Crossing the Border

February 19, 2014
Crossing the Border
HDS and Harvard students at the Arizona/Mexico border. Photo: Gail Doktor

On December 5, 2013, 12 Harvard students sat in a conference room in a Tucson, Arizona, courthouse with the city's public defender.

"So," the public defender said, "you just came from watching 70 brown people shackled and tried for being economic refugees."

This was not a typical afternoon seminar. The students had witnessed an Operation Streamline court proceeding that sentenced to prison men and women who had recently crossed the Arizona/Mexico border without documentation.

This occurred during the last week of "Border Crossing: Immigration in America," a course offered at HDS in fall 2013 that explored the controversial topic of immigration in America. The course was taught by HDS professor Diane Moore and Maritza Hernandez, HDS dean of Enrollment and Student Services, and culminated in a 5-day trip to the Arizona/Mexico border.

Due to the popularity of the class, students were asked to write a short essay about why they wanted to take the course and how it related to their academic or vocational goals. Although Moore and Hernandez were willing to expand the seminar, their funding only permitted 12 students to take the trip to the border.

At the end of registration, the class included 24 students with diverse vocational aspirations, including students who had cross-registered from Harvard Law School (HLS), Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD).

Gail Doktor, a second­-year master of divinity degree candidate pursuing chaplaincy and ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ, wanted to take the course so she could develop her literacy around narratives of migration.

"Stories about migration are some of the oldest and most sacred stories that we tell," Doktor says. "Now, thinking about what is happening today, it is important to be able to facilitate an informed conversation about this particular topic and realize that it is relevant in our lives and in our communities."

The course explored the history and contemporary dimensions of immigration in America through a critical lens, and Moore focused on honing the students' facilitation skills that Doktor and her classmates were seeking. For one assignment, students interviewed an immigrant and created a profile that they shared with the class.  

"The diversity was incredible," says Moore. "Some interview subjects were undocumented, and had to be represented with an anonymous pictorial image because of their undocumented status. One subject was a beloved and successful local business owner. The range of experiences represented shattered simple stereotypes and grounded our study. The portraits were deeply moving."

For the 12 students who were also able to participate on the trip to the border, the course allowed them to develop both a critical lens of analysis as well as a sense of trust, support, and community.  

At the borderland

After 10 hours of traveling, Hernandez and the students arrived at Borderlinks in Tucson, Arizona. Borderlinks is a non­profit organization that has been raising awareness about border issues and immigration policies through experiential learning opportunities for 25 years. Hernandez also partnered with Borderlinks in 2011, when she took a group of HDS students to the border for a January term course.

"That whetted my appetite," says Hernandez, reflecting on that first trip. "I knew we really needed to do more."

As a result, Hernandez applied for a grant from the Ford Foundation to offer a semester-long course that would combine deep learning about the historical, economic, cultural, religious, and political weight of immigration narratives in the United States with the experiential component of visiting the Arizona/Mexico border.

The course was awarded $15,000, enough that the 12 students going on the trip only had to pay $200—less than half the price of a plane ticket to Tucson.

During the first few days of the trip, Borderlinks connected students with federal employees, including an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, historians, nonprofit representatives, volunteers, and religious leaders working on the border.

On the second day, the group crossed over to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. While in Nogales, they met with factory workers and locals whose daily lives are shaped by their proximity to the border. One woman invited them to her home for a meal.

Brooke Davis, a dual-degree candidate for the master of theological studies (HDS) and master in public administration (HKS), was especially moved by their hospitality.

"It was very intimate and very personal," Davis says. "She fed us. I was struck by the impact of being invited into her home."

Davis is entering the U.S. Foreign Service and will begin serving as a diplomat in July. Her first post will be a consular tour, which means she will be involved in border issues like international adoptions, human trafficking cases, and processing both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. She is interested in applying for a tour in Mexico.

"I would be completely remiss if I did not already have an experience like this," she says. "The class's own passage across the border brought home the reality of how difficult it is for a non-­United States citizen to cross the border.

"It was very easy to go into Mexico, there was no security whatsoever, literally, just a nod. But on the way back, it was barrier after barrier. I was really uncomfortable. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers asked us so many questions."

Inside the courthouse

It was on the trip's fourth day that students witnessed the Operation Streamline conviction of 70 undocumented men and women.

"The hardest thing to see was the Operation Streamline court procedure," explains Doktor. "We walked into the room and saw 70 brown-skinned people in shackles. Ultimately, what that looks like is slavery and racism. They looked like one group with one story, and they weren't. They were from different countries and all different ages. There were men and a few women."

Andrew Porter, a third-year master of divinity degree candidate, is drawing from his experience on the trip for his master's thesis. He writes: "Each man was sentenced to jail time: 30, 60, 90, or 180 days, depending on how many times they had been previously apprehended. The judge blazed through the docket, sentencing about 60 people in less than two hours."

Looking back on her trip in 2011, Hernandez says: "I think the saddest part for me was that nothing has changed. The streamline process was being done back then and it is still going on now. There are still hundreds of migrants who are dying in the desert, risking their lives to make that dangerous trek."

On the final full day of their trip, the students went to a detention center in Florence, Arizona. There, they met in small groups with prisoners to hear their stories and collect information to share with Casa Mariposa, an intentional community that offers shelter to migrants who are about to be deported, as well as a residence for migrants who are granted legal status.

Doktor's group met with a man who had very little hope.

"My group met with a man who is in danger for his life if he goes back home to Honduras. He speaks no English and cannot read or write in any language. He sold fresh produce in a market, but he was being extorted by a local gang. His son has a severe form of epilepsy. He couldn't afford both the extortion payments and his son's medication and eventually fell behind in the extortion payments. The gang held a gun to his head and said he wouldn't make it to his daughter's next birthday."

Terrified, the man crossed the border hoping he could earn enough money in the United States to pay off the gang and support his family. He was apprehended at the border, though, and has fallen farther behind in his payments. His wife and children are now in hiding. No one from his home will come forward as a character witness for his trial because they are all afraid of the gang. If he is found guilty and deported to Honduras, he has no doubt that he will be killed.

"The people detained in the federal prison system who are not citizens, meaning they are seeking refugee status, don't have attorneys," says Doktor. "When they go to court they only have a translator. They are representing themselves in a very confusing legal and political system with absolutely no documentation to back them up."

She and her classmates wrote down the details of his story for Casa Mariposa with the hope that they might be able help.

Next steps

The following day they boarded a plane and flew back to Boston to finish their finals and head home for the winter holidays.

In a blog she kept of the trip, Doktor writes: "The trip is over, but its impact continues to change the shape of our thoughts and feelings, our words and deeds, in the weeks and months to come."

For their final projects for the course, Moore and Hernandez gave students the option to creatively express their learning in a format that would facilitate conversations with others about immigration. Some students created paintings or visual art. Andrew Porter wrote a song called "Paper."

"Writing a song instead of a 20-­page research paper really allowed me to tell part of the story in a direct way, with images and the tone of my voice, rather than in a deliberate, rational, methodical style that is really out of step with the issue itself."

Doktor is the president of her Rotary Club in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and she created a PowerPoint presentation for her club about the immigration narratives that shape their community.

Harvard Design student Christina Antiporda's final project was to curate an exhibit at the Kirkland Gallery, featuring many of the final projects from the class. The purpose of the exhibit is to share the learning from the class with the rest of the Harvard community and to generate deeper awareness about immigration.

The show will be installed on February 23 with an official opening on February 24 and will include contributions from the majority of the class.

"I am excited to invite people to see that installation," says Davis. "If people see for themselves even a fraction of what we experienced, they are going to walk away with more education than they had before."

—by Erica Long