BorderLinks links people, like me, to the realities of borders in our world, and the US-Mexican border in particular, by folks visiting from across the United States and the world to see it and evaluated it for themselves. This 25-year-old + educational program headquartered in Tucson, AZ, makes sure participants are exposed to all points of view and encourages them in your reflection on their experiences and deciding what action(s) they wish to take regarding border issues.
For more than 25 years BorderLinks educational experiences has linked people to people on, and beyond, the US-Mexican border, revealing the human face of national and global immigration policies and trade practices in a binational setting, linking that experience and critical reflection to pathways for action toward a more just human community. Thousands of US citizens and citizens of nine other countries have participated in this unique opportunities promoting multicultural understanding and positive relationships between peoples. Between 800-1,000 individuals participate each year including delegations from university and community groups across the U.S. The program enjoys a high regard and outstanding reputation.
I've had the absolute pleasure of working with the Borderlinks staff for a couple of years. Our organizations work together to bring education around immigration to our community. They are by far, one of the most professional teams in our community. The Borderlinks staff has given tremendous support to numerous students and adults who participate in their experiential learning activities and trips along the U.S./Mexico border. More importantly, their trained staff challenges all sides of the immigration debate through interactive activities that help participants truly think about the complexity of immigration. Their pedagogical approach to education is different than the traditional style of teaching, and is therefore effective. I am grateful for their existence in our community.
Experiencing the borderlands first-hand provides the opportunity for real discovery and was the best way I have found to feel confident to engage in conversations ranging from globalization to immigration to social-justice.
Being able to witness, have a guided group reflection and then decide how I wanted to behave with the new knowledge I had acquired, was a life-changing experience. Standing in front of the border wall from both sides, talking to border patrol agents, sharing a meal with migrants who had just been deported or who were about to venture across, or staying with a family who had built their home out of materials they found at the maquilas, all made a lasting impression on me. As the coordinator and participant in two semester-long programs with Borderlinks, I am forever aware of my connection to that not so faraway land; as a consumer, educator, voter, and inter-culturally competent individual.
The experiential education offered by Borderlinks is a rare and powerful opportunity. It can be difficult to grapple with the convergence of border-related issues such as immigration, sustainability, economics, and equality. Borderlinks fulfills the unique role of guiding, nurturing, and cultivating individuals as they connect with the communities on the borderlands.
Academically dissecting the interconnectedness of race, class, and power dynamics can feel remote and lifeless. Experiencing the connections firsthand is a fundamentally different approach. Interacting with both women and men who are involved in struggles for sustainable development and social change has an immediate and visceral effect. The living, active community.in the borderlands and its myriad struggles are no longer an abstract story in a textbook.
Borderlinks encourages thoughtful, critical contemplation. Time is taken daily to discuss the experiences. It enriches the individual via deeper consideration of the fundamental and underlying issues.
When my wife and I moved from the Boston area to the Tucson area in 2001, we knew virtually nothing of the border problem to our south. After encountering migrants coming through the desert not far from our home, we wanted to learn more.
Five years later we joined a local Samaritans group, which provides humanitarian aid to migrants. At one of our meetings in 2007 the Executive Director of BorderLinks spoke to us about a 10-day trip leaving soon for Chiapas to learn how the border problem affects the Mayan people living in the southernmost state of Mexico. Until then we had not experienced Mexico beyond the border region.
We knew little about BorderLinks, but we knew people who had been to Chiapas with BorderLinks and others who had signed up for the coming trip. There were a few spaces left and we were excited to join this adventure. An adventure it was, and sad in many ways to learn firsthand from families whose young adults had left their small communities to report to jobs waiting for them more than 1500 miles away. Many had never ventured far from home.
We learned that the Mayan people lived a self-sustaining lifestyle for perhaps a thousand years, and in 1994 NAFTA changed all that. Corn, the staple of their diet and formerly an export commodity, was now being imported from the north at a price artificially low due to higher taxpayer subsidies paid to agribusiness and the agreement in NAFTA that Mexico would not impose tariffs.
We learned from a teacher with a PhD about the World Trade Organization, something I had heard of but knew nothing about, and the control it exercises over supposedly sovereign governments, and the threat of cutting off trade to nations that do not join. Governments are expected to narrow production to only goods and services that they do best, and to rely on imports for their other needs. This removes diversity and self-sustainability, and makes governments more dependent on the WTO.
We visited non-profit organizations who were helping elementary school children obtain a better education, and helping women to form co-operatives for their small textile businesses, and we visited an amazing complex of apprentice schools where Mayan people from the small communities can live while learning trades, arts and crafts, computer skills, agriculture, and animal husbandry, and where they offer an accredited college degree program.
This Chiapas experience is one of the most memorable of our lives. I am now very proud to be serving my fifth year as a member of the board of directors of BorderLinks. I have also participated in a very educational and inspiring BorderLinks overnight trip to Nogales, Mexico, where I visited HEPAC, the Home of Hope and Peace, an organization which partners with BorderLinks.
In 2009 my wife and I joined a seven-day BorderLinks trip to Copper Canyon in Chihuaha, Mexico, which was equally as informative and adventurous and memorable as Chiapas, to learn about the indigenous people of the Tarahumara mountain range, who call themselves Raramuri, running people, and to visit the community of Mata Ortiz, whose pottery is so well received that the entire town became self-sustaining and people no longer had to leave for the north to work.
One thing that separates BorderLinks from conventional travel is the time allowed for daily reflection on what we have experienced, and sharing this with the group. By the end of a BorderLinks trip, I return resolved to expose what I see as the causes of the border problem, the discrimination and exploitation that impoverish our fellow human beings, and to help make the world a better place.
As a former Board Member of BorderLinks, I can honestly say that there is no organization to which I've devoted volunteer time of which I have been more proud. I have been across the border several times with their staff members. Each time I have been impressed by the people-to-people contacts that have been arranged, and by the competence of the BorderLinks leadership. Those of us who live relatively near the border realize how desperately U.S. citizens need precisely this kind of experience.
BorderLinks began in the late 1980s as a humane response and grass roots effort of faith-inspired communities on the US-Mexico border region of AZ to learn in depth about, and teach others about the the realities of international migration and its impact on migrants, their families, and both Mexican and US communities. It is a valuable, experientially based program that aims to help participants to understand the human side of migration, the kinds of policies and social dynamics that drive migration, and to help stop the simplistic media conflation of migrants with "criminals" or "aliens." Thousands of US citizens and visitors from other countries have participated in these programs that encourage multicultural understanding and positive relationships between peoples, including delegations from university and community groups all across the U.S. BorderLinks has earned a strongly favorable reputation as a program with integrity, one that exposes participants to a variety of viewpoints and challenges them to think critically for themselves about how to create more harmonious relationships within and across social, economic, cultural and political borders.