BY KIERA REILLY | October 22, 2019
When I returned from my immersion trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, I was greeted by friends and family with an enthusiastic “How was your trip?” I found answering this question extremely difficult, because a simple, “Good!” did not capture my feelings about my trip. Instead, I would say, “I made a lot of great memories and met a lot of amazing people; but the trip itself was extremely challenging.” Yet, even this answer did not fully express my feelings. More accurately, I was frustrated. Angry. Helpless. Heartbroken. Everything I learned on this trip, each experience I had, affected my view and understanding of issues and led to these feelings.
One of my group’s first experiences was to attend an Operation Streamline hearing, which is a mass hearing for individuals who are undocumented and have entered or re-entered the country. Individuals are represented by public defenders and are all offered plea deals, some of which include jail time, and all of which end in deportation. Operation Streamline was unlike anything I have ever witnessed. The judge attempted to preserve each individual’s dignity by asking the questions of their case and their plea individually. However, these efforts were contrasted by the shackles each person wore. The most striking event that I witnessed during the hearing was when one man, overcome with emotion, fainted before the judge. Instead of being treated with any dignity during this distressing moment, the man was picked up by wardens, one grabbing his arms, one grabbing his legs, and carried from the courtroom like an animal. I was both angry, since I could not understand how a person could be treated with so little apparent dignity, but also heartbroken, knowing that this likely was not an isolated incident.
The following day, our group visited Nogales, where we crossed into Mexico and met with a man who told us about living on the border. This was my first time seeing the border wall, and I was struck by its size and how it distinctly divides Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Mexico. Our host told us of the challenges of living in a community divided by a wall, and the barbed wire atop the wall was a constant reminder that not all are welcome into the United States. In fact, the wall is made of metal slats, so a person can see through to the other side, which struck me as a tease to those seeking to enter the United States, but who are denied. They can see the opportunity they want, but they cannot have it, which angered me. By its very presence, the border wall is a constant reminder of division to those living in Nogales.
Another impactful experience was our participation in an immigration simulation, in which we each received a fictional immigration biography and went through the immigration process. We were steered toward different envelopes which held the next step of the process for us, or the end of our journey. My biography was that of a millionaire soccer player from the United Kingdom, so I was on the fastest track to getting my green card, and eventually, citizenship. Others received biographies for asylum seekers or immigrants from Latin American countries, and their cases could take years, if entry even was granted.
This simulation highlighted the challenges of the current immigration and citizenship process. We learned about the immigrant quotas from different countries and statistics for the number of people applying for visas and that for some types of visas, applications from 1996 are just now being reviewed. This simulation helped us to understand that the current system is so backlogged that many individuals resort to illegal entry since legal entry is essentially impossible. This is frustrating because the system needs significant reform, but action steps are not being taken.
I learned a lot in the ten days that I was on my immersion trip. The knowledge I gained made me feel angry, frustrated, helpless, and heartbroken. But upon further reflection, I am invigorated. I feel a passion to be a part of the solution. The frustration I feel fuels me to vote, write to my representatives, and try to raise awareness of the issues on my campus. I am hopeful for a future that creates equitable, meaningful solutions for immigration issues. I am so glad I could go on this trip not to help other people, but to learn from everyone I met. I can be a more informed advocate for change and be a light in the world.
Kiera Reilly is a student at John Carroll University. She is majoring in psychology with a concentration in child and family studies and minoring in peace, justice, and human rights. Kiera is from Avon, OH and is a graduate of Saint Joseph Academy in Cleveland. On campus, she is very involved in campus ministry, the Center for Service and Social Action through weekly service, and Greek life. She is also an Arrupe Scholar. Kiera’s passion for social justice stems from being involved in Catholic Schools for Peace and Justice in high school, attending trips to Louisville, KY, the Navajo Nation in Arizona, and the U.S.-Mexico border, and from attending the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in 2016, 2017, and 2018.