By: Roxane Ramos
Spending a day at the KBI puts visitors right where they can learn the most about the migrant experience—at the border.
On a bright February morning in Nogales, Sonora, eleven students from Alma College in Michigan line up in the comedor (soup kitchen) with KBI staff and other volunteers to greet the migrants patiently waiting to enter. These migrants, many deported to Nogales from other points along the border, have endured long, often harrowing, journeys, and carry everything they own in daypacks or plastic bags bearing the insignia of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. They are far from home; they are tired; they are hungry. The students’ smiling faces may be the first friendly ones the migrants have seen in a while.
Every migrant gets a handshake and a “Buenos Dias” from each person in the receiving line before taking a seat at one of the long tables. After a presentation and discussion about their rights (accompanied by an engaging, hip-hop or nueva canción video), the students and other volunteers get to work. Plates full of savory beans and rice are passed along until everyone has a meal. The absence of cafeteria lines, so familiar to college students, is intentional—the migrants are the KBI’s guests, and serving them as if they were in someone’s home is a small, but significant, way of restoring the dignity lost during the stressful migration experience.
After everyone is served, the students keep the tortilla baskets full, dish out seconds, and practice their Spanish with the migrants who, when they share their stories, do so with great modesty. The whole experience is nothing like being in a classroom, which is the point. Alma College, nestled in a small town by the same name, encourages their students to go out into the world, not only to learn, but to make a difference. Immersion tours, like the one offered by the KBI, are one way they do that. Ed Lorenz, a professor of history and political science at Alma, is the ringleader—or “learning partner” as the program refers to his role—and he has been taking students to the border since 1996.
“The program is so popular, we have to turn students away, even though they give up their winter-break time to participate,” Ed comments. “The kids always come home determined to do something. They organize projects, like collecting sweatshirts and toiletries to send to the KBI. One student got funding to do a project about the constitutionality of Operation Streamline and stage a mock trial.” He means the “zero-tolerance” program started in 2005 that has turned illegal border crossing into a criminal offense (rather than the civil one it used to be), prosecuting unauthorized migrants en masse, without the effective legal representation they might otherwise receive and at a cost of $200 million in court costs, detention and incarceration annually.
During their three days with the KBI (of eight they spend at the border), the students visit Operation Streamline proceedings in Tucson, volunteer in the comedor, and hear stories directly from the women staying at Casa Nazareth, the KBI’s shelter. Significantly, they take a walk through the desert terrain surrounding the city to get a feel for the camino (road), and walk—at least for a few hours—in the migrants’ footsteps. The difference is that they are wearing appropriate footwear, have sufficient water, and have not paid a coyote (hired guide) their entire life savings for the trip.
The experience is eye-opening, heartbreaking and often life-altering. Many shift their career goals or reaffirm the direction they were already going in. “It’s not uncommon for students to move into fields like immigration law, public health or social justice.” says Ed. “A real-world experience is so much more powerful than one in a classroom. It stays with them, and it affects the rest of their lives.”
The Kino Border Initiative hosts groups for immersion experiences for 1, 2, or 3 days. For more information, please contact West Cosgrove at 520-287-2370 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.