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Learning from the Affected: Listening & Observing on the US/Mexico Border

May 20, 2019

Portrait of the border class.

Portrait of the border class.
Photo by Phuong Tran, CLAgency student

Kathleen Ganley knew that she could tell her students facts about immigration, but if they were to grasp Latino immigration, they had to hear about it from immigrants themselves. Ganley’s time instructing service-learning at the University of Minnesota began in 1996. When she came to the University in 1994, she observed that students did not have access to interact with native Spanish speakers when learning about Latino immigration issues and the language. At the same time, there was a strong need in the Latino community for Spanish-speaking volunteers. And so began an alliance in the form of SPAN 3401 Latino Immigration and Community Engagement. In this course, students analyze power structures of US immigration policies and their effect on individuals immigrating from Latin America and engage in dialogue with members of that community.

That class gave way to another, SPAN 3403 Latino Immigration on the US/Mexico Border, where students spend a week observing occurrences in the southernmost part of the United States. This past January, Ganley, along with 13 students, led her fifth trip to the US/Mexico border. 

Facing the Border  

For a class that totals just eight days, Ganley and her students agree that the experience is equal to a semester of coursework. The days are long and filled with written reflection. After walking through the desert and coming face-to-face with the border wall, the group spends time talking directly with families and individuals attempting to immigrate into the US. Ganley believes that seeing all of this first-hand allows students to briefly experience both the humanitarian and militarized sides of the border. They can then share this information with others who might not hear such perspectives elsewhere.

For Samantha Truesdell, a global studies major, the most moving part of the trip was completing a desert walk that imitated the route that migrants travel. The group walked over the hills and across the terrain for three hours, enduring four miles of desert. This was a journey that Truesdell had read about in school, but actually living it, even for just a few hours, brought about a completely different understanding. To leave home behind and embark on a perilous journey confirmed for Truesdell that only people in dire need of safety and asylum would attempt this. “It really impacted me and made me realize what a privilege I have just to hold a US passport,” she says. 

Another student, Stephanie Tirado Mendoza, who is majoring in the sociology of law, criminology, and deviance, found the most powerful part of the trip to be witnessing proceedings of Operation Streamline. In Tucson, the group saw this joint initiative of the United States Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to criminally prosecute undocumented people who had crossed the border. This is a process where around 70 people appear in front of a judge each day and get deported or sent to detention centers. Upon entering the room, Mendoza saw shackles on the hands and feet of migrants and fear on their faces. The process was repetitive; with a judge continually calling name after name, it seemed as though each person’s fate was decided before they were officially sentenced. “Hearing that some of them had the same last names as me—that just made it more powerful,” Mendoza says. 

These are realities that students cannot experience in a classroom. Ganley believes that while one can learn academically, learning from the heart is key to a deeper understanding. “That's where people really make changes—where people decide they want to be more involved with something,” she states.

A Humanitarian Issue 

The students who travel with Ganley come from a variety of academic backgrounds and enroll for many reasons, but they are united by a desire to inform themselves on an issue they care about. The students share the discovery that immigration policy goes beyond politics. 

The trip challenged Emily Clarke, a psychology major, to step away from the high-level view of immigration that she held previously. In thinking about immigration as solely about policy, she was missing the personal side of the issue. Coming face-to-face with immigrants helped her regain the human perspective. “It made me realize it's not just a political issue. It's more of a humanitarian crisis,” she says.

For Anne Van De Hey, a double-major in Spanish and sociology, witnessing the militarization of the border and speaking with humanitarian organizations helped her to understand that this issue isn’t solely political. “This isn’t a democratic crusade or a republican-induced thing,” she says. “No human being is illegal, all life matters, and both political parties continuously disregard that.”

Kenza El Abdallaoui, a history major, echoes this compassion. “I'm empathetic and I care about people—and I don't want people to die,” she says. “I think the trip really validated that it's okay to be radical. You don't have to compromise your values and your beliefs in order to get things done.”

Clarke states simply: “It’s not about politics. It’s about the people.” 

Inspiring Activism 

Over her years of instruction, Ganley has seen her students’ concern for advocacy increase. “There's a much stronger interest in activism today that did not exist when I first started this class,” she says.

Clarke explains that learning the distinction between being an ally and being an accomplice was central to her takeaways. “It's not enough to have a laptop sticker and a sign that you can put up to be like, ‘I'm pro-migrants,’ and then to do nothing after that.”

So how does one in Minnesota fight for issues so far from home? 

Clarke says that it starts by pushing herself out of her comfort zone and being a little bit bolder. She can put more on the line by going to protests and being part of local efforts.

Ganley stresses that classes like this are critical because, while students learn a great deal in the classroom, they learn even more when they interact directly with the people most affected by an issue. She believes that this combination creates a deeper understanding, involving both facts and empathy. She believes empathy along with factual knowledge inspire change. The instructor supports this educational  model by saying, “students are learning about power dynamics, struggle and strength, and how to be involved in society.”

Watch a video the students made about their experiences in the class.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.