in a variety of capacities, from legal assistant to translator to kitchen cook, with Al Otro Lado, which helps migrants figure out whether they have a strong case for asylum and helps them prepare for their interviews with U.S. authorities; Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter along the border; World Central Kitchen, which prepares and provides 1,300 hot meals to migrants twice a day; Border Angels, a group that advocates for human rights, humane immigration reform, and social justice; and Enclave Caracol, which assists and offers a safe space for LGBTQ migrants.
“Our trip to the borderlands made a powerful impression on all of us,” says Assistant Professor of Political Science Paul DeBell. “It brought us face to face with enormous injustice and suffering, but also with indomitable human resilience, kindness, and generosity. The severity of the problems fired us up, just as the tenacity of the people working on the border inspired us.”
Associate Professor of Sociology Ben Waddell notes that although he has spent the last decade researching issues related to migration and development in Latin America, “I've spent relatively little time along the border,” he says. “This trip gave me a deeper understanding of what migrants go through in crossing into the United States, as well as the profound inequalities that exist between countries.”
“On a more personal level,” Waddell adds, “as the father of three Mexican-American children, and the husband of a Mexican national, this trip provided me with a better sense of what it means to grow up with Mexican heritage in the United States today. This trip reaffirmed my belief that migrants are part of the solution, not the problem. Humans have been migrating since the dawn of humanity. Due to the adversity migrants confront in their lives, they approach the world with an openness that others are unable to access. As risk-takers, migrants are more prone to innovative thinking, which is tightly linked with problem solving.”
Carolina Alonso, assistant professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies, says, “As a queer immigrant who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border, I had a particular interest in learning more about the LGBTQ community traveling with the caravan. This trip was also important for me as a professor in the new Borders & Languages program. The topics of migration, along with physical and sexual and gender borders, are an essential part of my curriculum. Now that I have witnessed firsthand what is happening in Tijuana, I have been able to incorporate these discussions into my classes.”
Assistant Professor of Political Science Ruth Alminas also found the experiences this trip offered touched her on multiple levels, from personal to professional. "As someone who studies the causes and consequences of the increasing global refugee population, and as a child of a refugee myself, I did not really discover anything that surprised me," she explains. "But seeing the suffering and the resilience of the asylum seekers and hearing their stories firsthand certainly made the situation feel more real and more pressing."
"The uplifting part of this story that often gets missed, though," she continues, "is that there are many dedicated organizations and individuals who are at the border helping to advocate for the migrants' rights, feed them, provide legal and medical assistance, shelter them, and more. It was a wonderful thing to see how humans come together in a time of need and help."
In February, the team made a multimedia presentation to campus about the trip, their experiences, and the lessons they learned. Watch it below.