Approximately 7,000 people have died in the Sonoran Desert trying to enter or re-enter the United States. I can’t believe that statistic, and I can’t believe policies in the United States are  letting this happen.

Over spring break, I decided to participate in what some would consider an “alternative spring break” in correlation with the Latino Communities Conference that took place last year at West Chester University and also taking place this year on Thursday, September 27 and Friday, September 28.

Being one of the curators  working with the anthropology program on the Human Rights in Latin America exhibit last year in the Old Library, I had learned about Borderlinks through researching and meeting with the individuals and organizations associated with migration along the border. The artists that we had displayed in our exhibit then became speakers for the Latino Communities Conference.

One artist was Michael Hyatt, who did the lovely photography displayed on the death of Fidel Castro in Cuba and also photos on the migrant crisis in the borderlands between America and Mexico. The other artist, Alvaro Enciso, loaned his artwork to the exhibit. He creates conceptual pieces of art out of donated items and found objects in the Sonoran desert. Both artists are in a group called the Tucson Samaritans, a volunteer group operating through the South Side Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Southside Presbyterian Church is one of the only sanctuary churches in the United States and is another one of the organizations I also worked with on my break.

I interned with the Borderlinks program, which was established in 1987 and provides experiential learning opportunities that explore the difficulties of migration and life along the U.S.-Mexico border. I asked the executive director of Borderlinks what Borderlinks does; he said, “Our approach is popular education, everyone learning together, everyone’s a teacher, everyone’s a learner. This program is a good platform to learn and experience about directly affected people, bring directly affected people to the forefront of the discussion to and give people exposure to directly affected people.”

The delegates come from everywhere from China to Tucson. During my stay with Borderlinks, I met delegations from Portland, New York, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana. The staff at Borderlinks led workshops on specific topics over the course of my stay. Workshops were interactive learning opportunities that covered a wide range of topics from border history to action planning for social change. Their aim is to educate individuals through interactive experiences. “Borderlinks connects divided communities and raises awareness about the impact of the border and immigration policies, and inspires action for social transformation.”

I witnessed eight delegations in my 10 day stay with Borderlinks. I was given a room to myself, but most delegations live in a communal living area called the dorms. All the food is provided for the delegations. For breakfast, I had  full access to the kitchen and pantry but for lunch and dinner, the lovely staff at Borderlinks prepared those for the delegations. The staff at Borderlinks is multilingual and multicultural; Borderlinks hires people directly impacted by the border policies implemented in Arizona.

Participating in the workshops was a powerful experience for me. I participated in listening to three migrants tell their own stories, all different from one another, but all still trying to live their best lives in America. Some other activities we went on were water drops in the Sonoran desert, planting crosses where migrants had died and volunteer work at a soup kitchen in Nogales. Borderlinks brings other nonprofits from the surrounding Tucson area in to discuss their organizations and their goals to delegations.

According to the Borderlinks Director Brian Best, the impact of the experience is one that will stay with you your entire life. He has had conversations with donors who had participated in delegations ten to fifteen years ago and  still donate to Borderlinks.

“The impact of the experience was so significant some people have become social justice activists in their communities, a one-week experience has lead to that. It has the potential to change people’s worldviews in a very deep way.”

The most important idea I brought away from this spring break is how important it is to educate people on the innate inequality in the system. Steps need to be taken to change the policies being put in place by our legislature, and to change the institutions that enforce these inhumane policies. That process needs to start somewhere.

There are many volunteer organizations sending people to other countries to fight for “human rights.” But basic human rights violations are happening in our own country. The dehumanizing treatment of migrants and the militarization of borders are real issues in this country. It is important to get involved to try to combat some of these ideas and policies that are perpetuating inequality in this country and in your community.

Emily Rodden is a second-year student majoring in anthropology. ✉ ER861398@wcupa.edu.

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