Students Reflect on Experiences at the U.S.-Mexico Border

From March 10-16, six undergraduates took part in the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Alternative Spring Break in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, where they witnessed firsthand the changing physical and philosophical nature of the U.S.-Mexico border. The trip enabled students to examine the impact that a constructed wall and heavily regulated border crossings have on the residents, economies, and cultures of the twin border cities of Brownsville, Texas, U.S.A. and Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. While there, the group members met with representatives of the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and other on-the-ground partners.

Speaking on a public panel at KIE on April 18th, five of the six participating students reflected on how the trip had reshaped their thinking of the immigrant experience by bringing them much closer in proximity to the border and allowing them to speak with individuals for whom the border is a part of life. They were joined on the panel via Skype by Richard Phillips (’17), a participant on a previous Alternative Spring Break trip to the border of Mexico and Arizona, who is currently working as an associate researcher for the Duke Initiative for Science & Society in south and central Texas.

Phillips said of his experience:

The world’s many, intractable human crises, like that of undocumented migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, naturally cause discomfort and pain within those who witness them. That’s how I felt when I went to the Arizona border during my Alternative Spring Break in 2016. It was tempting to find the easy way out: put together a fundraiser on campus, donate a little bit of my time or money to the cause, write a Facebook think-piece on our country’s flawed border security policies, etc. I wanted to feel like I’d done something to help, and then with that peace of mind move on with my life. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that that was the wrong thing to do. That it would result in me leveraging my privilege to escape the reality that many people do not have the choice to leave. That it would be nothing more than a return to my blissful ignorance.
As students at one of the world’s top universities, it’s important to recognize that we aren’t necessarily meant to “do” anything just yet in our lives. We are meant to look, listen, feel, and be changed by the knowledge we are given and the world we see around us. Going to the border gave me a crucial opportunity to leave the Duke bubble and catch a glimpse of the suffering that is the reality of the real world. I learned to sit in the discomfort and pain of that reality, rather than numb myself and pull away. I learned to take advantage of my brief stints in the real world to listen to what it’s trying to tell me, and to learn how I can be of best use towards alleviating its suffering once my time in school is over. The experience changed my life.

Prior to their trip, the 2018 group members met to hear guest speakers and discuss assigned readings. During the experience, they participated in evening reflections and kept journals documenting their questions, concerns, and experiences. The students described how their firsthand experiences in the Rio Grande Valley region had debunked many of their preconceived notions about the border area and the nature of border crossings, while also leaving them with many more ethical questions to be considered and a better understanding of the complexity of immigration issues in the United States.

Watch a “video journal” of the students’ reflections upon their return: