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Brownsville or Bust

Morning light rouses students after a night of camping in Organ Pipe National Monument -- a popular waypoint for illegal immigrants and tourists alike. Photo: Matt Suby

Four and a half miles outside Douglas, Ariz., the fence that divides the United States and Mexico ends without fanfare. It is ground zero for illegal crossings into the United States, and despite the cold and late hour, Jeff Bunge’s eyes were bright with excitement as he watched for migrants trying to cross.

In December, Bunge and seven other DU students crossed the U.S.-Mexico border nearly two dozen times in 16 days, traveling more than 3,000 miles in rented SUVs as they drove between Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego.

Geography assistant professors Matthew Taylor and Paul Sutton dreamed up Brownsville by Bus, a winter 2004 interterm course, as a way to teach undergraduate students about the cultural, political and social dynamics that impact residents of the border region — an area where the first-world meets the third and drug and human smuggling are big business. They wanted to challenge the students to think about immigration and show
them how another segment of society lives.

What the students got out of it was more than they or the instructors expected. For some students, the experience meant learning that it was OK to explore on their own. For others, it was an exercise in getting along in cramped, sometimes uncomfortably close quarters. For everyone involved, it was an adventure that opened eyes to real poverty and strife and challenged sometimes long held beliefs about cultures and immigration.

On the border

The Rio Grande spans the length of the border between Texas and Mexico, stretching up to a quarter mile across in some places and narrowing to less than 10 feet in others. Its scenery is the most constant geography of the first leg of the class journey.

Heading across the border into Los EbaƱos, Mexico, the students pulled themselves across the river on a hand-drawn ferry — the only such ferry remaining in the United States. At the hot springs at Big Bend National Park in Texas, the river was narrow enough to allow the students to barter for a walking stick with a Mexican on the other side. He threw the stick across and they threw $5 back, using a rock to hold the money in a coffee can.

The course marked the first time that Bunge, a sophomore hospitality and finance major from Des Moines, Iowa, had ever been to the U.S.-Mexico border. It was an experience that revealed cultures he’d only read about and struggles that previously seemed almost fictional.

“The U.S.-Mexico border trip provided a learning experience that I had not anticipated, and I’m still processing its impact,” Bunge says. “The trip has broadened my view of the world.

“I gained a sense and enjoyment of many landscapes I wouldn’t have seen without this class,” he adds. “We visited an Arizona ranch where I learned about the amazing amount of trash left behind by illegal aliens and its impact on the animals and land. The trip also emphasized how important the Spanish language is, and I realized that I need to continue taking Spanish if I want to be successful in the business world.”

Observations like Bunge’s are the reason that students sometimes need to leave the classroom in order to learn, Taylor says.

“What we’re learning as professors comes from watching how the students learn in different ways,” he says. “We could put up a million slides about the border or maquiladoras, but when they’re actually there, it’s like ‘Boing!’ and a light goes on.”

Hands-on learning like this is supported by DU’s Marsico Initiative, established in 2002 with a $10-million gift from Tom (MBA ’79) and Cydney (BSBA ’78, MBA ’80) Marsico. The initiative’s aim is to increase and enhance the academic rigor and intellectual climate at DU, focusing on the first-year experience, writing, numeracy and experiential learning that courses like Brownsville by Bus deliver. Students paid tuition for the four-credit Brownsville course, but Marsico funds covered the travel expenses.

“One goal of Marsico is to really give students an opportunity to get out of the classroom and experience what they’re learning,” says geography Assoc. Prof. and environmental science Director Mike Keables, coordinator of Marsico’s experiential-learning program, which funded two other experiential courses this year in addition to Brownsville.

What is fair?

Across the border from El Paso, Texas, is Ciudad Juarez, a city made infamous by the more than 300 young women who have been murdered in and around the city over the past 20 years. Many disappear on their way to or from work. Ciudad Juarez is a city where the middle class lives packed in low-roofed homes built just inches apart and everyone, including the authorities, likely could identify the jefe, or leader, of the local drug cartel.

Victor “Yogi” Avila, an engineer for a Ciudad Juarez maquiladora, or factory, was candid with the students and professors, who asked him about life on the Mexican side of the border.

“When you think of the border, you think about drug running, people smuggling, sex. Is that true?” Taylor asked Avila.

“Yeah,” Avila answered. “These things are a fact of life. Although people likely know who is paying for items with drug money, there’s also an attitude that the drug money is a necessary part of life.” The generous tips of drug smugglers help people to get by, he noted.

Avila gave the class a tour of his factory. Owned by Ansell, an Australian company, it makes latex gloves. Avila explained that maquiladoras pay workers just $5 or $6 a day — a wage that shocked many of the students but is considered fair for a stable job in Mexico. Avila said he considered looking for work in El Paso, but Ansell pays his tuition at the University of Texas-El Paso, where he studies engineering.

“I will never look at a product that says ‘Made in Mexico’ the same after visiting a maquiladora, where I witnessed hundreds of Mexicans working tedious jobs in conditions that would be illegal in the United States,” Bunge says. “Yet as we walked through the maquiladora, one of the male workers proclaimed, ‘We are hard workers.’ It was humbling that he had such strong feelings of pride and nationalism even though he did not make a fair wage.”

On the bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, the students watched as border patrol agents walked back and forth, peering into the backs of cars in search of people trying to sneak into the United States. A guard tapped on the back window of an SUV and three pre-teen Mexican girls climbed out, slinging backpacks, and began walking back toward Mexico.

According to estimates, as many as 3 million people try to sneak into the United States each year. The border patrol catches more than 150,000 illegal crossers annually and returns them to Mexico, but most will try to cross again, Sutton says.

During a visit to a ranch outside Douglas, the students met Wendy Glenn, who has lived her entire life on the border. Immigration crackdowns in Texas and California and fences built between cities have forced illegal immigrants into the Arizona countryside. Trash discarded around Glenn’s ranch is evidence that people have been passing through, she said.

“Mexico is hemorrhaging into the United States,” she told the students.

Taylor and Sutton wanted students to study the border region because of its growth and relevance to important social issues — the drug trade, immigration and industry. But Taylor, who has made numerous trips to the region, was stunned by how fast the border is developing. Towns have grown into cities-particularly on the Mexican side after NAFTA became law. Once upon a time, Douglas and its Mexican sister city Agua Prieta were the same size. In the past two decades, Douglas’ population remained stagnant at 20,000 while Agua Prieta blossomed to more than 100,000. Many individuals move to the border with the hope that if they can’t make it across, their children will find a way into the United States.

“This is the land of milk and honey, and people on the other side of the border are lied to and told that if they get here, they’ll make lots of money,” Taylor says. “Instead, a lot of people get sick or die coming across the desert, and the hospitals and people here are paying the cost.”

Students learned as much from their own adventures as from the border residents they met. A proverb suggests that to really understand someone, you must walk a mile in their shoes. So the students got out of their cars and followed the worn, dirt paths cut by migrants crossing through the mesquite and cacti of the Arizona desert.

“A lot of this is visceral,” Sutton observed. “You can read about it in books, but just seeing it makes it real.”

Although most of the learning was experiential, the course also incorporated traditional classroom elements. Students read books about human trafficking, drug smuggling and immigration in preparation for the trip. They also kept online journals, wrote papers reflecting on what they learned and completed final projects of their own choosing. Scott Casey, a junior business and digital media studies major, created a multimedia presentation. First-year student Zach Henak videotaped the class and turned his footage into a 40-minute documentary. Other students wrote papers.

All of the students came face-to-face with the harsh realities of the borderlands. As senior geography major Erin O’Brien stretched her legs in the desert, prickly vegetation scratched at her pants and the rocky ground forced her to focus on her steps. Even without carrying anything, the several hundred feet she traveled gave her an idea of the difficulties faced by migrants who walk the path, mostly at night, laden with backpacks and jugs of water.

“The landscape plays a role in immigration because people die out here,” she said, standing in the middle of a dried-up river. “I can see why.”

The students spent many days packed in SUVs with four or five people, camping gear and two weeks’ of clothing and toiletries. They ate so much Mexican food that Casey elected to forgo a trip across the border for Mexican food one night. Instead, he sat alone in his hotel room and ordered pizza.

Every road bump turned into a learning opportunity. During an impromptu stop on the drive between Bisbee and Nogales in Arizona, Taylor’s SUV got bogged down in mud. O’Brien and senior international studies major Leslie Olson ran to a nearby two-lane highway to flag down help and eventually got the attention of “Jim,” a former missionary who settled in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

While the class attached chains from Jim’s truck to Taylor’s SUV, Jim told the group that illegal immigrants often walk across his property and that he allows them to use his telephone to call relatives or friends who already are in the United States.

The meeting with Jim prompted O’Brien to reflect on her feelings about immigration: “There has to be a more effective way to control the border, like a ‘no zone’ between the two countries where there aren’t any roads, towns, cities or ranches on the U.S. side. But, that’s not a realistic solution.

“Jim says he gets illegals going through his property,” she added. “I sort of get the feeling that he’s a sympathetic local. It’s a tricky question. I don’t know what I’d do.”

Casey saw striking differences between Mexicans living in his hometown of Las Vegas and the individuals living along the border.

“Here, you’re close enough to the border you can still have ties to home. In Las Vegas, they’re just trying to blend in,” he said over breakfast in Douglas. “Here, the Spanish-speakers are ranchers, hotel owners and successful business men. By the time they reach Las Vegas, many are working behind the scenes in the hotel industry. The further away from the border you get, the less successful they seem to become in a culture different from their own.”

What the students and professors took from the trip was as varied as their interests and backgrounds.

Olson says she developed empathy for the individuals who keep attempting to cross into the United States. “The drive to survive is natural,” she says. “When we have reached a point where the existence of unnatural boundaries compromise natural urges, we have reached a point where we must sit down and modify our methods. It is embarrassingly simple, but also seems to be the only natural thing to do.”

“The trip that I thought was going to be simply an experiential tour of the Mexican border turned out to be an event that gave me insight into a whole new world of thinking,” Henak adds. “It let me see others’ views on topics that never would have been possible without the awesome group of individuals that made up our Brownsville By Bus team.”

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