TUCSON (Mennonite Mission Network) — In recent weeks thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities large and small across the United States, rallying for the rights of immigrants. Behind each of these faces is a story of desperation and hope that cannot be restrained by man-made boundaries.
These are the stories BorderLinks, a Tucson non-profit group, hopes to make real.
BorderLinks is dedicated to educating people on both sides of the fence about border issues through its learning trips. Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) participant Miriam Miller serves as a facilitator for the program, which she says is “an exchange of knowledge where both parties gain and both become more equipped to fight for justice.”
Miller helps translate conversations that enable friendships that cross barriers made by borders, cultures and languages. “Part of our mission is to create equal, just relationships between people from Latin America and the United States,” she said.
Learning trips help expose and eliminate prejudices picked up in the media. Often, Miller said, Latinos become the scapegoat for U.S. economic and social problems. That scapegoating, and “basic racism that is engrained in all of us, are the reasons that education is one of the most essential parts of fighting the injustices of the world.”
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, between 11 and 12 million undocumented migrants currently live in the United States. A large percentage are from Mexico, Central America and other South American nations.
Learning trips put Americans in touch with just a few of these faces and the stories behind their long trek north. Mateo, for example, came from Guatemala to Arizona overland with his pregnant wife. After a year in the United States, Mateo was deported. Yet his wife and infant son remained behind. When Mateo met MVS participant Mark Wasser through BorderLinks, he was determined to make it back to them.
Or die trying.
“These people and this issue are so often presented as statistics that it’s easy to dehumanize them,” Wasser said. “I will never be able to do that again.”
Miller hopes each person who travels to Mexico on a BorderLinks learning trip will come away with a new appreciation for their neighbors to the south that will “inspire action for the betterment of diverse U.S. communities and the larger global community.”
A fence of corrugated tin, cement and chain link weaves its way across the Sonora Desert. It is meant to keep immigrants from crossing illegally from Mexico to Arizona.
In broad daylight Wasser watched a man approach the barrier from the Mexico side and clamber over, a look of fear and desperation in his eyes.
Why the desperation to come to the United States?
Cecelia Guzmán, Miller’s Mexican counterpart for BorderLinks trips, explains. She remembers when her brothers and husband had jobs working for local business – the railroad, construction, hotel industry and banking. All that changed when NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) passed in 1994.
Many Mexican businesses have been bought out by American companies, Guzmán said. Others haven’t been able to compete and have simply gone under. Agricultural products are exported and local restaurants give way to fast-food franchises imported from the United States.
Guzmán lives in Nogales, a city swollen with hopefuls, deportees and those just trying to get by. She said many people come hoping to work for eight months to a year, until “they can prove or invent that they need a tourist visa.” The 72-hour visa to cross into the United States costs $100, and many don’t plan to return to Nogales. Those who do come back arrive in the custody of U.S. immigration.
Yet what she sees as even worse than the economic depression is the disintegration of families and loss of culture. While some migrants work in the United States intermittently while returning home to build houses or help their families, Miller said some are never able to return for good because of their financial situation.
“They send a lot of money, but we need the presence of our fathers, husbands and sons,” Guzmán said.
These are the realities Nogales residents are able to share as they host their American neighbors for the duration of the learning trips. Miller said Latin Americans are the best teachers on immigration, economics and a system of oppression. On these occasions, they have the rare opportunity to let their voices be heard.
Americans and Mexicans need to be united, Guzmán said. It is through unity, built on relationships, that people become able to work together.