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GCS students travel to U.S.-Mexico border to explore immigration

Updated: May 3, 2020

[Excerpted from article by Tyler Dague in The Meadville Tribune, 21 Jan. 2019]

Led by co-directors of the program, professors Laura Reeck and David Roncolato, 12 students stayed in Tucson with an organization called BorderLinks, a nonprofit that, since 1987, has been facilitating educational immersion trips for delegations to raise awareness of immigration and border policies, connecting with communities affected by such policies and inspiring action in response.

“I find a lot of hope in college-age students that are willing to engage in the complexity of this, and I have a lot of confidence they can really go out in front of the movement to find effective, humane policies that both protect the United States and also respond to the very serious humanitarian crisis going on,” Roncolato said.

“I think, in retrospect, we were very lucky to get ourselves scheduled in because right now, especially in terms of education, there’s a high demand,” Reeck said. Thanks to the generosity of the college and the Palmiero family of Palmiero Toyota, which funds the program, the students were able to go on the trip at minimal cost. “It was good as a culminating experience because, just the difficulty of the situation, the intensity of what we saw and experienced was challenging enough that I think three years ago the group wouldn’t have been ready to go,” Reeck said.

The first day got the group acquainted with BorderLinks, but the next morning, they set out on a seven-mile guided hike through desert canyons, each carrying two gallons of water, to be placed near the border (in this case, a barbed-wire fence) for those making the journey in dangerously arid conditions. The hike was led by a member of the Tucson Samaritans, a faith-based organization that provides emergency aid and essentials to combat rising death tolls for those attempting to cross.

“It was very startling for the group to make that particular journey,” Reeck said. “As we were walking, we were seeing personal effects that had been left behind — backpacks, cosmetic products, toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, shoes — just of the most everyday nature.”

That same day, the group listened to a presentation from the Sierra Club, the long-running grassroots environmental group, that discussed the concerns of the border wall from an environmental perspective. Reeck recalled the Sierra Club speaker saying 36 national parks and preserves would be interrupted by the border wall as it is currently designed. “The challenge from that speaker was to think about the border as a wall would be to water,” Roncolato said. “Two-thirds of the border is actually the Rio Grande river. The idea would be building a wall, whether you build it on one shore or the other, is actually a pretty significant environmental hazard, in terms of the flow of water and in terms of animals and preserved land.”

The next day, the group traveled across the border to Nogales, Mexico, which is a town practically split in two by fencing and a wall along the border. They had lunch with a Mexican family and discussed working conditions at “maquiladoras,” which are American factories just over the border into Mexico that pay workers far less than factories within the U.S.

“When you look at the Mexican side and you look at the Arizonan side, it seems like it is arbitrary that the wall is there because these two sides look very much the same,” Reeck said. “At one point, I was looking through the wall and the fencing, and I saw an Arizonan Nogales city truck for street cleaning, but on the emblem on the truck there was both the Mexican flag and the U.S. flag.”

Erin Zehr, a senior who went on the trip, recalled an exercise in Nogales where they compared costs of groceries with the minimum wages earned in the town, noting that one pound of pinto beans, for example, cost the equivalent of $15.

The following day, students participated in a legal immigration simulation and discussed with local groups LGBTQ detainee abuse and Operation Streamline, a joint policy from the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice enacted in 2005 to criminally prosecute illegal entrants, sometimes up to 75 at a time, with misdemeanor charges for first offense and felony charges thereafter.

Subsequently, the group and two other student travelers were able to sit in on Tucson district court proceedings carrying out Operation Streamline. Defendants in large groups would be provided an attorney to meet with the morning prior to trial and, according to Reeck, “about 25 seconds” to give their plea. Afterward, the judge stayed to answer questions.

“For me, it was a difficult experience because one of the reflections we had as a group was that the judge spent more time talking to us than he did in the court proceedings,” Zehr said. “So in the court proceedings, he was very robotic almost and very fast-paced, getting through each case as quickly as possible.”

Danny Larson, also a senior on the trip, said the meeting with the judge made the mass criminal proceedings seem “trivial” and the attorneys seemed “stretched thin.”

“I saw one lawyer who had just been discussing with the judge, representing a client, and then took a seat,” Larson said, describing the court. “Then another lawyer came up and patted her on the back because she didn’t realize she had another client who was already on the stand. It just goes to show there are so many defendants in one room, and they don’t have a relationship with their representation to the point that attorneys forget they have clients.”


Roncolato was encouraged by the students who grappled with the nuances of immigration policy, and was optimistic about Allegheny College’s future commitment to education surrounding the border.

“I find a lot of hope in college-age students that are willing to engage in the complexity of this, and I have a lot of confidence they can really go out in front of the movement to find effective, humane policies that both protect the United States and also respond to the very serious humanitarian crisis going on,” Roncolato said.

Merryn Spence, a senior who went on the trip, said “it was really important to see all of the partnerships that BorderLinks had who were providing great resources for these people,” and she looked forward to an event the Global Citizen Scholars Program is organizing to discuss some of the policy takeaways from the experience. The free event will take place at 7 p.m. March 7 at Grounds for Change, 520 N. Main St., a coffee shop in Allegheny’s Campus Center.

The full article can be read here

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