By: Roxane Ramos
Immersion experiences are precisely what they sound like—on-site visits that place participants right where they can observe the realities of a situation firsthand. For the Kino Border Initiative, immersions are a way to convey the reality of the border through direct engagement. Visitors get to speak with migrants and hear their stories; they serve meals and sort clothes; they tour the streets of Nogales, Sonora, and hike the harsh desert outskirts, harmless enough with plenty of water, the proper footwear and nearby help if needed, but often perilous after a days- or weeks-long journey, when one is at the mercy of the elements and the often unscrupulous coyotes (paid guides) engaged by migrants.
Each year, the KBI hosts as many as 30 border immersions in Nogales, Sonora and southern Arizona, many for high school or college students. Back in April, students from Bellarmine College Preparatory, a Jesuit high school in San Jose, California, came to Nogales for five days on their spring break with their teachers, Chris Cozort and Joe Cussen. Already familiar with the KBI’s programs from his work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Joe looks forward to facilitating the trip each year, and understands the life-altering impact an immersion can have on students because he has felt it himself. As he explains, “I have had such a profound experience working with and learning from the amazing people at the KBI and in the Nogales community.”
The annual Bellarmine trip is part of an education steeped in the Ignation tradition of service to others and dedicated to the “development of the full person,” someone who is not only intellectually prepared to engage the world, but ready to do so with an open heart and mind. This well-rounded and compassionate approach is evident in the thoughtful writings from Bellarmine students Tyler Edgerle and Matthew Kim, both juniors at the time of their visit. The following excerpts are drawn from letters Tyler and Matthew wrote to Father Pete Neeley, S.J., the KBI’s assistant director of education and one of several staff members who conduct immersions in Nogales, Sonora. They demonstrate how personal experience and direct contact take Catholic social teachings from the page, pulpit or classroom out into the world.
Reflection by Tyler Edgerle
“Almost no one I’ve talked to since has an understanding of what is really going on…”
When I first signed up for this trip, I didn’t know what to expect, and worried that the immigrants I would be meeting would not want my help, or that people at the Kino Border Initiative would try to force their “pro-illegal immigration” views on me. These fears became non-existent from the moment we arrived. Father Pete explained that we would be helping these people during a difficult part of their life, and we could decide what is right or wrong. Also, my experience at the comedor (the KBI Outreach Center) helped me realize that the migrants did not detest me for being wealthy, but were appreciative of my help. This left a really good first impression of what my trip would be like, and helped me be more open and understanding for the rest of the week.
One of the most inspiring moments for me was the walk in the desert. Once Father Pete pointed out the black bleach bottles that migrants use to carry water in, I started noticing them everywhere in the desert. Even though it wasn’t that hot when we went, I can’t even begin to imagine carrying those heavy jugs full of hot water. The layover camps that Chris brought us to also showed the reality of this issue. I think when I realized that migrants crossing into America actually stayed in this very spot, I began to understand that immigration is not a political issue, it is a people issue.
As I look back on the immersion trip, I realize that almost no one I’ve talked to since has an understanding of what is really going on at the border. I now feel strongly about this issue, but realize that no one seems to care, and those that do have the wrong ideas about what is really happening. I’ve told many people about my experience, hoping to open their eyes to the realities of immigration, but I would not have had this knowledge about the subject without the immersion experience to inform me.
A guiding thought I had during the trip was the Catholic Social Principle of supporting human rights. I realized that national politicians are not the only ones who treat migrants as if they have no human rights; some people here in California do as well. All in all, this trip has truly changed my outlook on immigration, and has inspired me to try to pay attention to the issue. Even though I cannot vote, and I cannot change lawmakers’ minds, I feel like I can do little things to help, such as donating to your organization. I cannot thank you enough for making my experience so memorable, and I hope that your work continues to change the lives of high school students like me, and the migrants you serve.
Reflection by Matthew Kim
“The simple act of greeting someone could lead to solidarity, love, and relationship…”
When I first applied to attend the immersion trip, I did not have any experience with the Mexican-American border. I felt intimidated thinking I would have to meet immigrants who might be resentful or bitter, and I carried that resentment with me until my first encounters with deported immigrants in the comedor [the KBI Outreach Center]. After meeting these people, I was reminded of the way that prejudice and hate, unfortunately, originate from our fears of the unknown. My encounters with immigrants like Ever and Manuel showed how the simple act of greeting someone could lead to solidarity, love, and relationship.
An uplifting moment for me was seeing Ever volunteer to wash the dishes. When I saw others entering the comedor, I could see the dejection in their slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. But Ever was enthusiastic, and seeing how the marginalized and needy were willing to serve so eagerly helped me keep in touch with the tender, loving side of humanity that is often hidden. In a time of vulnerability, Ever reached out to serve his brothers and sisters despite sharing the same burden, and witnessing his generosity has inspired me to choose to serve, even when I am in need.
There were challenging moments, too. Although many migrants blessed me with smiles, some seemed resentful. Many of the children seemed to seek material comforts and blessings, and despite knowing that they rarely enjoyed the comforts I could access daily, I often judged them as shallow or ungrateful. However, this discomfort with the poor helped remind me of their humanity—they had the same faults that were responsible for the unjust system that forced poverty onto them. My discomfort gave way to a better understanding of migrants, the children, and myself. As Rev. Albert Nolan once stated, “[The poor and the marginalized] make mistakes, are sometimes selfish, sometimes lacking in commitment and dedication…[but] real solidarity begins when it is no longer a matter of we and they.” The people I met were imperfect at times, but ultimately, they were like me—human.
As I look back on my time at the border, I realize how much I have grown to accept the “others” of society, and am grateful for my time with the KBI for strengthening my devotion to my community. I pray that the KBI finds success in siding with the “other,” whether that success is found in new legislation or a better connection with the community. But ultimately, I pray that our immigration system is no longer a matter of American and Mexican, but a matter of all of us.
To Learn More: Interested in participating in an immersion experience? Typically, immersions last 1–3 days, and bring you right to the border to learn more about immigration issues firsthand. To get more information about arranging an immersion trip, see: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/programs/education/ Or contact the KBI at: firstname.lastname@example.org