Recently, Elliott School students Anna Hedlund ('17) and Madeline Beecher ('17) set out for a trip of a lifetime, witnessing first hand border control activities in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Both students participated in the GW Alternative Breaks Program, a student led organization that organizes domestic and international service-learning opportunities for students.
The mission of the Alternative Breaks program is to empower and challenge all students to understand their relationship with the global community through service, education, and reflection.
Separated by a narrow stretch of the Rio Grande, the two cities the students visited are at the heart of the border control and immigration debate. “Neither of us had been to the region previously,” said Hedlund “and although we hear about immigration in the news regularly, we wanted to learn about the issue first hand and engage with the communities who are most affected.”
While in El Paso, the students stayed at a local church, Cristo Rey, where the congregation primarily consists of immigrants. They met and spoke with both documented and undocumented immigrants. They visited their homes in Colonias (unincorporated communities outside of city limits), and spent time at a detention center for those who attempt to cross the border without identification.
Understanding first-hand the perspective of immigrants was just half their experience. They also heard from a federal judge who deals with immigration sentencing and spoke with both border patrol agents, as well individuals who provide legal counsel to immigrants and refugees seeking legal residence.
“We had the opportunity to engage with individuals and groups on all sides of the issue, with various opinions and from every kind of background,” said Beecher.
Both students agree that the issues they were forced to confront as eye-witnesses were morally challenging. “This aspect of being challenged was what we will both take with us from our experiences,” Beecher added.
Both students emphasized that in addition to the difficult issues they were confronted by, they also heard incredible stories of hope and joy from people they met. “We couldn't be more thankful for the many moments our ideas, our perspectives, our backgrounds were challenged in a way that allowed us to grow,” said Hedlund.
The Alternative Breaks experience is not meant to be an end in itself. For participants, the experience often serves as an inspiration for future volunteerism.
Both Hedlund and Beecher observed that while the trip was intended to be a service and volunteer experience, what they took away in deepening their own understanding of immigration issues was equally important.