Crossing borders to broaden horizons

Project Mexico gave students a chance to leave the country. And their comfort zones.

After seven days of volunteering in Mexicali, Mexico, 13 Temple students in two large, white vans with tinted windows crossed the border to return to the United States. After driving for several hours, the border patrol stopped them.

“They took all of our passports one by one and checked our names and faces,” said Colleen Connelly, a freshman Spanish and Italian major.

The group was eventually released.

Earlier that day, a white van crossed the same border going the opposite way. A group of illegal immigrants being deported from the United States was dropped at a facility near the border. They were greeted and offered showers, coffee, food and phones to call their loved ones.

With nowhere to go, some were directed to a migrant house nearby, where they could stay for up to four nights.

On Jan. 15, clueless Temple students were taken on a drive. They were being taken to meet the deportees.

“We really had no idea where we were going,” Connelly said.

After learning about the migrant house, students talked to the deportees, most of whom spoke fluent English. Some of the Mexicans questioned the students, asking why they were in Mexico.

After the student volunteers told them they came from Philadelphia to work with Los Niños, a community development program in Mexico on its “Project Mexico” endeavor, the deportees began to talk.

“They just wanted to tell their stories,” sophomore public relations major Andrea Fleck said.

Calling stories she heard “heartbreaking,” Fleck said the trip changed her views on immigration dramatically.

“You hear so many different things about illegal immigrants,” she said. “The U.S. creates such a dirty Mexicans figure.”

One of the deportees used to live in New Orleans, working in construction to rebuild the city, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He didn’t have a criminal record, so the U.S. government gave him two options: return home quietly or face jail time in the states. Leaving his wife and two children, he will be able to apply for a visa in three to four years.

“For me, [that part of the trip] was the most eye-opening because up until that point, we hadn’t talked about the border, and now I have mixed feelings about it,” said senior finance major Christine Kim, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Korea. “I understand that people want to make better lives for themselves. I think that we should take that into consideration, but also, it’s not fair to people who are trying to become citizens of America.”

Kim’s viewpoints were exemplified in another story the group heard about a deportee who gained U.S. citizenship.

His entire family became successful living in California, but the immigrant went down the wrong path, involving himself in drugs and gangs. He was arrested for criminal activity and deported to Mexico but not for working illegally with drugs.

“He probably should have gotten charged with something drug-related, but he was charged with terrorism,” Connelly said. “Not a lot of people realize the effect 9/11 had on illegal immigrants. Some of them had been living [in the United States] for 30 years, and they were getting deported.”

Despite actions taken after 9/11, the immigrants knew what they did was wrong and held no grudges against Americans.

“I didn’t think people would want to speak with Americans,” Kim said. “I feel like there is some kind of stigma with Americans, but they were very open and appreciated us being there.”

After visiting a local government-owned school, Fleck witnessed the distaste some Mexicans have for the states. She saw a sign with the letters U-S-A in a classroom, but the ‘S’ was a swastika, complete with two fingers resembling a devil figure dangling through the letters. Next to the sign was a portrait of Mickey Mouse with sharp, fang-like teeth.

There remains a huge distinction between the Mexican government and its people.

Los Niños works with “promatoras,” promoters and educators of the community to improve the quality of life in Mexicali for its residents.

The students started a recycling program, collecting one of the city’s largest pollutants – batteries.
After many batteries were collected, the government was consistently contacted to dispose the batteries, but it never responded, Fleck said.

“They are very aware of their impact on their environment,” Kim said.

“We learned more from them than they did from us,” said Maureen Fisher, a program coordinator for Student Activities who accompanied the group.

The student volunteers also learned about Mexico’s education system. Due to the area’s poor socioeconomic conditions, children oftentimes come to school hungry.

Alonzo, a native of Mexico who works for Los Niños, said out of seven children, only he and one sibling went onto higher education.

Some who cannot read or write continue to apply for visas despite these inabilities.

Hopefuls applying for visas must pay $500. However, if there is any syntactical error, the application is automatically denied, and the Mexican government keeps the money.

Making money in Mexico isn’t easy. Alonzo said 80 pesos for eight hours is typical pay. A carton of milk costs 42 pesos.

Kim was hesitant to compare the worst living conditions in the states to those of Mexicali, but senior My Huynh, a political science and Asian studies major, noticed a large class difference.

“A rundown community of shacks made of sheet metals, tires and cement can be found adjacent to a gated villa community with a waterfall entrance,” Huynh said. “It baffles one’s mind to see the two side by side.”

But where the poor outnumber the rich, misery was barely seen.

“I showed two 8- or 9-year-olds a picture of me at prom,” Connelly said. “They asked if it was my wedding picture. Even though they don’t have much, they’re happy.”

Ashley Nguyen can be reached at

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