Hearing about the border crisis is not the same as experiencing it.
A service learning trip to the Mexican border not only allowed the Lyon College Presbyterian Student Association to see it firsthand but also to more fully comprehend the impact for asylum-seekers.
“I knew stuff was happening, but I didn’t understand what was really going on,” said senior Emma Gillaspy of Conway.
Led by College Chaplain Rev. Margaret Alsup, the students arrived in McAllen, Texas, on Oct. 31. After a worship service, the students chose from several different work sites along the border, including shelters, non-profits, and churches.
“I just wanted to be more educated about the situation,” said junior Elizabeth Daniel of Rogers.
The five students eagerly signed up to work with the Ozanam Center in Brownsville, Texas, which provides shelter and services to Central American political refugees.
The next morning when the students arrived at the center, they discovered a single room filled wall-to-wall with bunk beds. One of the center’s workers explained that although the center was meant to house 200, it had housed double its capacity for several months.
The students also listened to speakers from Puentes de Cristo, a non-profit started by the Presbyterian Church in McAllen which focuses its efforts on helping the poor and oppressed along the U.S. / Mexican border.
Junior Allison Mundy of Bryant said she then realized the situation at the border was not simply “everyone crawling underneath a fence.”
Unlike what they’ve heard in the media, the students said they learned that those seeking asylum don’t really find asylum when they are let into the U.S. Once crossing the border, they face extreme poverty, prejudice, and oppression.
“Most of the people I’ve talked to are here legally, but they live in fear as if they aren’t,” said Mundy.
She said she learned that what commonly happened in the Brownsville area was people were transferred from detainment camps to nearby towns with no resources.
“Towns of 200 have doubled overnight,” she said.
Daniel added, “These people aren’t coming over with malicious intent.”
“They just want a better life, and they want to do it themselves, but there’s a culture created where you need to have so many people on your side.”
Daniel said she felt sad not only for those crossing the border but also for Americans “letting hatred and fear stew in them” instead of opening their hearts to the asylum-seekers.
Meanwhile on the Mexican side of the border, Rev. Alsup visited a camp of 30,000 living in tents with just four portable bathrooms and three showers for the whole camp.
When Alsup entered the camp, a small child ran up and hugged her. His family followed and tried to tell their story with the help of a translator.
The child’s mother told Alsup’s group that she was scared her children would be taken away.
“People don’t let children out of their sight, just to make sure that they’re safe.”
Alsup also found that contrary to popular belief, American citizens living along the border want to help those trying to seek a better life.
“I never saw fear from people,” said Alsup. “If anything I see them living in hope and literally being the hands and feet of Christ and trying to make someone’s life better.”
The group is now ready to take action and raise awareness.
“I want to get the word out about what’s really going on,” said Gillaspy.
Junior José Balderas has already agreed to return to Brownsville in December to translate for Puentes de Cristo.
“I’m planning to come as much as I can,” he said. “I didn’t know the full situation, and this trip opened it up for me.”
Balderas also plans to spend his spring break helping pro-bono attorneys communicate with their clients.
Alsup added, “When you’ve experienced it, it’s never really gone from you.”