Bringing Students Face to Face With Immigration Issues
(Editor's note: In its March 1 issue, Berkeleyan reported on a new American Cultures class examining the southern U.S. border, noting an ambitious outing to the border was planned. Below is an account of that trip.)
Early in April, while many Berkeley students were buried in the library researching term papers, 35 undergraduates were heading south to the Mexican border.
During a whirlwind two days, students visited an export factory, met with community leaders in a Tijuana shantytown, toured the border with the Mexican and U.S. border patrols and interviewed undocumented migrants in a squatter camp in San Diego County.
The two-day border field trip was part of an American Cultures class called "The Southern Border," taught by Beatriz Manz, professor of geography and ethnic studies and director of Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies.
The goal was to provide students with a first-hand look at the contrasts of the border region as well as a more in-depth knowledge of the economic, social and cultural topics explored in class, said Liz Oglesby, a geography graduate student instructor who organized the trip.
The group was led by Oglesby and Manz; Jill Esbenshade, a GSI for Ethnic Studies; Harley Shaiken, a professor in the School of Education and an expert on NAFTA; and Isaac Mankita, a graduate student at UC San Diego.
Following the flight to San Diego, the group boarded a chartered bus and drove across the border into Tijuana for the first stop--a tour of a Panasonic maquiladora, one of the hundreds of export factories built along the border to take advantage of lower labor costs in Mexico.
The group then visited a nearby colonia, a Tijuana shantytown where many maquiladora workers live. This was a highlight for many students, said Oglesby. "Harley and Isaac knew the colonia quite well, and so we were really able to talk to people, away from the factory."
Several women talked about the effects of unprotected exposure to toxic materials used by the maquiladoras, including a high incidence of miscarriages in the colonia, and they told students that workers who press for better wages and working conditions are frequently dismissed and blacklisted in other factories.
That evening students visited an area along the Mexican side of the border called "the levee," where migrants gather at sundown to attempt to cross into the United States. The group was accompanied by Ricardo Dueñas of the Tijuana-based Binational Center for Human Rights, and three agents of "Grupo Beta," an elite plainclothes Mexican border security force.
"We were right on the line between the First and Third Worlds," Oglesby related. No one seemed to mind our presence there; in fact, they helped us climb up and down the wall of the levee. It was awkward at first, but a lot of the students spoke Spanish, and they just fanned out talking to people."
The students spent the second day of the field trip on the other side of the border in San Diego, meeting with border patrol agents who discussed the new immigration determent program "Operation Gatekeeper," involving the construction of a 14-mile steel wall along the San Diego border, and the deployment of sophisticated surveillance technology.
The students also met with a former mayor of San Diego, Roger Hedgecock, a founder of an anti-immigration movement called Light up the Border. The final event of the trip was a visit to a migrant camp located on a winding dirt road about an hour's drive north of downtown San Diego.
"We just descended on the camp with our huge bus," said Oglesby. "They didn't know we were coming. Yet the people we met there were completely friendly and open to the students' questions." Oglesby hopes the Tijuana/San Diego field trip will become a permanent part of the southern border course and the American Cultures program. "Next year it won't be nearly so much work," she said.