There’s nothing wrong with spending spring break basking in the sun or relaxing at home. In fact, that’s what the majority of my Georgetown friends ended up doing last week. But 10 of us undergrads decided to do something a little different this year. We traveled to the Mexico-U.S. border and had the adventure of our lives.
We didn’t get there by ourselves, of course. Accompanied by our two amazing advisers, Gabrielle and Sam, we’ve been working with the Center for Social Justice to raise the money necessary for the trip. With Georgetown in dire financial straights, it hasn’t been easy to gather the funds together. But one week ago, we grouped together and drove to the airport to begin our trip.
The Border Awareness Experience takes place every year in the frontier cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Much of the trip is spent roughing it. We went without showers for days and witnessed scenes of immense poverty. We met many Mexicans and Central Americans staying at Annunciation House, a hospitality center for recent immigrants. We lived in small houses, and we carried our sheets along with us everywhere we went.
If the week was anything, it was certainly intense. As many of us had never been to a developing country before, it was shocking to see tiny houses made of cardboard just across the river from a thriving modern metropolis. Even more shocking is the fact that the two nations are separated not just by culture and monetary wealth, but by hard-faced border patrol agents and fences topped by barbed wire.
While we found it relatively easy to cross from the United States to Mexico and back again, the same cannot be said for the many Mexicans we met. Perversely, while it’s immensely difficult to receive a U.S. visa, foreign workers are in high demand in the United States. They’re needed to work on farms, in fast-food restaurants and for construction companies. The chances are good that you’ve interacted with many undocumented workers over your life. You just didn’t know it.
How do undocumented workers get here? They swim through rivers and traverse the scorching desert to make it to America. They cut holes through the fences and try to run into what many see as a promised land where they can make enough money to care for their families. In the United States they can escape the obscenely low wages of, for example, an American owned factory we toured where the workers make $6 a day. This wage is barely enough to maintain a cardboard box of a house in Mexico.
Ultimately, the border is a human tragedy, and it’s a tragedy we had the chance to see and study first hand. When we first crossed into Juarez, many of us were shocked by the conditions we saw. Some of us cried. Some of us said nothing at all. But as the week went on, we started to laugh. We didn’t laugh because we found the situation funny. We laughed because sometimes that’s all you can do when something overwhelms you. We laughed because sometimes it was the only way to cut the tension and release the pent up frustration we all felt about a helpless situation.
If I learned anything at all over the week, it’s that our country’s border policy often doesn’t make much sense. It forces people to put their lives at risk for the simple dream of economic prosperity. Somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten that we are a nation made up of immigrants.
Each of us brought different points of view and emotions to the Border Awareness Experience. Some of us have family members who have had to cross that border to make it to the United States. Others are the sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of European immigrants. One of us was an exchange student from China. With our many divergent backgrounds, we couldn’t agree on everything. But we can agree that this week was something we wish every Georgetown student could experience.
Moises Mendoza is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service.