Kylee Schunn said she was shocked when she first saw the border wall between Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta in Sonora, Mexico, during a recent MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) Borderlands Tour.
"It was striking how militarized it felt from the beginning," said Schunn, who noticed the patrol vehicles and checkpoints on the U.S. side of the border during the tour she joined as a Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) volunteer who serves as a legal assistant at Catholic Migration Services.
What was even more surprising to Schunn, she said, was to learn about the history of the wall. "The original border between Douglas and Agua Prieta was actually a man-made water drain system on the U.S. side," she said. "The reason it was created was to prevent flooding in Mexico during Monsoon season. So the actual first man-made barrier in place was a sign of peace — a sign of friendship."
The tour, with its evocative insight, is important to Schunn's role of helping people navigate the complicated immigration system. That navigation includes focusing on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and green card renewal, as well as Freedom of Information Act filings. These applications and renewal processes are long and time consuming.
Schunn and the other tour participants met Feb. 9 in Tucson, Arizona, and drove to Douglas, Arizona, a town on the border between the United States and Mexico. There, they met with representatives from Frontera de Cristo, the umbrella organization that introduced them to partner organizations around the border wall area.
The wall acts as a barrier, a curtain, between two communities that 30 years ago were closely interconnected through friendship.
"That was the premise of our week," Schunn said. "That's how it started."
The next day, the group crossed into Agua Prieta to learn about the causes of migration, including hearing from staff members of organizations that assist migrants.
Café Justo y Mas is a "grower-owned coffee cooperative based in southern Chiapas, Mexico, formed to address the poverty and migration from Mexico to the U.S.A.," according to their website. The coffee farmers set their own prices. Café Justo y Mas buys the beans, roasts and packages them, then sells them to buyers in all 50 states and a few other countries. According to Café Justo y Mas staff, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented, coffee bean prices fell by four-fifths their value.
Another organization, Exodus Migrant Attention Center (CAME), provides microfinance loans to small businesses in Mexico and runs a shelter to provide safety for people who are migrating in Agua Prieta. In 2018, the CAME shelter served 328 people. In 2019, it served 1,088 people. This drastic increase comes from changes in immigration policies that require those seeking asylum in the United States to remain in Mexico until their court date, as well as limitations on the number of people who can enter through a port of entry each day.
Many of the people who are migrating that Schunn talked to were not coming to the United States to live permanently, but rather to look for work so they can send money home to their families.
"Working in the [United States] in some of these tough laborious jobs [like farming] for a couple of years can make a huge difference for their families in their home countries who are searching for economic prosperity," Schunn said.
When the group passed back through the border into the United States on foot, Schunn marveled at the art on the Mexico side. She said that the beautiful murals depicting the natural migrations of birds, whales and butterflies stood in stark contrast to the harshness of the human migration happening at the border. "[There was a] very stark difference," she said, thinking back to the rusted metal and massive armed presence on the U.S. side. "It was the same border wall, but two different depictions of the experience."
The group also joined in the Healing Our Borders vigil, a remembrance that has happened every Tuesday since 2000. Vigil participants hold crosses with the names of those who have died during the act of migration. "We [walked along the border] and honored their names and tried to honor the courage that it took for them to cross into the United States," Schunn said.
Next, the group traveled back to Tucson. They learned from staff at Casa Alitas, a migrant shelter that houses and provides resources for migrants entering the United States. Schunn said that Casa Alitas has a massive volunteer network of around 1,500 people who provide clothing, housing, daily meals, and rides to the airport, bus or train stations.
The tour participants take part in a "water drop" in the Arizona desert. Photo by Kylee Schunn.
The group woke up early on the penultimate morning of the trip and went out to do a "water drop," a practice of the Tucson Samaritans to aid people as they cross the Arizona desert. For more information about water drops and their importance, read this article about Alvaro Enciso's "Where Dreams Die" project.
On the tour's last day, Tina Schlabach, pastor at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, described a detention visitation program with the Eloy [Arizona] Detention Center. Members of the Shalom congregation spend time with people who have been detained. Many of these asylum-seeking individuals haven't committed a crime but are still being detained.
Learning about the detention center connected Schunn back to her MVS placement in New York, where Catholic Migration Services attorneys help people with asylum cases. In contrast, many of the people inside the detention center in Eloy, while having received some legal coaching from local agencies, are self-representing themselves in their cases.
Back at her placement in New York, Schunn is looking for places where she can address the issues she learned about during the borderlands tour.
The reality of immigration into the United States is incredibly complex, yet there is hope, Schunn noted.
"I believe that every human should have the opportunity to be met with dignity and respect," Schunn said. "I think that's what we all deserve and that's something that I hope to bring with me when I'm working with clients."