I Spent Alternative Spring Break in the U.S.-Mexico Border — and This is What I Saw


Before I spent Spring Break learning about the border in El Paso, Texas, I thought I knew everything about it. Our immigration system is wonky, people cross the border illegally, and we need to change something. It was that simple, right? Not quite.

During my Alternative Spring Break I stayed in a small house called Casa Vides, a part of a volunteer-run network of houses that serve as shelters for undocumented immigrants, many of whom are fighting asylum or visa claims in court. My group spent daylight hours speaking to everyone who is anyone on the border – from lawyers to Border Patrol to priests to activists to detention centers – and we shared meals, space, and stories with the undocumented immigrants at night. Every day, when we ventured through El Paso, we would catch glimpses of Juarez, El Paso's sister city, just across the U.S.-Mexico border.

This experience has taught me that there's so much that still needs to be said.

It needs to be said that building our famous border fence is not deterring people from coming to the U.S., but forcing them to enter through the dangerous Arizona desert – where we are now finding corpses burned black by the sun.

It needs to be said that if you stand by the fence and talk about soccer to a 10-year-old on the other side, Border Patrol will tell you to step back from the fence for your own safety, as though this 10-year-old were a criminal instead of a schoolboy.

It needs to be said that while El Paso has consistently been one of the top three safest cities in the U.S., its sister city Juarez has been nicknamed the Murder Capital of the World. It needs to be said that drug cartels in Mexico routinely "disappear" individuals, torture and kill them, and hang their mutilated bodies in public spaces, all to reinforce their dominance. It also needs to be said that having your Mexican family targeted by drug cartels is still probably not enough cause for a judge to grant you asylum because the U.S. doesn't want to "open the floodgates."

It needs to be said that a mother fighting for justice for her murdered children was herself murdered on the doorsteps to the governor's mansion – and though the footage of her assassination was captured, her attacker was not.

It needs to be said that if you are caught for illegal entry, you are often tried and sentenced with five, ten, 20 other detainees, because you are seen as a statistic and not a person.

It needs to be said that poverty-stricken colonias exist on the border, small towns with no local governance where houses are expanded when you pull an abandoned bus up to your trailer and where mixed-status families live in constant fear of being separated.

It needs to be said that, for a Mexican, the process time for some common visa documentation applications takes 115 years – and when they illegally enter the U.S. to work, or when they flee violence, we tell them to get in line.

It needs to be said that the U.S. spends millions training Mexican soldiers and military, including interrogation training (read: torture), with full knowledge that many will later defect to the drug cartels, which pay them ten times as much.

Most of all, it needs to be said that those coming to this country are not "illegal" or public charges or parasites – they are people. In fact, they are some of the most marginalized people in the U.S., often working multiple jobs and barely making ends meet. Living in DC, it's easy to just look at the text of policy and forget that the words written here affect real people across the country, but we have to humanize the issue before we tackle it.

I still remember the view from the top of the Franklin Mountains. I saw urban sprawl but I couldn't untangle El Paso from Juarez, or Mexico from the U.S.; from this high up, the border was invisible. Instead, all I could see were people.