Leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there was much debate about immigration and building a wall on the US and Mexico border. In several places along the border a wall already exists, including in Nogales, a city that sits on the divide between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. In early October, a group of students and faculty from Ithaca College visited the city for a multiday rally, called the “Convergence at the Border.” The event was held to raise awareness of issues facing migrants and refugees who make the often dangerous journey to the U.S.
Associate Professor of Politics Patricia Rodriguez decided to make the trip to Nogales, along with Robyn Wishna, a lecturer in the Department of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies. They planned to interview and photograph activists at the convergence.
Rodriguez and Wishna were joined by students Juliana Ardila, Elena Piech, Anna Gardner and Theophilus Alexander. The students received no academic credit for making the trip, but got to witness the complexity of the issues related to immigration firsthand.
“They were doing it because these are the real issues out in the real world, and they met real people, and for them I think that it was life-changing,” said Rodriguez.
The true cost of the journey
While in Nogales, the group gained an appreciation for the dangers and risks that migrants face when travelling to the U.S., beginning with the heat.
“The sun and heat was so oppressive, and all I could do most of the time was to think that I couldn’t take five minutes of it, and to think of the people in the middle of the desert crossing for days and days and days,” said Wishna. “I don’t think I would have lasted. It weighed heavily on me.”
The deadly danger of the border crossing was driven home during a visit to the nearby University of Arizona in Tucson, where they attended an exhibition of quilts sewn together from scraps of clothing found in the desert — tributes to those who disappear and perish during the journey.
Untrustworthy human traffickers and corrupt local police pose a particular threat to migrants, who are often robbed, sexually assaulted, or even killed while attempting to cross into the U.S., says Rodriguez. At the convergence, the group met with activists and representatives from non-profit organizations who work to counter those threats.
Often, those helping migrants are poor themselves, like a group that collects food to give hungry migrants who travel atop trains through Mexico. “To see people organizing themselves no matter how little money they have really stood out to me,” said Ardila, a sophomore documentary studies and production major in the Roy H. Park School of Communications.
A sophomore double majoring in art history and film, photography and visual arts, Gardner says she was especially impacted by meeting Joanna Williams, who works with the Kino Border Initiative, a group that helps recently deported people get back home or apply for asylum. They also run a shelter where female migrants can have a safe place to stay and find support.
“For a lot women when they’re crossing it can be inevitable that they’ll be sexually abused or raped as a source of payment or just taken advantage of since they’re in a vulnerable situation,” said Gardner. “Because this happened in a situation where they were in between two places it’s not really like anyone’s working for justice in their case, and I think a lot of women don’t really know that they can report these abuses.”
The group attended a vigil outside the Eloy Detention Center, a privately run prison where many undocumented migrants are detained for months, sometimes even longer than a year, before being deported. Hundreds of concerned individuals gathered with candles and called out the names of detainees.
“When we talk about immigration, people that are anti-immigration make it seems as though these people get caught and then they’re sent back to their country, when in reality they’re caught and then they sit in detention in the U.S. and they can’t do anything about that,” said Piech, a sophomore journalism major.
Ardila, who moved from Colombia to the U.S. at the age of nine, stresses that migrants face such risks and dangers because they feel they have no other choice in order to escape violence, insecurity and economic instability in their own countries.
“We don’t want to leave our country,” said Ardila. “It’s a necessity because we feel like we can’t possibly go on in our own home, and the fact that some people cross the border and risk their lives to come to this country is a huge problem and people don’t recognize that.”
Coming together for a common goal
While at the convergence, Rodriguez and Wishna photographed and interviewed several female activists as part of a larger project Rodriguez is working on: “En el Camino a la Minga Global” (On the Path to the Global Minga).
The word “minga” comes from Quichua, an indigenous South American language, and refers to communal work done by neighbors in order to achieve a shared goal. The project seeks to connect local activists in Latin America and New York so that they can learn from each other and work together to achieve their goals.
Rodriguez says that the struggles of local activists in Latin America, including displacement of communities and resource extraction, are similar to the issues faced by activists and indigenous groups in New York and elsewhere in the U.S. Through interviews like those conducted in Nogales, the different groups can benefit from each other’s experiences and ideas.
“It’s a way for more people to get engaged and connect with one another,” said Rodriguez.