In big letters across the top of the main entry along the border in Nogales, Arizona, a sign proclaims “Welcome to the Mariposa Port, welcome to the United States of America.”
But for the San Francisco students and their educators who crossed the border every day for the past two weeks, the 20-foot wall covered in razor wire belied the message.
“We have been shown such gracious hospitality by total strangers, and our foreign policy right now is just the opposite of hospitality,” St. Ignatius College Preparatory Assistant Principal Chad Evans said. “So that’s, for me, something that just weighs very heavily on my heart.”
Evans, joined by a religion teacher at the school, led a group of eight rising seniors on an eye-opening trip to understand the complex issues surrounding immigration.
Over the course of two weeks, the group served migrants food, stayed with ranchers, observed deportation hearings and met with border patrol.
“It’s hard not to see my own family in the situation and emphasize with that,” said student Robert Velasco, 17, whose father went through a similar journey from El Salvador in the early 80s. “It strikes a certain cord, but I think it would strike a cord with anyone. Seeing families and just individuals striving for something that they can hold on to: striving for a better future.”
The group left San Francisco on June 30 and have been in Nogales, both on the Arizona side and the Sonora, Mexico, side of the border, since July 1. The students will arrive back home Saturday.
The group served and connected with many migrants who came and left the Comedor, a food kitchen run by the Jesuit organization Kino Border Initiative that also provides basic legal and first aid services. Some migrants had hoped to apply for asylum while others were deported after trying to cross the border.
Many of their stories were heart-breaking.
They met people who served two to three months in a detention facility before being deported and migrants, including many from Honduras and Guatemala, currently waiting for three to four weeks just to meet with a border patrol agent or an ICE official to request asylum.
After spending a day and a half with a ranching family in Arivaca, Arizona that owns five miles of land directly on the border, students like Quinn O’Connor began to understand the difficulties the ranchers face with the drug cartels and why the ranchers want to secure the border.
“They’re not people against migrants,” O’Connor, 17, said. “They’re all for the humanity and dignity of many people, but basically I’d say for the ranchers on the border there, they’re really against drugs and illegal narcotics crossing the border.”
From a visit with the border patrol agents, O’Connor said he took away how their focus is on keeping the border secure, safe and legal.
Allowing students to develop a sophisticated understanding on their own was the goal, according to Evans. Neither he or the accompanying teacher told students what to believe.
For Velasco, seeing migrants going through less than 10-minute deportation hearings at the federal courthouse in Tucson was especially emotional. He recalled judges reading their rights, crimes and consequences of the crimes, then asking if they understood. Everyone leaned into the microphone answering yes and were then marshaled off into the next room as another group entered.
But he finds reassurance in their strength and said migrants greeted them very kindly both in the shelters and as they walked through town.
“There’s this kind of sense of the migrants being victimized and suffering, which they are, but it’s important to note the resilience of all these migrants down here,” Velasco said. “The very strong will that they have to help themselves and to help their families, which is very inspiring. When you walk in you see people smiling despite what they’ve been through.”
Velasco said the trip reinforced his belief that people should work to connect, not divide at the border. Besides sharing the stories they heard, the students plan to collect or fundraise for backpacks, clothes and shoes for migrants.
“We want to work with our school and community to bring justice and upgraded policies to what’s happening down here,” O’Connor said. “I think I’ll definitely share with friends and family and fellow classmates about what happened down here.”
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