Undergraduates connect with immigrants and advocates

The Kenan Institute for Ethics offered one of Duke University’s “Alternative Spring Breaks” for 2015, giving undergraduates the opportunity to examine unaccompanied child migration into the United States. Between October 2013 and July 2014, 57,000 children were processed by Customs and Border Protection at the Southwest border.  This is more than double the number of children apprehended the previous year. Aiming for a better understanding of the situation, six students travelled to South Texas to meet with immigrant families, volunteers, legal advocates, a journalist, and government officials. They learned the challenges for legal migration in general and particularly for children that cross the border without their families.

First year Reed McLaurin chose to join the trip due in part to his experience last fall with the Focus cluster on Ethics, Leadership & Global Citizenship, and also he felt “deeply uninformed on the intricacies of the child migrant crisis that dominated headlines last summer.” Of his time on the trip, he said “speaking with migrants as they continued their journeys, listening to the stories of the lawyers who defend them, seeing the border that separates our country from México—they were all incredibly powerful moments. I can’t quite explain it, but there is just something about having a tangible relationship to an issue that helps you understand how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.”

Button-FocusA highlight of the experience was a landmark meeting with all four regional consuls from Central America (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), who themselves were meeting together in the same room for the first time. In exploring what has caused this sharp increase, the students discovered that the crisis has many interrelated causes, from stunted economic development and the drug economy to family reunification the threat of gang violence.

Border-fence-400The students worked side by side with volunteers of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who provide naturalization assistance as well as providing food, shelter, and clothing for immigrants and their families. They also spoke with lawyers involved with two pro bono organizations, the ProBAR Children’s Project and Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), aimed at helping unite child migrants with family members already in the United States and advocating for their rights within the system. Most of the children are actually seeking to join their families who are already in the United States, and families are sometimes forced to pay human traffickers in an attempt to bring their children across the border.

Maura Smyles, another first year undergraduate, says she not only gained “a much deeper understanding of the child migrant crisis,” but was so inspired by the work of the lawyers they spoke with that she is now planning to pursue a career as a legal child advocate.

Christian Ferney, Student Program Manager at the Institute, accompanied the students and says that the opportunity to understand this issue from the perspectives of migrants, legal representatives, and foreign governments provided “the multidimensional approach that is central to how we think about ethics at the Institute.” He also said, “I think one of the values of these kinds of trips is the opportunity to really live in the complexity of a situation.”

Button-ConferenceThe trip built on a February conference which gathered a diverse group of scholars, legal experts, and field practitioners. You can read a brief summary of the conference on our website.