- Colorado Colleges Eric Popkin with a student at the border fence linking Nogales, Mexico with Nogales, Arizona. The forms on the fence represent the cultural backgrounds and struggles of migrants who have crossed the border despite such barriers. Around 300 migrants died last summer in the desert surrounding the border.
It sounds perfectly simple, but it's not.
A college student spends his summer camping out beneath the stars in the Arizona desert along the U.S.-Mexican border. By day, he refills receptacles at watering stations and distributes food packs to migrant workers attempting to cross the border by foot.
It's the purest form of humanitarian aid, a hand extended to someone in need, in this case someone who has just spent four days crossing the desert on foot, often someone who has run out of water or whose shoes have rubbed his feet to a pulp.
Colorado College students have been traveling to the border for the past couple years, offering food and water to undocumented immigrants and, if needed, providing transportation to hospitals and clinics as part of the No More Deaths project, a coalition of activists and volunteers dedicated to working for justice along the U.S.-Mexico border.
These students study border issues in Professor Eric Popkin's sociology class, "Globalization and Immigration on the U.S. Mexican Border" and, under the auspices of the college's Partnership for Civic Engagement, headed by Popkin, they are learning the complicated political and social realities that coexist at this fascinating intersection of the first and third worlds.
For Colorado College graduate Chris Benoit, working on the border was a life-changing experience.
"I was an international economic policy major, so I understood many of the border issues in the abstract," said Benoit, suntanned and stricken with a queasy stomach, recently returned to the Springs after nine months spent tracing the migrant trail from Guatemala to the Arizona border. "The philosophy of civic engagement fascinates me-- working with community-based groups, discovering how things work on the ground."
Last year, the Colorado College delegation assisted some 400 border crossers.
"That's a drop in the bucket numerically," said Popkin. "In the high season last year, an estimated 55,000 per month crossed into the United States."
The Colorado College students hope to raise awareness about what's happening at the border. While recent news has been dominated by the self-styled "Minutemen" civilian border patrols, and by anti-immigrant sentiment heated up and confused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and waning U.S. jobs, the humanitarian situation on the border has become vastly more dangerous. Extreme poverty and the economic fallout of free trade accords have combined with fuzzy U.S. immigration policy and an increasingly militarized border patrol to create a crisis situation.
"Traffic is up," said Popkin, "and many are in distress. Last year around 300 died. Some leave [their homes] with only two gallons of water for a four-day hike across the desert."
Colorado College senior Margaret Lamb, who will travel to the border this summer, says the class has opened her eyes to many issues, including anti-immigrant sentiment among some of her friends.
"When I tell them what we're doing, they say, 'Some of those migrants are bad,'" said Lamb. "They say, 'We need to support the police on the border who are protecting our country.'"
Unarmed and exhausted
The current political climate of the border region is complicated by many competing issues and perceptions.
"There's the arrival of the Minutemen," said Popkin, "or 'immigrant hunters' as they are called below the border. There's a post-election attempt to link terrorists with border crossings, and there's a prevailing mentality that links the random violence associated with drug trafficking with these undocumented immigrants who are coming in simply to work."
Benoit, who spoke with some of the Minutemen when he was recently at the border, sees an ironic link between the self-appointed militia and those they're trying to keep out.
"Many of them are unemployed, from depressed rural areas," he said. "They believe that people poorer than them are taking away scarce resources."
The potential terrorists and drug traffickers they are pursuing, says Benoit, are most often unarmed, exhausted, dehydrated campesinos -- agricultural workers-- crossing the border for readily available seasonal work in states like Colorado, where farm economies are heavily dependent upon them.
Ironies abound on the border, says Benoit.
"When we're out looking for people to give food and water to, we look around water and brush, where they gather for obvious reasons," he said. "There's a creek bed where immigrants shed and change their clothes. We find perfume, lotion and shampoo bottles. There are groups who go around cleaning up these areas, but the evidence is always there.
"They don't want to cross the border looking like they've been walking across the desert for four days."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
To learn more about No More Deaths, visit www.nomoredeaths.org.
To learn more about the Colorado College Partnership for Civic Engagement, call 227-8270.