By Thandiwe Matthews, South Africa
On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.
As the elections race in the US picks up, Republican front-runner Donald Trump has frequently accused immigrants of contributing to the US’s social problems, contributing to the xenophobic rhetoric that has hampered the development of progressive policies to accommodate migrants and refugees fleeing poverty and conflict. Trump has even gone as far as to suggest that a wall be built to prevent Mexicans from crossing the border into the US, and that Mexico should pay for it.
However, when visiting the border, it became apparent that the Nogales area on both sides of the border plays a key role in both the US and Mexican economies. Visits to a factory highlighted how the cheap cost of Mexican labour allows for more productive business for US companies operating in the area. Being situated so close to the border in Mexico also allows US companies to import necessary parts from the US, allowing companies to further benefit from regional trade agreements entered into between the countries. The border thus becomes a profitable site for both Mexican and US businesses.
While Mexican immigrants are often lambasted in the media for contributing to the social ills of the US, it was evident in the factory that we visited how hard working Mexican people are. Ironically, although not confirmed, it could be assumed that many Mexicans working in US companies had at some stage been migrants attempting to cross the border to the US. Those who have been unable to cross the border successfully are limited to staying in Nogales until they can gather enough money to either cross the border legally or return back to their towns and villages of origin.
It was also troubling to hear that when migrants are caught for illegally crossing the border, families are often separated by border patrol (mothers and children on the one hand, men on the other), in an effort to ensure that they will not reunite and attempt a second time to embark on the journey. In some cases during the perilous journey, children are separated from their parents altogether. In other instances, migrants are returned to Mexico along some of the more dangerous parts of the border, thus increasing their vulnerability to being smuggled and trafficked.
Our visit highlighted that while many Mexicans contribute substantially to both the US and Mexican economies through the work that they do in the border region, they remain a vulnerable group in need of fundamental rights protection to prevent exploitation as they search for a better life for themselves and their families.