How do you sum up a year-long experience where you’ve worked with a team of others, traveled to multiple countries, and examined solutions to some of the biggest challenges in the world today? This is exactly what we asked the students in the i-Lab to do on September 13—in five minutes or less, in front of the entire Keough School.
Over the summer the i-Lab sent 23 Master of Global Affairs students, in 7 project teams, to 14 countries across 5 continents, to work with organizations on the frontlines. Upon their return to campus, we gathered in the i-Lab space to let students tell their stories, explain why their projects are so important to their partner organizations, and discuss what they learned in the field and the impact they hope to achieve.
Our students were, in short, extraordinary. Here is a brief recap of their projects and stories:
“A closed country is a dying country.” — Edna Ferber, American novelist
This summer, three Master of Global Affairs classmates and I traveled for eight weeks to investigate immigration enforcement in the United States, Germany, and Greece, partnering with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services. Unexpectedly while we were in the field, stories of family separation swept through the US. The heartbreaking experience and brutal reality along the US-Mexico border shocked many Americans and stimulated protests across the US to call for more humane border enforcement or even alternatives to enforcement.
IMMIGRATION’S DIFFICULT HISTORY
Many people argue that America has always been a country of immigrants and was built by immigrants. These people do not understand how a country of immigrants could implement seemingly merciless immigration policies, separating children from their parents, prosecuting migrants who do no harm to national security, and deporting people whose entire family and lives are in the US.
To some extent, they are correct. Despite the fact that many countries, such as Argentina, Austria, and France, welcomed large flows of immigrants in history, none of them have developed a collective cultural identity of “nation of immigrants” to the same extent that the US has. People believe in the American Dream that, no matter who you are and where you come from, you can achieve success if you work hard.
However, people who believe in the immigrant ethos of the US often neglect the fact that, although the US is indeed a nation of immigrants, at the same time, it has always been harsh on immigrants. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act implemented in 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers, and the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted migrants from eastern and southern European countries as well as most Asian immigrants. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement exposed the discriminatory and unjust nature of the quota system, which led to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Although it terminated the quota system, it was still quite restrictive and maintained the per-country-of-origin limits.
Occasionally, there were pro-immigrant laws and policies carried out thanks to pro-immigrant advocates, and the University of Notre Dame played a significant role in that. Father Theodore Hesburgh, then-President of the University of Notre Dame and former head of the Civil Rights Commission, chaired the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP) in the late 1970s.The Commission was set up by Public Law 95-412 (passed Oct. 5, 1978) with the mission “to study and evaluate…existing laws, policies, and procedures governing the admission of immigrants and refugees to the United States and to make such administrative and legislative recommendations to the President and to the Congress as are appropriate.” The SCIRP report produced by the Hesburgh Commission helped establish an expansive framework for immigration policymaking, and its central ideas were largely codified in the 1986 and 1990 immigration reforms. Despite some restrictive features, the Immigration Reform Act in 1986 created one of the largest amnesty programs for undocumented immigrants at that time, with a seasonal agricultural program offering legal paths for migrant labors to become permanent residents and citizens, and various protections against discrimination (Tichenor, 2002).
Unfortunately, the pro-immigrant atmosphere changed quickly in the mid-1990s when California’s Proposition 1994 stripped undocumented immigrants of a wide range of social services, including educational benefits for undocumented children. Then, in 2005, Operation Streamline was started, and the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice adopted a “zero-tolerance” approach that aimed to prosecute every migrant crossing the US border without authorization. Recently, the family separation scandal broke out, exposing the ignominious immigration policies and enforcement to public scrutiny and criticism.
IMMIGRATION POLICIES: LAGGING BEHIND THE TIMES
The purpose of listing the restrictive immigration laws of the past is not to justify the current administration’s immigration policies. Many of them were implemented when racial discrimination prevailed and universal principles on human rights were not recognized. Sixty years have passed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many other international or domestic documents that advance the interests of the migrant population have also been established. The rights of migrants and refugees ought to be better protected.
Nevertheless, during our field observation at the US-Mexico border and in Germany and Greece, we questioned our progress since that time. The enhanced border enforcement on the US-Mexico border pushes migrants and asylum seekers to more rugged and dangerous routes. The criminalization of migrants, especially treating illegal re-entry as a felony, punishes those people who have the strongest ties in the US the most, as typically people whose families and social networks are in the US are those willing to risk crossing the border again after deportation. It is the same group that receives the toughest punishment. How could this be just?
In the field, we learned that a grandpa, who was also an undocumented immigrant, was arrested when he was taking his grandchildren to school. Would there be better occasions to arrest him rather than when he was with his grandchildren? We also learned that the Border Patrol adopts a strategy called “dusting” in which a helicopter flies over a group of migrants, raising a dust in the desert and dispersing and disorienting the migrants. Hence, many migrants get lost and die in the desert. There are many more examples of inhumane law enforcement practices like this, casting doubts on the nature of law enforcement.
BUT WHAT SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT MIGRATION?
We still don’t know the answer after our two-month fieldwork. Maybe there is no definite answer to this question. For many people in society, law and order is their most important concern. In their minds, undocumented migrants deserve retribution for their illegal act, and the law enforcement practice on the border is just and well-founded.
Critics of immigration may not reflect on the law itself and debate whether it is just or not. Some may ask how to decide whether certain laws are just or not. To be honest, I don’t know. I am not a legal expert. But I know that, if laws and policies punish humanity and undermine human dignity, there must be something wrong.
One blog post cannot show the complex picture of the whole immigration enforcement system. This is not the intention of this post. Nevertheless, it sheds some light on the restrictive nature of immigration law and the brutal reality on the ground facing migrants.
It is clear to us that, not only is more humanitarian assistance needed, but also more research on immigration laws and enforcement are in great need to protect the rights and interests of migrants in the US and other parts of the world.
My classmates and I will continue to strive to advocate for migration rights and interests. It is our hope that migrants, regardless of their origins and status, can be better protected and their human dignity can be fully respected.
Let me tell you about the time I spent in Greece during my master’s degree fieldwork. It is the month of July and the year is 2018. It’s 34 degrees Celsius outside, but the room must be a few degrees warmer since there is only a tiny portable fan on the desk and the open window fails to provide much ventilation.
Imagine me sitting on an uncomfortable chair with a few months-old baby in my arms. The child is agitated maybe because he/she is hungry or feeling hot or both. I try to pacify him/her. Imagine this baby is you. The air feels thick and I try to ignore the sweat. However, this woman is not me. Instead, I sit in the opposite chair facing her.
I could be this woman easily. We are from the same country, same city and almost the same age. So I could be the one in that chair with that baby in my arms, forced thousands of miles away from home. She does not like me at first—her face is hardened, and she makes no attempt to conceal how unwilling she is to talk to me. To her, I am just another person who wants to hear her story and not offer her any help or benefit in return.
Yet as I explain our project to her and tell her that I cannot really offer or promise anything in return other than listening to her and telling her story, she opens up to me. The system has failed her and thousands of people like her. People are in limbo, as if their lives have been paused while they are stuck in Greece trying to find a safe space for themselves or trying to build a better life. Some are lucky to be able to apply for asylum and get accommodation. The rest, however, struggle to be able to register even. They sleep on the streets.
There are so many things I want to tell you that I have seen. I wish I could show you, but I do not wish for you to be here. I get a tiny glimpse into the life that the migrants are living here due to my hijab. When I walk the streets or board a local bus, people think I am a migrant too. When they see me, they stare. When they see me with my American colleague, they stare. The other day on the island of Lesvos, as I sat alone working on my laptop at a coffee shop a few feet from the Aegean Sea, three old Greek women walking by stopped near my table and commented about me while almost pointing at me. I am assuming a migrant sitting at a coffee shop with an expensive-looking laptop puzzled them. All this staring was amusing at first, but it soon became annoying. I now know what it feels like to be an ‘outsider’ and what it means when people say that situations between locals and migrants are sometimes tense.
I tell this to you so that you know that this world is a strange place. There is so much pain and unfairness. Despite all that we had been taught in our Voices from the Field sessions in i-Lab, nothing could have prepared me for this, but those sessions did help me cope when I did not know how to process things that I am seeing here. On the other hand, there is also a lot of good in this world—people full of compassion, kindness and hope. I have come across many of them here. I am constantly amazed by the resilience of these people on the move and those helping them. In the most hopeless of circumstances, they are persevering. Know that you must be in this latter part of the world.
Being part of the Master of Global Affairs has put me in a unique position. This summer project, part of the Integration Lab at the Keough School, has given me the opportunity that very few have. This world is complicated, which explains why people can justify keeping more than 7,000 migrants in a place like Moria camp under terrible conditions. But I am trying to learn at The Keough School how to start a conversation about this and eventually change this complicated international system that we have created. If there is one thing I want you to know, it is that complicated and flawed systems do not need to be accepted just because they have existed for so long. Instead, they need to be changed.
There’s something uncanny about how an almost-forgotten song can resurface in your consciousness. As I’ve traveled across three U.S. states and four different countries to investigate migrant issues, and as stories of migrant children being separated from their families proliferate in news outlets, I find that I’m silently replaying the melody of a song from years ago in my high-school choir: Kurt Bestor’s “Prayer of the Children.” It opens with these haunting lyrics: “Can you hear the prayer of the children / on bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room?”
Interpreted literally, the question in these lyrics is about sensory perception: Can you hear? But this is not a song about sensory perception, nor is the issue of migration something that can be apprehended by hearing or sight alone. Rather, I think what we need in order to fully grasp the complexity of migration is an openness of being, a disposition to not only perceive things on the surface level but more fundamentally at the level of the heart.
LISTENING, PERCEIVING WITH OUR GLOBAL PARTNER
For our i-Lab project, I and three of my classmates are partnering with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services to explore how migrants’ human rights and dignity can be better protected as they undergo various immigration-enforcement processes. To that end, we have been touring detention centers, shelters, courtrooms, universities, churches, NGOs, intergovernmental organization offices, and even deserts (as a Canadian, the Arizonan Desert seems to me to be so hot that it violates the laws of physics), conducting interviews where appropriate, to get a sense of how migrants are treated and how they might be treated better.
Given the number of places our i-Lab team has traveled for this project—Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico, Germany, Greece, and Switzerland—I could honestly have just gotten lost in the whirlwind of travel, always just transiting through places instead of truly being there. But I felt like I owed it to the migrants who make dangerous northward journeys to really be present in these places, to really bring my whole self to them and listen as attentively as I could to what people were telling me.
Several months ago, as we were preparing to go into the field, renowned peacebuilder and professor emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies John Paul Lederach spoke to our i-Lab class on the “vocation of presence,” which I understood to mean bringing your full self to a place in a spirit of humility. ‘Presence’ means allowing the place that you are in and the realities you are witnessing to really touch you and move you deep within. One example: Before he visited Auschwitz, Pope Francis prayed for “the grace to cry.” That is, for the grace to be so affected by the reality one faces—to be so radically present—that one is personally moved. I have not yet been granted the grace to cry, but I have done my best to hear, to see, to be present in the sites that I have visited and to the people I have met.
This has meant going into each place and forcing myself to not become desensitized, to visit each location, as it were, with new eyes. I don’t want each transit or detention center to just get lost in a blur of misery and hopelessness. Nor do I want the interviews to fade into each other. I want to be present, and be with the people I am encountering—from migrants to other stakeholders, like NGO officials, activists, scholars, humanitarian workers, and intergovernmental agency staff—so as to really hear.
And the places I have visited are harrowing indeed. The sense of fear and heartbreak is palpable in the emptiness of the detention centers, the austerity of the courtrooms, the stench of death along never-ending desert trails. Two weeks ago I visited a visibly run-down “transit center”—that is, a center for migrants deemed unlikely to win their asylum cases—in the German state of Bavaria, and almost smelled the stench of desperation in the air. I think that if anyone steps into these places with a truly open heart, one must feel the deep, distinct sense—that stirring of conscience—that there is something about this situation that is not right. Those who face these many difficulties, these long-suffering migrants, are human beings. Do we not see this? Can we not hear?
A POLICY OF PRESENCE
Here in Geneva, from where I am writing this blog post, I have heard a lot of talk about international law requiring states to treat migrants humanely. I think that is incredibly important, but I don’t think that we’re going to move hearts on the issue of migration by focusing on international legal principles like non-refoulement or the technicalities of asylum law. No, I think the answer really does have to lie in presence. More than anything else, what we need to do is to somehow find a way to make sites like these present to ordinary people in prosperous destination countries. We need to show people the inhumanity of the detention centers, the harshness of the desert, the tears and desperation of the courtrooms. We need to support migrants in their efforts to make their stories heard. And we do, in fact, need to hear the prayer that they utter in unknown rooms, a prayer for hope, for safety, for freedom.
Pretty much everything about our first two weeks on the Southwest Border has been intense: the blistering heat and sun; the jagged mountain and sweeping desert landscape, the long hours we’ve been in meetings and interviews; and most of all, the devastating stories of suffering and injustice we’ve heard and the passionate men and women we have met who are working with and for migrants down here.
The four of us on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services team knew we were walking into a tough context in starting on the U.S./Mexico border, but I don’t think we could have prepared ourselves to receive all that we’ve seen and heard. It is hard for me to sum up the experiences of these past few weeks, so instead I will try to give a sense of what we have been witnessing, and the memories we are now intentionally trying to hold with us and process.
WITNESSING THE REALITY OF MIGRATION
The following are some of the images and memories that most remain with us from Tucson and El Paso:
Driving and walking through the arid and vast Sonoran desert in 105-degree heat, helping humanitarian aid workers fill up water tanks for migrant travelers. We encountered “artifacts” left behind by migrants—a child’s shoe, black water jugs, a rosary that now adorns a wooden cross marking the place where the body of a migrant was recently found. We paused at the wooden cross, and let the sun beat down on us, as we took a moment of silence for that loss of life.
A middle-aged man sitting with us at an aid center for deported migrants in Mexico, openly crying into his hands, covering his face as he told us his story of having been deported from the home he’s known for 20 years, away from his U.S.-citizen family members.
The journey into an administrative detention center in what seemed like the middle of the desert, surrounded by two layers of electrified barbed wire, housing a majority of people who have committed no official crime: seeking asylum in the United States.
The sight of a woman holding the hand of a tottering toddler, wearing a t-shirt that read “Life is Beautiful” in English – true words that struck me, painfully, as unreflective of her circumstances. She was walking along the open-air waiting area at the border into the U.S. in Nogales, Mexico, and was one of about fifty people sleeping on the sidewalk as they waited to be processed as asylum seekers. Most likely they will be turned away, though they have walked hundreds of miles to escape violence. If they are accepted for processing, the families with children will likely be separated.
Twenty men, shackled and chained, walking into a courtroom where they were tried en-masse in the course of about thirty minutes—in a language and legal system foreign to them. They were given a criminal sentence for crossing illegally, which bars them from ever getting citizenship in the U.S.
A five-year-old boy lying on the concrete floor of a children’s detention facility as the staff tried to coax him to participate in the children’s group activity. They told us he was separated from his parents at the border and has been fairly despondent since then.
BRIGHT SPOTS GIVE US HOPE
These are some of the hard moments we have witnessed. It has all weighed heavily on us, to be honest. But we are also filled with hope daily by the incredible people we have gotten to meet who are giving their lives to addressing injustice on the border. We have definitely seen the “bright spots” we’ve been charged to look for by our partner organization: instances in which the rough reality of migration is ameliorated by the relentless efforts of people who refuse to allow for long-term family separation at the border, who decry the militarization of their hometowns and the construction of a wall which denies the reality of seamless Mexican-American border communities, and who work round-the-clock responding to the legal and humanitarian needs of migrants. How all of these “bright spots” will translate into policy recommendations, we still do not know (goodness knows people down here are trying to figure that out, too). But local communities are responding out of love, hope, and stubborn faith that these current policies cannot last forever. And so we four Keough students feel very privileged to bear witness to all of this, despite the intensity.
This is not study abroad. It is a truly professional experience that involves student teams working closely with an NGO, think tank, institute, or nonprofit dedicated to addressing complex, large-scale problems. We call it the Global Partner Experience.
They’ve been preparing for over nine months with their global partners. Now it’s time to put planning into practice.