Jean's Experience at the US-Mexico border

The Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) brings together a team of faculty, researchers, and graduate students from various professional and personal experiences. Read below the reflections of one of our graduate students, Jean Boucher, on his experience at the U.S.-Mexico border and how it inspired his work at the IIR.

Jean's Experience at the  US-Mexico border

In the summer of 2007, I took an educational tour of the US-Mexico border region just south of Tucson, AZ. I was struck by the visceral nature of the issue of illegal border crossings, the number of heat-related deaths in the area, and the humanitarian response from regular folks. Just imagine, once a month, a dead body randomly being found in the next town over from where you live. As I was overcome by the palpable urgency and purposefulness of the work, I decided I needed to move to the border. However, I didn’t return to Tucson until 2010 when No More Deaths, an all-volunteer grassroots humanitarian group, offered me a position as their volunteer coordinator. While there, I helped organize an effort to place over 200 volunteers in the Sonora Desert throughout the 15 weeks of sweltering summer heat. There were old hippies and new, faith-based activists and anarchists, young and old, all people with one thing in common: a desire to stop the migrant deaths. It is one thing to illegally cross into a country; it is another to have to die for it.

I have many memories from my border experience, but there are two that were particularly unforgettable. The first was a story recounted to me by a border patrol agent. He had apprehended a woman in the desert and was carrying out the normal procedures of his job—questioning and detention—when she fell on her knees and started pleading with him: begging him to shoot her in the head, right then, because she could not go back home. It was not for political reasons or fear of violence from someone in Mexico—she was ashamed to face her family and friends. She had traveled far from her home, she had finally managed to enter the United States, she could not bear to go back home, face everyone she knew, and admit defeat, failure, in her goal of the American Dream. She would rather die. The agent told me that he let her go.

Another vivid memory is my visit to Altar, Mexico. Altar is a town about 45 minutes south of the U.S-Mexico border where undocumented immigrants meet before attempting to illegally enter the United States. In Altar, people stock-up on supplies, eat a big meal; buy black clothes, and perhaps graphite to spread on their skin to try to escape the view of the border patrol’s night vision cameras. During my visit, I met Fernando; he was from El Salvador. He planned to cross the border the next day and shared that he had left his family in order to find work. I remember he was very intent and animated; he said his daughter meant everything to him. I cannot imagine being in his shoes; Fernando left his wife and daughter precisely because he loved them and wanted to provide for them.

Working along the U.S.-Mexico border was an eye opening experience for me, but, ironically, it taught me that I didn’t need to go that far in order to find those who are suffering from the weight of socio-economic inequalities. For instance, right here in my own backyard, in Ward 8 of Washington, DC, there is a 48% child poverty rate. I find this fact quite disturbing. It is for this reason, and my desire to understand the causes of such profound inequalities, that I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in sociology and I am very grateful to have found a home here at George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research (IIR).

The work here at the IIR is a far contrast from walking with immigrants “on the ground” in a desert. Our research focuses on the economic contribution of the foreign-born once they have settled in the United States, rather than the complex geopolitical dynamics at the border. It is interesting to have gone from working on the ground to working in the ivory towers of academia. In my opinion, both spaces are important, but they also have substantial shortcomings: the work on the border sometimes felt like a Band-Aid solution to undocumented immigration, while the work in the ivory tower can seem removed from the real life and death issues that some immigrants face every day. What I sometimes find frustrating is that, in academia, I am trying to show that immigrants are humans too: “See, they have needs and are willing to work; they have children and cares and feelings too!”

Often on the border we referred to immigrants as economically displaced, but this is not a term that is popularly used in research. Our globalized, macroeconomic system of international trade creates winners and losers on both sides of the border. Losers, who are south of the U.S.-Mexico border, feel the tug of economic promise in the north; and winners, to the north, sometimes seem  to feign innocence, as if immigrants are coming of their own accord to take their stuff. However, I see immigration as a system of justice seeking to correct the injustice of an imbalanced system of trade. After years of working both on the ground and in academia, I am convinced that we still have a broken immigration system and I want to be part of the movement to change it. I cannot forget the faces and names of the people I encountered at the border—they personify the importance of my research here at the IIR.

For more information about experiences at the border, check out the special series on NPR, “Borderland: Dispatches from the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.”