“What is a border? Why does migration have to mean anything more than moving? What do congressional immigration policies mean to those most intimately impacted by this invisible line in the sand?”
These questions, along with many others, compelled three students from Greenbrier East High School to travel to the U.S. Mexico Border in Arizona, with the guidance of adult leaders from High Rocks Educational Corporation. With help from a Davis Project for Peace grant from the Kathryn W. Davis Foundation, students were able to immerse themselves in this highly impactful educational, cultural, and spiritual exchange. Just last week, participants Ileya Westmoreland, Rhiannon Cohernour, and Aisa Bargman, with the support of Tristan Nutter and A. Beecher from High Rocks, took off on a plane for the first time to explore and listen deeply to communities impacted by the border crisis. The participants strove to understand the difficulties faced by migrants seeking shelter and safety in the midst of the complex and vexing political realities of the U.S. immigration system. Additionally, students shared their own experiences as the youth in West Virginia with community leaders in southern Arizona, drawing parallels between the beauty and struggle of life in Appalachia and the Borderlands.
On one of their first days in Arizona, they met with youth and community leader Cesar Lopez in Nogales; a city split between two nations by the iron of the border wall. Lopez shared the stories of families who must wait hours in line at points of entry to visit with relatives, along with insightful commentary about the economic, political and personal crises that compel migrants to take the risky journey across the desert to enter the U.S. Students also had the opportunity to meet with U.S. congressman Raul Grijalda and other political leaders. However, it was meeting other passionate youth that most inspired the participants.
“Meeting the high school students in Nogales and Tucson was my favorite part,” Rhiannon said, “It was so inspiring to see young people my age so focused and so compelled to fight for what they believe in.”
They were able to participate in a meeting of Seeds Semillas Jovenes Fronterizos, a youth organization dedicated to fighting abuses by Border Patrol and planting community gardens in the small crossroads border town of Nogales. The Semillas students shared sober stories of racial profiling by Border Patrol and of family members who, fleeing poverty, gang violence, and political persecution, died in their attempts to cross the desert and reach safety in the U.S. They also shared laughter and creativity, working with West Virginia youth to design a banner about immigration issues.
They were also lucky to meet other young artists at Pueblo High School in Tucson, where students in Ernesto Somoza’s graphic design class created beautiful artwork then projected onto the border wall itself.
To further our understanding of what it means to be a citizen of particular geography and to complicate the notion of national boundaries, they visited the Tohono O’odham Nation, a Native American reservation that crosses the U.S./Mexico line near Tucson. Tribal Council leader Bernard Siquieros educated the students about the cultural, spiritual and migratory history of the tribe. Later, tribal member Mike Wilson shared his reflections about how the border impacts indigenous people and migrants crossing through the native land.
The group also learned more about the harsh realities migrants face when crossing the Sonora, where in recent years up to 3,000 people have died in the desert along the Arizona border. They visited with the Green Valley Samaritans, faith leaders and humanitarian aid workers who provide water, respite, and legal aid for migrants making the dangerous journey. Additionally, they participated in a moving cross planting ceremony with Catholic Nuns and a Yaqui shaman in Douglas, Arizona to commemorate the death of Maria de la Cruz Ramirez, a 27 year old woman who died in her attempt to reach the U.S. The Douglas nuns are hoping to plant crosses for all of the 300 plus human remains that have been identified in the desert in Cochise County, AZ.
As the students watched the sun settle on the yellow desert sand and bright, prickly pear cactus, they reflected on how grateful they were to be a part of this opportunity to explore this culturally rich and politically complex part of the world. While they may have left with more questions than answers, students were grateful to develop an understanding of our shared humanity and the universality of human struggle that extends beyond nationalities or borders.
High Rocks Educational Corporation is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate, empower and inspire young people in West Virginia. High Rocks host year round events for local teenagers in Greenbrier, Pocahontas and Nicholas counties including college trips, service learning overnights, educational summer camps and afterschool programs. For information about High Rocks Educational Corporation, visit our website at highrocks.org or find us on Facebook.