Plumes of dust and outcroppings of jagged rocks permeate the air, as social work senior, Eva Perez, and 35 of her classmates make the trek toward the U.S./Mexico border in San Diego. The sun beats down harshly on Perez as she carries two heavy gallons of water – each gallon inscribed with notes like ‘Si Se Puede’ and ‘Tu importas’.
Perez and her classmates are in a barren desert just 40 minutes from the border. As she looks ahead, her arms strain from the weight of the water and her heart becomes heavier by the minute as she surveys her surroundings.
Bullet casings cover the desert floor, with tattered clothing and broken children’s toys strewn about the landscape. Trash and litter are everywhere. She finds a spot, free of any debris, and gently places her water jug there. Her fellow classmates do the same up and down the border.
The goal was to leave the water for any migrants who cross over the border, in search of asylum.
As Perez reflects back on her harrowing experience, she brushes her thumb over one of the bullet casings she kept, remembering the day she vows to never forget.
It started on October 16 when Dr. Marcus Crawford, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work Education, along with three other social work faculty, led their students on a three-day trip to the border to witness firsthand the trials and tribulations migrants face once they have crossed the border. The sun was just rising above the horizon, as the bus carrying the students and faculty left the Fresno State campus that Thursday morning.
For a majority of the students, this was their first time getting a glimpse into the other side of the border.
Master of Social Work student, Ewan Duarte, remembers vividly the heartbreaking sights and sounds felt that day.
“There were three people behind the border wall on the beach yelling that they wanted to come over,” Duarte recalls. “One can simultaneously hold feelings of heartbreak, sadness, injustice, and gratitude all at once, amidst a gorgeous beach and the inspiring, vast ocean. I listened to the waves and thought, walls first begin in the human mind. It is first a thought, then words, and then actions. How many people held the thoughts of division, fear, and bias for this wall to be created and continue to stand?”
Crawford said the trip to the border offered an important lesson and experience for students.
“We wanted students to experience some of what migrants may experience when they’re crossing the border,” Crawford said. “We wanted them to have a better understanding of what was happening at the border in regards to immigration and people seeking asylum.”
Students and faculty were paired with southern California based non-profit organization, Border Angels, who specialize in providing free services to migrants. The agency took them on several site visits, including a local Home Depot, where migrant workers were waiting to be interviewed for jobs.
Perez learned these migrants come out every day to interview for jobs, hoping to secure enough money to help support their families. Perez, wearing a Border Angels t-shirt, was able to talk with the migrants and hand out flyers with information about free legal service, provided by border agents, for migrants.
Along with meeting migrants one-on-one, Perez and her classmates also collected and distributed donations of clothing and necessities for migrants. She said the outpouring of support was amazing to witness.
“I don’t have an exact number, but the bottom of the bus was completely full of clothing, shoes, toys, food, blankets, you name it,” Perez said. “We had everything.”
One of the most compelling visits for Perez was when she and her classmates met with an immigration officer, who gave them a firsthand account of their profession. The experience gave Perez a new perspective.
“I got to see another side of immigration officers,” said Perez. “We saw the human side of them.”
For Perez, the trip to the border was more than just an educational experience, but rather a look back at the history of those who came before her. Tears fill her eyes as she describes the journey her grandparents took across that very same desert border nearly three decades ago, when Perez was just a few months old.
Her experience at the border has ignited her passion to help her community. In the future, she aspires to open up her own non-profit agency “Migrants from the Past”, in her hometown of Reedley, where she plans to provide free services to migrants and undocumented immigrants in the Central Valley.
She recently assisted a migrant and his family with a place to stay and the necessary resources to provide stability for his family. Perez and her family provided food, clothing and blankets. She said this opportunity has given her a small taste of what she hopes to accomplish in the future.
“Once migrants get here [to the U.S], they don’t have any clothing, any dishes to cook with, or blankets to keep warm,” Perez said. “They come here and they don’t have anything. So that’s what I want the focus of my agency to be – helping these families with basic items they need to start living their lives here in the U.S.”
Crawford said the trip to the border was so impactful that he is planning for another trip in the spring with many other students who were not able to go the first time around. Perez encourages others to attend in order to have the profound experience she had.
“I want to encourage other students and faculty and staff to have those experiences,” Perez said, “To open their minds and experience new things and having an idea of what a migrant goes through. That way they can connect more with them and we can appreciate what they have done to bring their kids here.”
-Written by Kelsey Lyman, CHHS Student Writer
Fresno State students volunteer at Tijuana border – The Collegian (Nov. 2019)