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College group hears immigrants' stories in border detention center

Barry McNamara
03/16/2017
Seven Monmouth students and three faculty and staff members traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border south of Tucson, Ariz., to learn more about immigration issues.
Monmouth College student Diana Rubi ’18 had a spring break she will never forget.

Rubi was one of seven Monmouth students and three faculty and staff members who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border south of Tucson, Ariz., to learn more about immigration issues.

Rubi has a special interest in the topic because she identifies as part of the immigrant community. She said putting faces with the facts made the experience all the more meaningful.

“I will never forget the strength of Karolina, an Afro-Mexican transgender woman,” said Rubi, who is from Peoria, Ill. “She worked with Mariposas Sin Fronteras, an organization (in Tucson) that spends their time visiting migrants in detention centers, raising money for bonds and supporting those most vulnerable in detention centers, including members of the LGBT+ community, survivors of domestic violence and people with terminal illnesses. Karolina spoke with us about her experience in the detention center and her journey to get out. She truly has an inspiring strength and passion that I know touched all of us on the trip.”

This was the second time in three years that a Monmouth College group traveled during spring break to the U.S.-Mexico border to study immigration. Faculty members Tim Gaster and Dan Ott led the trip – which was funded by the College’s Lux Center for Church and Religious Leadership – along with associate chaplain Jessica Hawkinson. Ott and Gaster were also on the 2014 trip.

“The students all did the readings before the trip, they asked great questions, and they were super engaged,” said Ott.

Gaster said the trip helped the students see “the human side of the issue.”

“It was an incredibly informative and emotional trip,” said Gaster. “We received a ton of information, and we saw the human side of the issue.”

The Monmouth group agreed that a day they spent visiting with detainees was especially powerful – from the prison-like feel of the facility, to the individuals they met.

The migrants at the detention center were seeking asylum, fleeing violence from their home countries. Ott said there is a way out for the detainees, but it’s complicated.

“The more you think you know about how the system works, you get stuck with other stuff,” he said.

By federal law, detainees must stay in the center for at least six months. The length of time varies – some detainees stay up to several years, depending on whether they were caught or turned themselves over willingly to seek asylum. A $7,500 bond is required for release, which Ott said “most can’t post.”

“The place was very secured – it seemed like they were detaining high-level criminals,” said Rubi. “When we entered, one of the security guards was gloating about how his job was easy. That is when I noticed the industry that has been created to employ U.S. citizens and criminalize migration. There were about nine tables with four seats, and there was one migrant at each table in orange or blue suits. This image was damaging. The security guards stood at a table that was elevated on a platform watching each person as if they were America’s most wanted.”

Rubi also spoke to a 23-year-old man named Jacinto.

“Jacinto had been told by a guide to go to a checkpoint and request asylum – at this point he was separated from his younger brother who made the long, dangerous journey with him,” she said. “Jacinto looked at us with a sparkle in his eye and an innocent smile on his face as he told us that Psalm 23 gave him hope. He just wanted to get out of the detention center to learn English and work. He was in search of a better life than the one he had in Guatemala, where gangs torment good people like him and his family. Yet, here he was, a prisoner of an industry and the victim of hate. I don’t wish that life for anyone, not even those who criminalize migration.”

Compared to the 2014 trip, Ott said that there is currently “a lot of fear and anxiety” along the border.

“They haven’t seen any major changes yet, but everybody feels like they’re coming,” he said.

Gaster said that compared to the 2014 trip, he observed “a real sense of urgency.”

“People are stepping up to help in any way they can,” he said.

The trip only strengthened Rubi’s resolve to work with immigrants after she graduates from Monmouth.

“From meeting Jacinto to walking two miles of the Sonora desert (where migrants try to gain border access), to meeting community leaders in grassroots movements, each day was memorable,” said Rubi. “It was devastating to see the damages that legislators, Border Patrol and this industry were causing migrants – other humans. It was disheartening to see how migrants’ humanity is stripped away due to privatization and xenophobia. This trip stirred many feelings, but most of all, it reignited my passion to work for the immigrant community and my desire to elevate the voices of those who are often drowned by power.”

Rubi and the other students will get the opportunity to do some of that work in Monmouth, as action plans are being developed on campus for such events as a “Know Your Rights” workshop and a workshop on applying for citizenship.

“We want to get the information to the people that need it,” said Gaster. “As a college, we should be pretty good at that.”