We always hear that the best way to learn about something is to see it with your own eyes. Learning about migration is no different.
Over the past three years, MCC Great Lakes has initiated six learning tours to the Borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico led by Jorge Vielman, MCC Great Lakes Peace & Justice Coordinator. Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., also participated in a similar tour with Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S. Immigration Education Coordinator. In all, 72 people have participated in these tours.
“This learning tour is designed to bring awareness about the increasing migrant deaths, militarization, environment degradation, effects on habitat and effects on sister communities by the border wall along the Mexico/U.S. Borderlands,” said Vielman. He hopes that through the tours, participants can learn about how migration affects the people and communities along the border. And that they will also develop ways to use advocacy tools and engage others in conversations about migration issues.
The tour groups start their days by going to the border wall to pray. They visit organizations like Café Justo, who work at grassroots and sustainable solutions to forced migration. The groups also meet with representatives from U.S. Border Patrol and have the chance to ask questions. Participants have the opportunity to work with members of the group Agua Para La Vida and leave fresh water in the desert for migrants.
“Each of the many people we met has a unique relationship with the wall that I only could have learned about by hearing directly from them,” said Maddie Delp, a Goshen College student who participated in the tour with Assembly Mennonite. “Throughout the trip I got to learn by seeing and experiencing, not just by being told.”
Barbara and George Smucker, from College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., also participated in one of the learning tours. “It is hard to find one highlight,” Barbara said, “but for me, just encountering the physical wall the first time stands out. I retain many memories of my time on the border, on both sides.”
“We experienced the feeling of being lost in the desert while knowing that [a leader] knew the way out,” said George. “We felt sadness when we visited the local cemetery to see the graves of unknown persons who died in the desert while attempting to cross. We were amazed by the militarization of the border patrol program and the sincerity of border agents who believe their work is necessary to keep the USA safe. We experienced empathy and were blessed by the stories of persons who invited us into their homes.”
The learning tours also provide the opportunity for participants to share a meal and visit with people who have been deported back to Mexico. Seeing and hearing personal stories about the plight of uprooted people brings life to immigration issues in a new way. “Participants gain firsthand knowledge about the root causes of immigration and also understanding about the needs of immigrants in our communities and how to help meet their needs,” said Vielman.
“I have a better understanding of the effect - and overall ineffectiveness - of the border wall,” said Delp. “The tour has made clear why I need to take my role as a U.S. citizen seriously. I have the potential to do something about the injustice I see, and I feel more confident to begin doing so with the foundation this tour has provided.
As a result of the learning tours, some participants have started teaching English in their local communities upon returning home. Others have even gone back to Arizona to volunteer with some of the partner organizations they visited on the tour.
“Traveling to the actual border wall and meeting with the people it actually affects in huge ways was both disheartening and inexplicably life-giving,” said Delp. “The only way to understand is to get close.”