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Bringing immigration policy to life: Students document a Mexican migration experience

March 12, 2008

(Portland, Ore.)—While thousands of college students will spend their spring break at the beach, a group of students taking an immigration history course, U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, will be exploring the migration route between the two countries, documenting Oaxacan immigration to Oregon.

The alternative spring break project, from March 22 to March 29, was collaboratively developed by Associate Professor of History and Borderlands teacher Elliott Young, a transnational historian of the Americas, specializing in race and national identity, and the Office of Student Leadership and Service. The trip is designed to bring U.S. immigration policy and history of the U.S.-Mexico border to life.

In the last 20 years, immigration of indigenous Oaxacans to Oregon has grown exponentially, and yet very little is known about how these trans-border communities function. Rather than the classic model of immigrants leaving behind their home countries and assimilating into the United States, Oaxacans maintain strong ties to their home communities, sending money, and returning to fulfill political posts in their villages.

“This is not only about studying a relatively small group of Mexican migrants,” Young said. “Understanding the way these transnational communities function is key to understanding our increasingly globalized world.”

For Young’s students, recognizing the complexities of these immigration patterns not only enriches their classroom experience, it prepares them to be better global citizens and leaders by providing the level of understanding that will be critical to developing effective policies at the local, state and national level.

“Immigration is about economics, health care, international relations, politics, arts, and culture, as well as a social justice issue for citizens of Mexico and the U.S.,” Young said. “This affects all of us, and it’s important to me that students get to see this issue first-hand in all of its complexities. Our elected leaders have failed to come up with a viable immigration plan, so it is my hope that our students can be leaders in helping to solve this vexing issue.”

During spring break, seven students will head to Oaxaca, Mexico—one of the country’s most southern and most indigenous states—to learn why thousands of people leave their homes, families, and communities to travel to Oregon. Another seven students will spend a week in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico—a make-or-break border town for many Mexican migrants. All students in the class will also work in and around Portland to document the stories of migrant workers and their families.

Oaxaca City: Understanding the need to leave home

Myriah Heddens, a junior from Fort Collins, Colorado and class participant, directs a student-run organization that offers advocacy and English tutoring for Spanish-speaking custodial staff at the college, and she interns at a Portland-based law firm specializing in immigration law. With such a strong interest in Latin American and immigration issues, Heddens is looking forward to talking with community advocate groups and their constituents in Oaxaca City to understand the challenges Oaxacans face and what support they need to facilitate solutions.

“Both sides (of the immigration debate) are quick to jump to simplistic conclusions,” Heddens said. “This class exposes us to the complexity of the immigration debate and offers a more holistic understanding of the reasons for and affects of immigration. When you learn about the U.S. policies and agreements made with Mexico in the 1920s, you come to understand that there is a historic dependence on immigrant labor in this country. To reduce the debate to ‘Mexicans steal American jobs’ is incredibly short sighted. Poor policy decisions are fundamentally altering both Mexican and American demographics.”

Ciudad Juárez: Examining development at the border

Farther north, Hedden’s classmate Martin Frye, a sophomore from St. Louis, Missouri, will be working with a Mexican labor organization to map maquiladoras—assembly plants that have sprung up along the border and take advantage of migrants in desperate search of jobs and the low wages in Mexico.

Frye, an environmental studies major, said digital mapping programs help social service organizations situate environmental problems on the border. Free and accessible programs like Google Earth are key to raising public awareness of the environmental and social impact of American consumption on the region. Other classmates will document the experiences of Mexicans who try to cross the border into the United States by volunteering time with trans-border organizations.

Frye, who has been to Ciudad Juárez twice before to build houses, said he is looking forward to working on behalf of a community-based organization.

“This class and our trip are designed to help Mexican migrants tell their story as opposed to us imposing our identity on them or coming in telling them what we think they need,” Frye said.

Portland, Oregon: Documenting migration experiences for better policy, better citizens

Here in Oregon, students in the class have been working with a variety of non-profit organizations, including a housing complex in northeast Portland and a farm-workers union in Woodburn, to document the experiences of migrants in the United States. Collectively, students will be able to map the migration route through the words of Mexican workers who endure unimaginable challenges and dangers in search of financial security. While students will use these stories as the basis for their research projects, they will also archive them online to provide the broader community with a fresh perspective on immigration.

As migrant communities continue to grow across the U.S., sharing these stories can be valuable to developing better policies at the local and state level, as well as with Mexico.

“Not only does this class offer a new way to teach immigration policy, we’re offering social service organizations, government leaders, and corporations a vital perspective about the migration experience and the needs of rural Mexico that force workers to and across the border,” Young pointed out. “If we listen to the people living through the migration experience, we can develop more effective immigration policies and social services, and, ultimately, more vibrant economies north and south of the border. Most importantly, these stories help us to understand the immigrant experience through their eyes, allowing us to see the people who work in our fields, factories, and restaurants as fellow human beings and not as illegal aliens.”

Halfway through the semester, both Heddens and Frye are still trying to make sense of the connections between history and the political twists and turns of relations between these two countries.

“What does a border mean in a globalized world?” Heddens asks. Frye echoes, “Concepts of identity are tied to borders. Governments define you by borders but what does that mean when we’ve learned that borders are so arbitrarily set and used to the advantage of powerful people and entities?”

While Heddens and Frye may not find easy answers to such heavy questions, they will come through the class as better-prepared global citizens, and that, Young points out, is a worthwhile outcome for a spring break experience.

For more information:

Jodi Heintz
Public Relations Director
503-768-7961
jodih@lclark.edu