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Students volunteer on Mexico border

Amanda Gray | Tuesday, March 16, 2010

While many students were vacationing or relaxing at home, some Notre Dame students saved lives along the U.S. and Mexico border this Spring Break, senior Joan Swiontoniowski said.

Swiontoniowski helped lead a group of 15 students who traveled to Arizona to work with No More Deaths, a national organization providing humanitarian aid to migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“No More Deaths provides basic humanitarian assistance [in the form of food, water, and medical aid] to those migrants who cross the desert in search of a better life,”

Swiontoniowski said. “To me, this humanitarian aid is something we can all stand behind — in spite of what our political and other beliefs may be — as it simply serves to keep people alive.”

No More Deaths began in 2004 at the Multi-Faith Border Conference, according to the organization’s Web site. The group seeks to monitor U.S. border practices and lower the number of migrant deaths by providing water, food and medical assistance. The first group of Notre Dame students worked with No More Deaths in 2008.

“Originally I was interested in the trip because I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn more about immigration issues,” Swiontoniowski said. “As a result of my experiences along the border and the people that I met there though, what began as a mere effort to learn more about immigration has turned into a passion for border issues and immigrant rights.

“It’s been important to me to get others involved in No More Deaths so that more people could learn about the realities migrants face in their attempt at a better life.”

“No More Deaths is the demand that immigration must be a human rights issue,” junior David Rivera said. “No matter what your politics are on the issue, that doesn’t change the fact that people are dying on the border basically every day.

“Our policies attempt to hide the human side of the issue but families are being broken up and people are dying.  We visited the memorial site for a 14-year-old Salvadorian immigrant who died alone in the cold waiting for someone to find her.”

Junior Elizabeth Furman also experienced life at the border.

“We camped out in the Sonora desert, and every day, we went on patrols down trails that migrants use and left water and sometimes food for them,” Furman said. “We also spent one day across the border in Nogales, Mexico, learning about the process of ‘voluntary’ repatriation. We met migrants who had been deported and listened to their stories of abuse from border patrol and separation from their families.”

Junior Beverly Ozowara said she learned more about immigration and border issues on the trip.

“It was amazing to be surrounded by so many other individuals eager to learn more and eager to spread the word about the immigration of undocumented individuals and individuals who were genuinely invested in the efforts to end migrant deaths,” Ozowara said.

Rivera said that he had fun, but it was not a vacation.

“It’s humanitarian aid, and more than anything it left me feeling angry and a little depressed.  I’m definitely not hopeless, but I’m just angry about the inaction on the issue and how it’s become so politicized so as to mask the human element behind it,” Rivera said. “We hope to raise awareness here on campus this semester, possibly raise money for the organization and focus on immigration issues here in the community that other groups are already involved with.”

Swiontoniowski said the experience helped bring the issues presented to the forefront for those students who attended.

“Living in South Bend, Ind., it is easy to be ignorant of or forget about the realities migrants face when they cross the border,” Swiontoniowski said. “Border issues really is one of the most important social justice issues of our time though, so I encourage everyone to, at the very least, learn more about it.”