Crossing the Border

By Jeffrey Donahoe and Sara Piccini

Look at any map and you will find borders. Some are formed by topography—a mountain range, the ancient path a river has gouged—but most are largely theoretical and political, drawn by human hand as a result of war, negotiation or expediency. Borders ask the question of whether they exist to keep something in or keep something out.

The U.S.–Mexico border runs almost 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, crossing an open landscape of desert, tough terrain and rivers, and a man-made landscape of cities, towns and, more recently, enormous vertical lengths of tall steel beams and concrete.

The U.S. estimates that 500,000 people cross the border from Mexico each year without authorization, many traveling thousands of miles from Central America. This migration sparks concern, rhetoric, political platform planks and fierce debate about immigration reform and border security. Like the border itself, the arguments create a divide.

“In Spanish, the word frontera means both border and frontier. But in English, border means ‘stop’ and frontier means ‘go beyond,’” says Austin Rose (C’18). “Americans have two words, they have one. Do we believe that borders are meant to be crossed?”

In March 2015, Rose took the opportunity to “go beyond” as a participant in Georgetown’s Kino Border Immersion program, co-sponsored by the university’s Office of Campus Ministry and the Center for Social Justice. Over spring break, he traveled with a dozen fellow undergraduates to the region around Nogales, a city literally cut in two by the Arizona-Mexico border.

“The main goal of Kino is to humanize the process of migration,” says Christopher Wager (F’17), who served as a student leader for the 2015 trip. “People come into this experience with lots of interests and views and beliefs. Kino asks that people be open, to become comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Following the Migrants’ Path
At the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse, Tucson, Arizona.

On the second day of their weeklong immersion experience, Georgetown’s Kino participants sit in a federal courtroom to observe a deportation hearing. Judges hear as many as 70 to 80 cases in a matter of hours every day. A migrant’s sentencing can take less than a minute.

“Migrants are in bunches of four or five, in handcuffs and foot chains, wearing the clothes they wore when they were apprehended,” says Christopher Duffner (C’13), a third-year Georgetown Law student who went on the first Kino trip in 2011 and returned as a student leader in his senior year.

“It’s a sensory experience: you smell, you hear the clank of the chains. It’s unforgettable.”

The courtroom hearing is one stop along the way on the group’s weeklong journey, as they immerse themselves in the lives of the people who attempt to cross the border. “You walk in the footsteps of the migrant, of the people who come to this country in the desert,” Duffner says.

Students follow a migrant’s path from border crossing, arrest, detention, sentencing and, finally, to physical deportation at Nogales. The students then cross the border into Mexico and volunteer at the comedor, a soup kitchen and shelter run by the Kino Border Initiative—a humanitarian effort inaugurated in 2009 and sponsored by the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist and the Catholic Diocese of Tucson. The comedor serves hundreds of migrants a day and served more than 38,000 meals in 2014.

There’s a human rights crisis on the border, one with really tragic realities.

Georgetown’s Kino Border Immersion program gives students the opportunity to talk in depth with people who have a personal and professional stake in the issue of migration: faith-based groups, social activists, court officials, public defenders, immigration and customs enforcement, border patrol agents, ranchers and environmental groups concerned with the border wall’s negative impact on the land.

“We want our students to be able to engage and ask questions with all parties that are directly affected with what is a human rights issue,” says Jennie Reis, director of Catholic Retreats and Immersion Programs, who oversees the Kino program. “With informed consciences students can then formulate their own opinions.”

The newest site visit is to the U.S. Border Patrol. The Tucson facility has a massive control room for live tracking in the desert. Cameras display visual data from drones that guide the deployment of patrol resources to specific areas of activity.

Bringing students here is designed to foster respectful dialogue.

“The value of the border patrol site visit is to contrast that narrative with the firsthand accounts of migrants who have recently endured time in border patrol custody,” says Christopher Wager.

“Kino has evolved, but the core remains the same: helping our students understand at a deep level the challenges facing migrants and all those who live at the border,” says Kevin F. O’Brien, S.J. (C’88), Georgetown’s vice president for mission and ministry, and one of the Georgetown program’s founders.

The program is rooted in the Jesuit tradition and named for Fr. Eusebio Francisco Kino, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who ministered in the Arizona border region. The immersion itself responds to the Jesuit ideal of magis, always striving to be more responsive, more faithful, more loving out of a deep gratitude for what God has given us, O’Brien explains.

“We are there in solidarity and friendship built on mutuality,” he adds. “The people there have something to teach us. We are there to listen.”

Georgetown students eat with newly deported migrants

Walking the migrants’ path, Georgetown students serve and eat with newly deported migrants at a Jesuit-run comedor in Nogales, Mexico.

Complicated Issues
At the Florence Correctional Center, Florence, Arizona

Arizona is one of three border states that operate under a federal program called Operation Streamline, designed to deter unauthorized immigration. In other states, deportation cases are handled as violations of administrative code; under Operation Streamline, unauthorized immigrants are treated as criminals and the act of illegally crossing the border as a federal crime.

“They have no choice—they plead guilty to illegal entry to the United States,” says Austin Rose. “And one by one, they are found guilty by the judge.” Unless migrants can make a case for amnesty, they face immediate deportation or receive sentences ranging from 30 days to six months, served in federal prisons, county jails and private detention centers.

Students in the Kino program visit a detention center in Florence, Arizona, north of Tucson. “This center, like others, is run by a government contractor,” Christopher Duffner says. “An official from the contractor meets with us. We walk through holding cells. We are face-to-face with the migrants being held by the government. We don’t, but we could, reach out and touch them.” In the center’s cafeteria, the Georgetown students meet with any detainees who are willing to talk.

“It’s hard to be in the same room as someone in detention,” says Jessica Andino (C’18), another participant in the 2015 immersion trip, whose parents are originally from El Salvador. “But I became more comfortable after a while. I was able to talk with them and see them as people—as migrants, not as criminals.”

Inside the detention center in Florence, however, detainees are treated as criminals. “It’s devastating—20 to 30 people in a 10 x 10 cell. They don’t know how long they’re being detained,” says Mike Meaney (F’12), a Tucson native who grew up having personal experience with immigration issues. Meaney spearheaded the creation of the Kino program as an undergraduate.

“My first job was working in a steakhouse as a busboy, and many of my co-workers were undocumented migrants, mostly from Mexico. We became friends. Ironically, the staff would often prepare food for and serve border patrol agents. That experience is uniquely Arizona.”

His Arizonian upbringing also provided the opportunity to take a month-long social justice class in high school, during which Meaney and his classmates cleaned up the migrant trail along the border. “It’s a striking picture. You find birth certificates, driver’s licenses and other vital possessions that for any of us are part of our identity and humanity.”

At Georgetown, Meaney’s mentor—Daniel Porterfield (C’83), Georgetown’s former senior vice president for strategic development and now president of Franklin & Marshall College—challenged Meaney to take action. Back in Tucson over the summer, he met with staff members at Tucson’s San Miguel High School—a Cristo Rey school, which primarily serves the migrant community. (Cristo Rey is a network of Catholic college-preparatory high schools for underrepresented urban youth.) Meaney also met with social advocacy groups like BorderLinks and No More Deaths. He knew there were ways for Georgetown to make an impact.

Porterfield and others agreed that there was potential to add another alternative spring break trip to the Center for Social Justice’s programs. After Meaney conducted a feasibility study, Georgetown launched the Kino Border Immersion program in 2011, with Meaney as the first student leader.

“The Kino Immersion is a really comprehensive look at a very complicated issue,” Meaney says. “There’s a human rights crisis on the border, one with really tragic realities. It will take a wide swath of partners to fix it.”

Faith-Based Lens
At El Comedor, Nogales, Mexico

All the people there have something to teach us. We are there to listen.

Tracing the footsteps of those deported from the United States, the Kino students make the border crossing at Nogales, walking through a turnstile to enter Mexico.

“That experience really hits the students,” says Jennie Reis. “The way the passage is built, it’s very tight—it’s like what cattle are processed through. That imagery stays with them.”

As it is for many newly deported migrants, the students’ first stop is the comedor. “It’s a refuge in the desert,” says Kendra Layton (C’15), a 2013 Kino participant who later returned as a student leader.

“The migrants just get dumped at the border,” says Christopher Duffner. “They don’t even necessarily live nearby or even in Mexico. We put food on the table, serve them and talk if the migrants are willing to talk. Some of them really open themselves up for us. Many of the stories are about families on either side of the border. It’s a very emotionally powerful experience.”

The Kino students also visit Nazareth House, a shelter for women and children operated in conjunction with the comedor. “All women and children caught up in unauthorized migration are vulnerable. Some of them are especially vulnerable—they have been abused, raped, exploited or had the experience of threats and aggression,” Duffner says.

Layton adds that many of the women are trying to reunite with families in the U.S. “Often a woman goes back home to Mexico to care for a family member and then can’t get back into the U.S. The stories made me cry, but nothing comes from crying. There’s a place for crying and a place for action.”

Layton is one of many students who have been spurred to take action following the immersion experience. In the summer of 2013, she returned to the border to volunteer with No More Deaths, a faith-based aid and advocacy group that provides food and water to migrants in the desert.

In the Jesuit tradition, contemplation is at the heart of action: the Kino Border Immersion program integrates reflection into every part of the experience. The Center for Social Justice offers many alternative spring break programs that examine issues through a faith-based lens. The students selected for Kino begin to meet a month or two before the trip to build a sense of trust. They learn the language of reflection: to speak honestly from their own experiences, not to debate or argue. The students are encouraged to reflect on their experience and their reaction to each day, with student leaders facilitating the process.

Leaders also facilitate a deep reflection every day during the trip. “It’s necessary to get together and process all that we saw each day,” says Christopher Wager. “How can we as a group build on the collective experience that we are seeing and hearing? How do we move forward? It’s very Jesuit—it’s contemplatives in action.”

A Life-Changing Experience
On the Georgetown campus, Washington, D.C.

At the end of a week, students leave the desert landscape behind, but they find that the Kino experience stays with them long after their return to the Hilltop.

“For some students, Kino is life-changing. It changes the movement of their vocation and studies,” says Christopher Duffner. “It’s incomparable—the face-to-face time, the access, the raw emotions, the viewpoint that we get from this.”

“Students learn not to demonize anyone. It’s an easy way out to demonize one way or another, but that’s intellectually sloppy,” adds Kevin O’Brien. “We ask that people respect the humanity at the border. When we come home, we can be better advocates because we understand the complexities firsthand.”

Daily personal and group reflection is built into the weeklong border immersion.

In the Jesuit tradition, daily personal and group reflection is built into the weeklong border immersion.

In part because of this understanding, Duffner’s projected career path is rooted directly in the Kino experience. “I’m gearing myself to be a public defender. That interest began on Kino. I met the public defenders in Tucson who defend the migrants. They might meet with their clients for only 15 minutes. But they are inspiring—they humanize a client in a dehumanizing system.”

Mike Meaney has also found the experience to be a major influence in his life. “As a senior, I had a consulting firm offer in D.C. and a TFA [Teach for America] offer in Phoenix. I had to pray, think, discern.”

“Were it not for my Kino experience, I would not have joined TFA,” he says, adding that although he’s not directly involved in migrant issues, his students were touched by the migrant experience—many were from undocumented families or were undocumented themselves.

In the spring of 2015, Meaney assumed a position in the office of the president of Arizona State University aimed at improving student success and increasing access to higher education. “Everything I do is aligned with what I learned about and care about.”

Living in Arizona also means that he can attend the dinner that his mother, Rosemary Browne (C’82), hosts each year for the Georgetown students.

For one student on the 2015 trip, the Kino experience had an especially personal meaning. “My parents came to the U.S. because of the civil war in El Salvador, so I grew up with an immigrant identity,” says Jessica Andino. “I grew up translating for my parents and family, some of whom are undocumented.”

“My parents told the story of coming to the United States to make a better life. I always wanted to see what they experienced,” she says. “Getting ready for the Kino trip, I asked my mother where they crossed into the U.S. She told me it was Nogales.”