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Guest Column: “As Sovereign as the Federal Government Will Let Us Be”

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Guest Column: “As Sovereign as the Federal Government Will Let Us Be”

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The following is a guest column by junior Emma Sheets, who participated in the Arizona border immersion just before Spring Break.

The border: just the word itself is intimidating.

Originally signing up for this immersion I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I heard the words “border”, “immigration”, and “illegal immigrants” almost every day in the news, yet I still felt oblivious and ignorant to these issues, living in the bubble of Portland.

I hoped to work on my Spanish skills and gain new perspectives, thinking that the Arizona Immersion would open my eyes and allow me to see the border issue in all it is, laid out right in front of me to absorb and completely understand — I was wrong.

Of course, the Arizona Immersion was probably the most eye-opening experience of my life, but what I learned early on in the trip is that a “complete understanding” is far from what you gain. In fact, I am probably more confused about the “rights and wrongs” of the issue after coming home. While there are a million things I could try to say to describe this experience, one word that sums it up is this: complicated.

While it is called the “Border Immersion”, prior to the trip I did not completely comprehend what it would mean to physically cross over into Mexico, but there it was: the wall. This 20 foot, hard metal fence slicing right through the land, heading for miles in each direction. Just being in its presence made me feel trapped and claustrophobic. I remember thinking very clearly, “what the heck is this new Trump wall supposed to do? There’s already a wall here!” I will never forget the image of two men having a casual conversation like any other day, the only difference being those towering steel pillars standing between them, as if they were talking through jail bars. I still feel uneasy picturing it in my mind.

I could not wrap my head around the idea of the border. It is easy to point out on a map where the US turns into Mexico, but walking right up to the fence, knowing you are standing in one country but can simply reach your hand through into another is almost surreal.

It is the same ground under our feet yet it is nearly impossible to reach it! I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude; all I had to do was get in line, show my passport, and pass through the port of entry, along with my slight annoyance at the length of the line and how tired I was of standing.

Shame washes over me looking back on those moments, later finding out what crossing the border entails for those not as lucky as I am.

As we walked, I could not help but wonder about all the art covering the wall; color was the last thing I expected to see covering this literal and symbolic divide. Words and faces of the fight against injustice were scattered along the Mexican side, leaving the American side to feel barren, occupied by Border Patrol vehicles every so often. It seemed to say something bigger about the voices of the people on either side.

Then there were the people. One of the highlights of the entire trip for me was being able to simply meet these people whom I hear so much about but never see in person. Our first stop of the day was walking to a commodore (dining room) in Nogales, Mexico, where we would be serving those either recently deported or preparing to cross to border. Standing in the commodore filled with migrants, volunteers, nurses, teachers, and fellow students, I felt an overwhelming sense of community. I watched them converse together, laugh together, and eat breakfast together.

Hearing and seeing some of the hardships these people have been through, literally risking everything they have to walk for days in merciless desert, only to be rounded up and given a jail sentence of who knows how long, or for some being stripped from their home in the US and being thrown into a land they haven’t known for decades; it was overwhelming. I felt a sense of helplessness, only being able to serve these few people a simple meal before they start off for the journey ahead of them, either searching for any opportunity left in Mexico or trekking back out into the desert once more.

A moment that might have made my entire trip was an exchange I had with an old man sitting at one of the tables who asked for a special order of food. My Spanish was shaky and I was hesitant of what he had said, but I gave it my best shot and brought him what I thought he had asked for. I was nervous, but as soon as he saw what I had to give him, his face lit up: “Sí, sí!” he told me, his bright smile melting my heart. Later, we visited a women’s shelter and learned about their especially vulnerable situations, while gazing at the beautiful jewelry they create as a method of healing emotionally and spiritually. One woman who was getting ready to leave that day gave every single person in our group the biggest, warmest hug I have ever had in my whole life.

Something about those simple moments have inspired me since, giving me a sense of hope and love that I had never felt before.

I saw it both in those at the commodore and those at the women’s shelter: this immense strength I had never seen anywhere else. I am still baffled at how, after telling heartbreaking stories of separation, poverty, abuse, abandonment, illness, and death, these individuals are able to smile and laugh fully and lovingly, willing to share their stories with us.

It is one thing to learn about migrants in history class or hear about it in the news, but getting to know just a few of them on an individual level makes the whole situation so much more real and personal. Each journey is so unique in their own struggles and goals that it is impossible to lump every single migrant together with the label “illegal immigrant”.

The next day was a 180 degree change in perspective: our visit with the Border Patrol.

This may have been one of the more challenging moments on the trip to keep an open mind, after seeing what we did the previous day and already being filled with negative stereotypes that flooded the media. The whole tour was very technical, learning about the history of the Border Patrol, what drugs they prevent from coming into the US, the technology that is used at the border, how they prevent the smuggling of drugs, Border Patrol transportation, and more about drugs.

I could feel a bit of tension in the room when certain questions were brought up about the Border Patrol themselves, the agent immediately getting defensive. However, him talking about how being a father makes it hard to see these children crossing the border, either to flee from violence or being forced by the drug cartels, allowed me to see him as a whole person, not just a Border Patrol agent. Then again, passing around an M-16 assault rifle to some students who participated in a memorializing walk out against gun violence just a couple weeks prior made me feel uneasy all over again.

There was something menacing about holding this weapon designed for combative war being used to protect our border. Not to mention when throwing rocks was brought up, agents reveal how many times rocks are thrown at them over the fence and how dangerous it is — but I can’t help but wonder about sixteen year old José Antonio who was shot to death ten times on Mexican soil for supposedly, guess what, throwing rocks.

Flashes of the painted faces of those killed by the Border Patrol on Mexican soil flashed in my head, but I tried to focus on what the agent said about how a few bad apples ruin it for the rest of them, and how there are many genuine agents out there only wanting to protect their country and save lives.

I had never been to a courthouse before this trip, but it was one of the most mind-numbing sessions I have ever sat through. That was what was so shocking to me, how the method of Operation Streamline (a system used to quickly process people who attempt to illegally cross the border) ships migrants in and out like it was clockwork.

We must have sat through about ten different groups of migrants, each described with “name, date caught, does not speak English”, dozens neatly typed out on a fresh packet to be passed around. The process was quick and repetitive, each migrant only speaking two words: “‘Are you a citizen of the country [Mexico/Guatemala/Honduras]?’ ‘Si’, ‘Did you illegally cross the border on [this date]?’ ‘Si’, ‘[length of sentence]’”. Once that group of seven was processed, another group would replace them, and so on.

Each time a group was moved out of the room, I felt an urge to stop them and get answers. These people all have their own journeys–how can they rush them through like that? There was no acknowledgment of their individuality at all–what if they had a good reason to cross? These people were just walking through the desert two days ago and now they only get two words to decide their fate.

What kind of system is this? I felt frustrated, sad, and helpless for about the fiftieth time since arriving. Yet again, quite a few surprised me with their smiles as they headed back into the side room, not showing any signs of fear or hopelessness.

I began to question what could be so great about the United States that made people want to risk so much to cross the border, but in reality, there is an endless list of reasons. Some seek the land of opportunity when there are no livable wages to support themselves. Some flee from violence or corruption rooted in the cartels and government. Some yearn to be with their families again and give needed support. These are rights we take for granted and even deny to others when we shut our doors to them as they cry for help.

The name of the immersion is ‘El Otro Lado’, meaning ‘The Other Side’, but our final day in Arizona revealed that there is a third major side to the issue that I had never heard of before: the Tohono O’odham Nation.

When the topic of the border is brought up in the news, it goes on about how the US says this, Mexico says that, but never once have I heard anything about a Native American reservation having any say in the matter. In fact, sixty-two miles of the border splits the Nation’s land in half, with tribal members of either side required to show their tribal ID to pass back and forth. One of the tribal leaders who spoke to us described their people as sharers and people of great respect, which broke my heart to see the land they have treasured for thousands of years severed in two.

Not only would the new wall make it much more difficult for the two sides to interact, but it would entirely block their view of the land on the other side. As long as the Tohono O’odham people have resided there, they have thrived off the land, so putting up that wall would further disconnect them from their culture.

I expected the Border Patrol and the tribal members to have some feud going between them, but as we listened to both sides discuss the border in relation to the reservation, I could see the respect they had for each other. They know that as complex as the situation is, they either work together or it doesn’t work at all.

It all still left me wondering: where is their voice in all of this? The tribal leader described it this way: “we are as sovereign as the federal government will let us be”. He presented us with photos of their tribal politics group in D.C. pushing to be heard, and other examples of their efforts in opposition of the wall.

All of this reminds me of learning how, in colonial times, the first settlers pushed back native tribes into tiny areas of land and suppressed them, but I never realized that those kinds of actions are still going on today. Despite the Tohono O’odham Nation having lived in that desert for thousands of years, it is still the federal government’s ultimate decision on what goes. I felt as though they had been cheated, their welcoming and peaceful nature taken advantage of.

Like the leaders explained, they did not understand the concept of a border or how anyone could own land. The earth is a gift to all, so it cannot be claimed by anyone. Unfortunately, they are caught in the middle of one of the most complex border issues of modern times.

Final thoughts:

On this immersion, I gained more than I could’ve hoped for: new perspectives, knowledge on the issue, friendships, and a greater understanding of what a border entails. My eyes were opened to so many different views on the topic that it would be impossible for me to plan out a way to fix it; There is no easy solution.

In the end, everyone’s main goal is to save as many lives as they can. While the immigration issue as a whole is very overwhelming and intimidating at first glance, it can only be improved by expanding this understanding to more and more people.

This is not a problem that can be solved by scapegoating all those who cross the border illegally or by putting up a taller wall, but the entire issue must be looked at closer. Why are people forced to cross illegally? Why are people wanting to come to the US? Why is it so hard for migrants to come to the US legally? What must be done on our part to help support those looking for a better life?

These are questions that I still struggle with even after going through the immersion, and will continue to for a long time. I could keep going on about what I learned, questions I still have, and my reactions to the experience, but I would never be able to give the immersion the justice it deserves. When people ask me how this immersion was, I am speechless. I feel guilty only saying “it was amazing”, because while it was, no words can communicate the value of the experience. The Arizona Border Immersion is a unique opportunity that I could not have gotten anywhere else and that must be experienced first hand to get the fullness of it.

If you are a sophomore or junior this year, I highly recommend applying for this immersion next year. If it were up to me, everyone would go, because I don’t think there is one person who would not gain something important from the trip.

Being informed and spreading knowledge is one of the most important and easiest things we can do, so please go out, apply, or just make an effort to learn something about our nation’s border and why it is so incredibly complicated.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Guest Column: “As Sovereign as the Federal Government Will Let Us Be””

  1. Daniel Sheets on April 11th, 2018 9:04 pm

    Thank you, La Salle, for giving these students this life changing experience. So beautifully written, Emma. I am so blessed to be your father, and am so thankful to be able to give you these opportunities.

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Guest Column: “As Sovereign as the Federal Government Will Let Us Be”