Two Sides

By Esther Wang

I started my DukeEngage journey on a hot summer day in Tucson, Arizona. As a person who spends one third of her life on the East Coast, my impression of Arizona mostly stays in the context of AriZona Iced Tea. But after two weeks of delegation and work, Tucson, a city in the desert with Spanish style architecture, I began to uncover a different side of its personality–the story of immigrants hidden behind the mountains and the sublime government buildings.

The first week consisted of time spent as a delegation and orientation, during which we learned about immigration history, the context of SB 1070 and the complex background of immigration policies in Arizona. The United States is a country founded by immigrants, yet the history of minority immigrants who devoted their lives to this country is not even taught in school. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, immigrants from Asia, Mexico, and Central America were recruited by the government and entered legally to create infrastructure and build railroads. After the work was done, they were immediately told to go back and the promise of residency never came true. Despite their contribution, many became “illegal” immigrants, and never received the respect they deserved.

After 911, the U.S./Mexico border became increasingly militarized and the image of “dangerous immigrants” was used to sensationalize the public. Large corporations provided campaign funds for politicians, who in turn pushed prison privatization and used taxpayers’ money to profit from these companies. To pass relevant legislation, politicians portrayed immigrants as people who are violent and criminal. However, immigrants actually tend to be more conscious of their behavior because of their identity. Meanwhile, Border Patrol is implementing the policy of “deterrence by death.” By making the trip extremely dangerous, Border Patrol intends to stop people from entering through the desert. However, for people who are subject to political violence in their home country or who have families in the U.S., the legal process of attaining residency is both complicated and lengthy. A person may have to wait up to twenty plus years and still not get a green card. Even for those who are able to attain a temporary work permit or go through the process, the system would constantly remind them that they are “aliens” and not welcomed in this country.

Because of misinformation and sensationalizing the media and politicians, thousands of millions of Americans have started to hold a hostile attitude toward undocumented immigrants and support harsh immigration policies. Under such rhetoric and political background, it is easy to forget immigrants are human beings like us. When we walked through the edge of desert near Arivaca to do the water-drop, the heat and difficult trail almost devoured us. I cannot imagine how migrants manage to walk for weeks in the desert and risk their lives to see their loved ones. No one’s life is less than another, yet everyday people die trying to pursue a better life.

During my first two weeks with BorderLinks, Scholarships A-Z and No More Deaths, their commitment to our allies make impressed me. I admire those allies who go into the desert on a daily basis to provide humanitarian aid and who abandon lucrative careers to fight for migrant rights. As an international student and someone who shares part of the immigrant identity, I have experienced challenges and stressful moments that make me doubt myself, but those moments have lead to strength and self-realization as well. I am very privileged to have the opportunity to learn about the immigration policies and conflicts in Arizona, and I am committed to pass the knowledge and information to people around me. When I look from the U.S. side of the border in Nogales to its counterpart in México, I hope one day there will be no more deaths, walls and hatred on either side.

Migration is a Human Right

by Cristina Perez

I had heard about the border on many occasions, from the experiences of my parents, educational lessons and the media, yet nothing compares to personal experience. That is what my first week in Tucson taught me. Going to Operation Streamline, a process in which up to 70 immigrants are criminalized in less than an hour, showed flaws in the system. There was a lack of understanding in the part of the immigrants who were prompted by the judge and other immigrants to answer a certain way. Several microphones were laid out in front of about 8 immigrants that would go in front of the magistrate judge, who only asked the question once and moved on to the next person asking, “do you?” It was heartbreaking to see how we, as society, treat immigrants. In one case the US. Attorney referred to someone as “a threat to society.” We allow U.S. citizens to get away with much more, yet sentence immigrants to bails so high they can never afford them. Increased presence of Border Patrol has forced immigrants to cross through the most dangerous parts.

Immigrants cross through the Arizona desert every day, in remote trails not easily accessible. Groups such as No More Deaths, aim to place water jugs and snacks in places commonly traveled by migrants, in an effort to prevent deaths and decrease risks they face. As a group we did a water drop in Arivaca, AZ with a No More Deaths volunteer, where we walked on steep parts, rock climbed a portion and I ended up with several scratches and sore feet. The nicer weather made it easier but I cannot imagine how unbearably hot in can get or how cold it can be during the winter. This was a migrant made path, not one man-made and entirely safe to walk on. I kept looking down to make sure I didn’t lose my footing or slip. There were rusty cans, water jugs and articles of clothing scattered throughout the trail. It reminded us that this was a journey many completed but that not all make it. An altar full of rosaries, crosses, and photos of a teenager whose remains were found nearby saddened me because people shouldn’t have to suffer so much just to make it to the United States.

Border wall in Nogales, Arizona

Border wall in Nogales, Arizona

The Nogales border made it all that more about politics and perceptions of the border. I had always pictured a fence that stretched through most of the border and desert. Yet what I saw was a wall so high with cameras scattered throughout that it was impossible for anyone to ever cross. It emphasized how highly politicized immigration has become. We make it so difficult for people do something that is inherently a human right, to migrate. We politicize humanitarian aid when it should not have to be. Why is it that aiding immigrants, because they too are humans, has to mean we are taking a stand? The border just made it all that more real. I have met countless of individuals who have aided immigrants, given them rides, a phone to call home, shelter and food. And when I hear why, it’s always because they don’t deserve to be treated as less than human. The wall in Nogales has disrupted the community and goes right through the town. Nogales is a town in both Mexico and the US and through the small spaces in between this wall we could see through to Mexico, people living their lives as if the wall did not exist. The truth is, our political leaders and representatives are making decisions from Washington, far away from the border, not knowing how their decisions actually impact our communities.

The partner organization I have been working with is Casa Mariposa. Casa Mariposa provides community, support, and a safe place to live for individuals affected by the criminalization of migration or that have previously been in detention. It also has a visitation program where volunteers can visit detainees to provide company and support. When I joined it was hard to hear they were losing the house in September, but I was excited to know I would play a part in fundraising this summer. I got to know the individuals who live in the house and in a way it felt like a home away from home. On Wednesdays they host a community dinner that I'm a part of and it always impresses me how much the community has done and continues to do. I also get to read letters sent to the visitation program. It is heartbreaking to read the stories of individuals and feel powerless not being able to do much. Many write, hoping we can help and unfortunately we don’t have the financial means to bail people out or provide legal help.

As part of the visitation program I go to the Eloy Detention Center. I was a bit nervous and anxious because I had never been to a prison or detention center. All I had were images from shows and movies, but it was nothing like that. There were seats in a room, we all went in and slowly all the prisoners were let into the room. I had pictured a room with tables and guards and the warden watching over us but it wasn’t like that. It was much more causal and felt normal. I was anxious about not knowing what to say, but I found that it came naturally. Conversation could be slow to start, but they all warmed up to me and told me stories that I will never forget. From their treacherous journeys in cold freezing weather to how violence had impacted their lives, I empathized with their pain. One woman was reluctant to share specifics at first but after getting her to laugh and joke with me she broke down and I found myself crying with her. It was once again painful to feel helpless because I wished that I could do more, yet there was nothing more I could do. Another woman finally made me realize why I was there. It wasn’t necessarily to help them get out, but it was to be a listening ear because they, for the first time, said what had been circling around their minds for a long time. I was there to hear them out, provide comfort, friendship, human interaction and some laughter.

The criminalization of migration has impacted the lives of many. It benefits prisons who make money by keeping migrants in jail, they treat them inhumanely, paying them only a dollar a day for any work they do. The way we see immigration needs to change, because in the process we forget that it should not be wrong to migrate and we shouldn’t be making it so hard. Migration is a human right and should not be a crime. My first two weeks have been eye-opening, impactful and I can’t wait to see what more this summer brings.