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Students from Borderlands and Beyond Study Migrant Issues over Summer

Michael Hernandez


El Paso’s Lights for Liberty rally in July drew a few hundred people to protest migrant detention camps.

Rallygoers marched from the Paso del Norte Bridge to a downtown park where they held a vigil. 

10 local and national undergraduate students attended events like Light for Liberty this summer to learn about immigration issues firsthand.

The 10-week research program, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, is taught by New Mexico State University in partnership with the University of Texas at El Paso.

Students from NMSU, UTEP and five other universities are matched with local immigrants’ rights organizations. They research topics from asylum law to sanctuary city policies and observe case proceedings in federal immigration court.

Kathryn Garcia is a cultural anthropology senior at Northeastern University. The San Diego native said she’s worked with border communities before in Tijuana and Nogales, Mexico. Garcia interned with the faith-based Hope Border Institute in El Paso.

“A lot of what we've been doing is going to court and observing court and we're documenting the human rights violations that are occurring as well as working in Juarez, going to migrant shelters and talking to people about their experiences there," Garcia said.

The data that Garcia and her classmates collect goes into an insight report the Hope Border Institute releases each year. She said much of her research centers around the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” program.

The policy, officially named Migrant Protection Protocols, orders migrants to stay in Mexico until their asylum claims can be processed in the United States.

“Being sent to Juarez to wait for your asylum claim, it's just completely inhumane because it's not a safe place for them," Garcia said. "They have no access to resources, legal counsel. If they need an attorney it's really hard to get an attorney. All of their paperwork needs to be in English and there's people that don't speak English and don't even speak Spanish and they're being sent to Juarez. So, it's really difficult for them."

It’s estimated the “remain in Mexico” program has sent thousands of asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for their days in court.

NMSU student Israel Monsivaiz also attended the vigil. The government and criminal justice senior interned with the Las Cruces chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said it’s his first experience working with migrants.

"We're basically getting insight on the whole issue of sanctuary and welcoming communities in the state of New Mexico. We're primarily focusing on the local level, mainly Las Cruces. And we're looking at the policies that have been adopted by the City as well as other efforts done by the community to welcome migrants," Monsivaiz said.

From mid-April to late July, Border Patrol officials dropped off more than 14,000 migrants in Las Cruces, according to City Spokesperson Udell Vigil.

That sudden influx prompted City Council to budget hundreds of thousands of dollars in migrant aid. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham is suing the Trump administration for reimbursement.

During his internship, Monsivaiz said he’s visited shelters and churches in Las Cruces housing asylum-seekers. He’s also learned how to give Know Your Rights presentations to migrants.

“A Know Your Rights presentation is basically at the most, a really basic rundown of basic civil liberties that some of these people have, right. I mean as migrants and as anyone else they have rights, correct? And those rights cannot be violated," Monsivaiz said. "But it's important that we emphasize that we're not lawyers or stuff like that. It's just an orientation and that's about it."

While not a lawyer yet, Monsivaiz said he plans to attend law school after graduation. Garcia plans to pursue her Ph.D. in anthropology.

Whether students aim to be researchers, lawyers or social scientists, Hope Border Institute Deputy Director Marisa Limón Garza said producing professionals who can think critically about the border is their goal.

“And that they show the rest of the world, this country, what it's like on the ground. That the border is not just a line in the sand but it's a vibrant community made up of many different kinds of people where binaries of good and bad, right or wrong, don't really exist," Garza said. "That everything is very grey and complex. That they have the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze situations from different perspectives and to push for policy that they believe in.”

When members of Congress visited a Clint detention facility after reports that migrant children were living in squalid conditions, it sparked a national dialogue. Garza said the organization hopes to turn that response to Clint into action through policy change.

“It's a game of whack-a-mole here on the Borderlands and we know it's by design. So, it's up to us to remain strategic and to remain thoughtful." Garza said. "And that's something we really try to convey to these, these young people is like, how do we stay strong and focused and efficient and effective in light of so many burning fires today."

Credit Michael Hernandez
The event culminated with a vigil as part of a nationwide effort to show solidarity with asylum-seekers. Participants in El Paso held up electric candles as names of migrants who have died while in federal custody were read aloud.

At the vigil, those fires glowed from candles to shine light on the Trump administration’s policies.

For Garcia, the critical factor to keep in mind regarding immigration is the person.

“The most important thing is to see people seeking asylum as human beings and their cases are real and we've heard them and they're not these people that are just invading the United States. These are people who are fleeing their countries for violence. If they're sent back to their countries, they're going to be killed but we need to see the human faces," Garcia said.

While the faces of migrants often remain hidden, the faces of their advocates remained visible into the night.

Michael Hernandez was a multimedia reporter for KRWG Public Media from late 2017 through early 2020. He continues to appear on KRWG-TV from time to time on our popular "EnviroMinute" segments, which feature conservation and citizen science issues in the region.