Since the Kino Border Initiative was founded in 2009, education has always been core to its work in addition todirect humanitarian assistance and affecting policy on the local, regional, and national level. These three pillars–education, humanitarian aid, and advocacy-serve as complementary vehicles for living out our vision of humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico. When KBI’s mission was established, offering immersion experiences for groups in Ambos Nogales was not specifically envisioned. However, they quickly became an integral and niche part of the KBI education pillar.
Father Peter Neeley, S.J., the Assistant Director of Education, played a fundamental role in shaping the mission and vision of Kino and has truly been the pulse of the education program over the past twelve years. On a sunny, brisk morning in Tucson, coffee in hand and sporting a backwards baseball cap, he tells the story of KBI’s education program and recalls precise dates of numerous immersion trips and students’ names who participated over 10 years ago! Reflecting on the foundation that gave way to the thriving education program we have today, he says, “education was always part of the mission, which meant educating parishes about the church’s responsibility to migrants–that we have to work for a humane immigration policy. The emphasis is on humanity.”
Father Neeley elaborates on this responsibility of recognizing the humanity of migrants as core to Catholic social teaching: “Part of being Catholic is welcoming the stranger. How do we best welcome our brothers and sisters who are migrants?” KBI exemplifies the Catholic identity through humanitarian aid, which is supported and lifted up by the larger Catholic community. However, we call on this community to go one step further and embody the legacy of Padre Kino, who was a defender of native peoples and a protector of their rights. Education serves as that bridge between aid and advocacy, cultivating informed and empathic defenders of the rights of migrants. One of the most tangible ways in which we build this bridge is by offering immersion experiences.
The First Immersion Groups
Immersion experiences started small in duration, frequency, and quantity. In the winter of 2009, KBI received Lourdes Catholic School in Nogales, Arizona and Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, Arizona each for one-day encounters during which high school students could listen to the stories of migrants and reflect on the realities at the border. At this time, multi-day immersion trips were yet to be considered at KBI, however, they were educational tools woven into the curriculum at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, CA. San Ignatius had been running trips to other parts of the US-Mexico border, as well as Latin America, to expose students to the push and pull factors of migration. In the summer of 2009, Patrick Lynch, a current theology teacher at San Ignatius, called Father Neeley explaining that students needed a broader perspective, especially of the border, and that they needed to see Jesuits in that context. While Father Neeley didn’t necessarily disagree, he told Patrick that KBI wasn’t set up for that kind of trip. All he heard from the other end of the line was, “well, we’re coming anyway.”
This institutional push from San Ignatius served as a catalyst for KBI to connect more tangibly with Jesuit educational institutions. “High school [students] need to see Jesuits–us–real life human beings doing this kind of work,” Father Pete explains. “Jesuit universities and high schools need us. They need us to fulfill their mission because we’re giving their students the opportunity to do what their mission statement says–‘to create men and women for others, with others’–which we do in the context of immigration.”
Looking back at the initial stages of the immersion experiences, Father Neeley recalls, “the first four years were organic.” While visiting Jesuit high schools and universities to give speeches, lectures, and facilitate retreats, Father Neeley extended the invitation to these institutions to come to the border and listen first-hand to the stories of migrants. “There is no plan that I had…I was just putting pieces together, and it just felt right while it was being put together. And the feedback that we got from the participants was supporting what I was doing, so I continued to build on to what you have today.”
Shaping the Immersion Experience
Father Neeley highlights staff members who were key contributors to shaping the current immersion experiences following its initial years of growth. West Cosgrove, who was hired in 2012 to direct education and advocacy at KBI, arrived to the role with several years of experience hosting immersion groups in Texas. Inheriting an ‘organically-grown’ immersion program at KBI, he used his expertise to provide structure to these experiences. Building upon the work of West, KBI then hired the current Director of Education and Advocacy, Joanna Williams. She has used her experience in policy analysis to add a more prevalent advocacy component to the immersion experiences, which continues to be cultivated.
The most drastic shift to the immersion experiences has arguably been in 2020. As a result of COVID-19, we have converted these trips to be one hundred percent online, an effort that was spearheaded by our current Associate Director of Education and Advocacy, Sister Tracey Horan, S.P. She was fundamental in helping the education team transfer the essence of an in-person experience to the screen where trip participants virtually “cross” the border to Nogales, Sonora to meet and interact with migrants, listen to their stories, tour our resource center, and accompany the Kino team in providing humanitarian services. Additionally they participate in sessions that allow them to speak with migrants in the US, explore the desert to better understand the treacherous journey, converse with ranchers in a rural town in southern Arizona, and reflect on complex legal issues and the larger immigration system.
Whereas these elements remain core to the immersion experiences, the immigration context along the border has undoubtedly changed since 2009, meaning the content of the immersions has shifted as well. Father Neeley explains that immersion experiences have always delved into the issue of border militarization, which “began right after 9-11, and what we have now is the residual of that.” KBI was founded in response to mass deportations to the Nogales port of entry, however the demographic that we serve has expanded significantly since 2009. “At the beginning, there weren’t asylum seekers or amnesty seekers,” says Father Neeley. “We were working with people who were being deported,” he says, “It says it right there on the brick wall. ‘service to deported migrants,” referring to the original signage painted on the front facade of the old comedor where KBI operated until last February. These deportations only increased throughout the entirety of the Obama Administration. “When looking at actual numbers and facts, [Obama’s] statistics are really egregious, However, the biggest shift was 2016–the rhetoric. The rhetoric incites hatred.” This ignited hatred has resulted in even more border militarization, criminalization of migrants, instilling fear among undocumented communities, and increased efforts to diminish the accessibility to asylum and other forms of legal immigration. All of these elements have led to quite complicated immersion experience discussions and sessions.
And that is precisely the point. Well, one of three points. Humanize, Accompany, and Complicate, otherwise referred to during immersion experiences as HAC
Discernment and Election
The concepts of HAC are core to each immersion experience. Wrapped up in the abstractness of immigration and border issues, the humanity of migrants is often overlooked. By firsthand listening to the stories of migrants and feeling their triumphs, obstacles, and pain, we can recognize and restore the dignity of each individual. Through accompaniment, participants are invited to be part of the migrants’ journeys and truly empathize with the moments of suffering: deportation, walking in the desert, being tried at the federal courthouse. The focus is not service, rather presence. Lastly, we intend to complicate the topic of migration, inviting participants to explore the nuances of migration and the border without having to come to a definitive conclusion.
This is all done within a framework intentionally designed by Father Neeley. “I designed it to mirror a 12-step spiritual exercise,” he explains. “Usually when you go to start these spiritual exercises, there’s something you’re looking for, primarily about a life decision. What are you going to do with your life? So the process before the election is discernment.” The immersion experience is set up to give participants the opportunity to gather information and witness the complexity of migration as part of the discerning process.
This then leads to the final step of the spiritual exercise: Election.
“Ideally we want people who have not yet ‘elected,’” says Father Pete, “so that we can play a role in that discernment and help them arrive at their election.” As we wrap up our twelfth year of offering immersion experiences, we sincerely hope that these powerful encounters have played a significant role in shaping informed and compassionate people of various faith traditions. Barbara King from the Campus Ministry Department at Scranton University has participated in several immersion trips, helping to facilitate this process of discernment for students. “Each time, I grow and learn new things that change me forever,” she says. “I question my faith, relationships, privilege, and social location in a way that has changed my life for the better [which] includes helping others in more tangible and realistic ways.” As part of our efforts to cultivate agents of social change we have been honored to facilitate the discernment process for hundreds of immersion experience participants and be part of bringing them to their election day.