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ON THE BORDER: One Brandeis student visited the fence between Arizona and Mexico

Published: December 1, 2006
Section: Opinions


The cities of Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona are separated by a barricade of steel. From the Mexican side, it resembles horizontal window blinds of steel plates, crowned with barbed wire and placed atop a hill. Ten or so feet into Mexico stands a chain link fence. This controversial structure is one aspect of an issue much larger than 12 feet of steel.

Aaron Arbiter 10 sat down with the Hoot to discuss his recent trip to the border, where he personally witnessed the infamous border fence that is such a crucial component of the current debate over the controversial issue of immigration. Arbiter serves as social action vice president for the North American Federation of Temple Youth, also known as NFTY. Part of his role is representing NFTY to the Union for Reform Judaism, the larger Reform Jewish Movement. This year the Unions commission on social action met in Phoenix, Arizona and decided to make a trip to the United States/Mexico border to learn more about immigration.

One of their first contacts was the bi-national nonprofit organization BorderLinks, based in Tucson, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. BorderLinks runs experiential learning seminars with the goal to give participants the opportunity to personally experience these issues and to develop their own opinions. (See www.borderlinks.org for more information.) The topics explored with participants include the economic issues of the ramifications of free trade including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the global economy, international debt, labor conditions and environmental problems as well as social issues including womens rights, immigration policy, US Border Patrol, crime, health and human rights.

Arbiter related an explanation he received about the impact of NAFTA on Mexican farmers. [Because of] economic and political changes in the United States and Mexico, what has happened is this whole class of people that are farmers from the south of Mexico, corn farmers specifically, have migrated and have built up these towns on the border. Nogales, Im told, used to be a town of 40,000 people and now theres about 600,000. Most of the population there is people who come from the South and are making an effort to cross the border, but the people who initially lived there have no desire to leave. Arbiter explained that while many people seek to cross the border, hoping for economic opportunity, those would-be immigrants do not represent Mexico as a whole. He said, I think we suffer from this delusion to think that everyone in Mexico is trying to knock down our door and come over. He described his hostess in Nogales as perfectly happy with her life in Mexico.

Attempting to cross the border is a dangerous proposition. Arbiter learned about the experience from those working with would-be immigrants. He said, Theyre robbed, theyre left out in the desert to die, theyre taken advantage of, so theres this whole human rights issue that occurs on the border that people dont know about. One little known part of the border scene is Grupo Beta, an agency of the Mexican government that helps relocate deported illegal immigrants and attempts, though without great success, to discourage Mexicans from crossing the border illegally. Arbiter explained that there is some effort on the part of the Mexican government to prevent people from crossing but also to look after them all and to give aid to people. They tend to people once theyve been deported and come back to Mexico. They take them in and they pay to send them back to their home towns, because a lot of these people come from the south of Mexico.

According to Gabriel Thompson, journalist for The New Standard, Grupo Beta also began warning would-be immigrants about the armed members of the Minuteman Project, a group of citizens taking border patrol into their own hands. The work of Grupo Beta is a little known aspect of Mexican attempts to resolve the issue of illegal immigration to the United States. (For more information on Grupo Beta and the Minuteman Project, check out Gabriel Thompsons article at http://newstandardnews.net.)

Arbiter made an important distinction about the use of the term illegal. I should clarify that its illegal in the United States. Theres no law in Mexico that says you cant cross the border to the United States, so theyre not doing anything illegal. And once the United States deports people back to Mexico, theyre not prosecuted when they [return]. They are aided by Grupo Beta, which hopes to re-orient them and re-establish them in their home communities in Mexico. Neither Grupo Beta nor BorderLinks aims to help immigrants cross the border illegally (by US definition).

Arbiter said the entire experience of his trip to the border left him with a desire to learn more about the issue of immigration. He said of how his visit widened his perspective;

One of the things you become aware of is how Americentric you are. In order to combat this limited vision, Arbiter urges people to learn more about the subject and to move beyond newspaper headlines.

When asked how the average American citizen should seek to be better informed Arbiter replied, I would say you can keep reading the papers, keep reading the international section of the New York times to learn more about NAFTA and the role its playing in the economy today, but I would also say put down the paper, go down and learn more about organizations like BorderLinks, learn more about things like Grupo Beta. I wish I could go and learn more and I wish we could send more of our people to go and learn about this issue. I guess not everyone can get on a plane and hop to Mexico but I would say go and learn about what people who actually work at the border, people who actually deal with migrant workers and illegal aliens [think]. Go and learn about them.

There is a chorus of voices that contribute to knowledge of the issue of immigration, but not all are equally heard. In order to gain a valid perspective Arbiter suggested that we Listen to the cabdriver, listen to the orange picker… People who work in the United States, immigrants and people who are working on the border and are working to find ways to resolve this issue, because it is an issue. Its just what are we going to do about it and what kind of relationship are we going to have, in the future, with Mexico. Because its clear that there has to be a working relationship. The problems of Mexico cant only be solved by Mexicans and the problems of the United States cannot only be solved by the United States.