Trip to the US – Mexico Border Inspires Action on Jesuit Campuses

17 June 2024|Chloe Gunther

Sustainable, effective change is rooted in understanding. It’s crucial that we truly understand the experiences of those we work with and serve, especially in policymaking and advocacy work. The communities, dynamics, and challenges at the US-Mexico border are difficult to grasp without firsthand experience. 

Last week, 15 faculty members from 10 different Jesuit universities gathered at the Encuentro Project in El Paso, Texas, to gain this essential perspective. The group is a part of the Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network (JUHAN), launched in 2006 by Fairfield, Fordham, and Georgetown Universities to increase Jesuit institutions’ ability to respond to humanitarian crises.  

The Encuentro Project is a faith-based, multi-faceted immersion program in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border region that aims to provide a deeper understanding of the complex migration reality and of this community. The immersion experience includes education, service activities, reflections, prayer, and community engagement to motivate participants to engage in peaceful, effective action for greater justice and compassion for migrants and refugees. 

Clara Sayans, Outreach Officer at JRS/USA, gathered with the JUHAN group for the Encuentro experience. “For those who already had a deep knowledge of migration and issues at the border, but also for those who were encountering this reality for the first time, the trip was a perfect way to bring everyone together, share, and learn from each other,” she said. 

The group met with an array of organizations and individuals, from Border Patrol officers to the Sacred Heart migrant shelter community. They spoke with a former gang member now helping individuals trying to flee gangs and with a muralist raising awareness about asylum seekers’ experiences. “We learned what it means for El Paso to be a bi-national, border community, that confronts the challenges of migration daily,” Clara shared. “And that’s critical if we want to accompany better our siblings on the move and address some of the challenges they face as they cross the US-Mexico border.” 

For those who already had a deep knowledge of migration and issues at the border, but also for those who were encountering this reality for the first time, the trip was a perfect way to bring everyone together, share, and learn from each other
Clara Sayans, JRS/USA Outreach Officer

“My perspective on the experience of migrants at the border has completely expanded,” said Suzanne Marmo, Professor of Social Work at Fairfield University, after attending the immersion trip. “I didn’t even know the difference between the categories of asylum seeker, refugee, immigrant, and migrant,” she admitted. “But I do know, and so do the 13 students in my Masters of Social Work program, that it is a human right that all people have to claim asylum, along with the unjust barriers the US puts in their way, based on structural racism and bias against Latin immigrants.” 

On Jesuit campuses, the JUHAN project fosters student leaders who raise awareness and respond to humanitarian crises. Affiliated academic courses also focus on humanitarian issues from various disciplines. 

One moment stood out during their visit to the Sacred Heart migrant shelter. A family of five, the youngest only three years old. Forced to flee Venezuela, they lived in Colombia for five years until that situation became untenable, leading them to seek safety in the US. 

Clara asked if the family had connected with any of the support services offered by the JRS El Paso office. Their faces lit up as they mentioned working with Adalberto Sanchez, the Domestic Programs Mental Health Clinician, who connected them with mental health support tools to cope with the troubling experiences they endured. 

Later this year, Clara, Adalberto, and Katie Mullins, JRS/USA Senior Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Specialist, will travel to several Jesuit universities to discuss migrants’ experiences at the border and the critical need for MHPSS in programs responding to forcibly displaced people.  

Donna Pitts, an Associate in the Speech Pathology & Audiology Program at Loyola Maryland University, wrote a poem after her experience on the immersion trip. We share it with you below:

On the border   

An ugly fence, locked   

Hot sun, burning my face   

No shade even though I am on the “right” side of the fence   

What of those on the other?   

Along the fence  

Desolate, hot, isolated, locked!   

Then I see… A beautiful flower   

Growing on an ugly weed   

Hope for many to enjoy   

On both sides of an unlocked fence   

No fence, hope?