by Rachel Zawila
One hundred yards and one fence are all that divide two completely different lifestyles. Those along the Southwestern U.S.-Mexico border know this well, but for many U.S. residents, immigration issues feel a million miles away. To bring the issue closer to home, Siena College in Loudonville, New York, offers the Border Awareness Experience, a weeklong immersion that shows students the personal face of immigration and border life.
In January, eight students from the Franciscan college traveled to the border cities of Anthony, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. While there, they talked with local residents; witnessed an immigration hearing; interacted with a federal judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney; and participated in a border-patrol tour.
“The students arrived with open minds and open hearts,” says Vera Eccarius-Kelly, PhD, an associate professor of political science, who accompanied the students. “They established personal connections with community members along the border region and let go of preconceived notions.”
Meeting people on both sides of the border, the students were able to form their own opinions about the human struggles involved in the immigration issue. “Immigration is much more complex than what the media portrays the issue to be,” says Dustin Stiffler, a sophomore. “Many think that it is very easy to immigrate legally, but [it] is easier said than done. Learning of these challenges added depth to the issue.”
The group also visited the Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, which supports legal and illegal residents of El Segundo Barrio, one of the poorest neighborhoods in El Paso.
“I had begun the trip very ignorant,” says Stiffler, but “ended it with an abundance of knowledge and insight.”
Eccarius-Kelly sees this insight inspiring action. “This visit inspired our students to dedicate themselves to supporting social-justice campaigns in their own communities,” she says. “We learned that community-based and grassroots activism can make an enormous difference.”
“As Franciscans, we are asked to see each immigrant as our brother and sister,” says Shannon O’Neill, PhD, director of Siena’s Sr. Thea Bowman Center for Women, who helped lead the trip. “We facilitate an encounter with a group of people that our students may have considered to be ‘other’ and a group that is often vilified and scapegoated in the media and political rhetoric. This group of students will no longer be able to think impersonally about illegal immigrants or border issues. They have faces, names, and experiences to reflect upon.”