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Increased awareness needed on immigration issue

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, October 1, 2007

Who among you would pay $1,500, walk for three days in the desert, and risk rape or death…for a job?

I ask this question not to shock, nor to exaggerate, but to offer a dose of reality in preparation for the Academic Forum, coming up Oct. 8. As we make our way through the fall semester, precariously balancing football Saturdays and study-filled Sundays, it is important to step out of “the bubble” and remember the broader issues that grip our nation and world.

Immigration, too often described as today’s “hot-button issue,” is about more than politics or economics. It is about people, social justice, and solidarity. Immigrants are more than passive actors in a cost-benefit analysis; they are determined, hopeful, gracious, and strong human beings. They are not invaders, looking to gobble up our tax dollars or steal our jobs. Rather, they are here to make a better life for themselves and their families, and many hope to eventually return to their home countries.

Over the summer, I was able to spend eight weeks volunteering and studying in Tijuana, Mexico, thanks to the Center for Social Concerns’ International Summer Service Learning Program. For four of those weeks, another Notre Dame student and myself worked at the Casa del Migrante of Tijuana. And even if you’ve only been to Cancun for spring break festivities, you can guess that the Casa del Migrante is just as it sounds: a house for migrants.

Each night, the Casa del Migrante houses between 100 and 150 migrants, all men, the majority arriving with a recent deportation order from the United States. We provide them beds, clothing, food, showers, spiritual guidance, medical aid, and opportunities for work. Our guests can only stay for up to 12 days, providing them time to decide whether to stay in Mexico or to cross the border yet again.

With operating hours from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., I spent most of the day spending time with migrants, answering their questions (and/or trying to pretend I fully understood what they were saying), cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, passing out clothes, and learning about their lives. Each migrant entered with the same look on his face: Dejected and tired. Some broke down into tears with worry about their families in the United States. They never got to say goodbye.

Although the migrants I encountered had faced enormous hardships, they were still courteous, always offering to help with chores and eager to share stories with myself and other volunteers. One migrant proudly read poetry he had written while in jail. Many recounted their stories of crossing the border, some being left by coyotes (guides) in the desert, while others made it, though only after walking for days and days, without food, water, or shelter.

One night, a migrant stumbled into the Casa, disoriented and hungry. In the middle of the night, he had a violent seizure, a result of the intense stress and exhaustion of his deportation. After living in the United States for nearly 30 years, he was pulled over, failed to produce proper identification, and was told he could not return for another 30 years.

At the end of my four weeks at the Casa, I found myself disillusioned with my own country. I had heard too many stories of racial profiling and violence by authorities towards migrants. I had seen too many migrants broken by hard physical labor or years in prison for the crime of being illegal. And too many would return to the United States, despite deportation and a “threatening” tall fence. I had lost faith in a country that measures immigrants’ value by economic standards and beefs up border security, but does little to provide for immigrants being exploited deep within the United States.

But with the help of more than a few people at Notre Dame, I found hope and comfort. I realized that change begins with an understanding of solidarity, or the ability “to look into the eyes of another person and to see the hopes and anxieties of a brother or sister,” in the words of Pope John Paul II. It often takes an experience outside of our own comfort zones to truly understand this, to attempt to share in others’ frustrations and heartache, as I experienced over the summer. But living with migrants is not the only way to experience solidarity, for we are able to connect with them in small ways often overlooked in our busy lives. For example, they are a displaced people, alone and far from home – looking back to our first days in college, it may not be too difficult to empathize.

To realize our equality with all immigrants compels us to serve others and seek just reforms, ones that value the humanity of migrants and protect their rights. In saying this, I am not endorsing any political view of immigration reform. In fact, I don’t have any concrete answer for what the government should do, but I am imploring you all (if only in 800 words) to take another look at the issue and understand the necessity for social justice.

So, please, if you cannot attend the Academic Forum, look out for other events on campus to increase your knowledge of migrants and the ongoing political debate. Research on the Internet. I highly suggest visiting the Justice for Immigrants Campaign (http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org/index.html) or the Migration Policy Institute (migrationpolicy.org).

Rethink the issue. Put yourselves in their shoes. And if it moves you, act.

Ally Brantley is a junior history major, currently studying in Washington, D.C. Contact her at abrantle@nd.edu with any questions or comments.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.