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The BorderLinks Experience

From Oneonta to Mexico

Story by SUNY Oneonta April 21st, 2016

Si quieres leer este blog en español, se encuentra aquí

Immigration: seeking stability

Natural disasters, civil war and political unrest on several continents drive millions of people from their homes each year. Countless families seek refuge in other countries, where they hope for a fresh start. Over 11 million undocumented individuals have come to the United States to build a new life. Who are they, and what are the issues that led to their migration? In March 2016, SUNY Oneonta students traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to meet some of them and learn their stories.

personal interest, national issue

Meet Daisy Paz, an Africana and Latino studies and criminal justice dual major from Westtown, NY. Since Daisy was eight years old, she has wanted to be an immigration attorney. Daisy, like many young adults across the U.S., has family members who migrated to the United States from Mexico. She also has known several people who crossed the border illegally and now live here undocumented.

What is borderlinks?

BorderLinks is a nonprofit based in Tucson, AZ, that focuses attention on cultural understanding and the human side of mass migration. The six American and four international students from SUNY Oneonta who participated in the BorderLinks program did so in part because each had a personal connection to the immigration issue.

Kayonga “Denis” Muganza ~ Kigali, Rwanda ~ Music Industry & Business Economics
Samantha Senak ~ Goshen, NY ~ Spanish & Theatre
Maegan Crawford ~ Stormville, NY ~ Early Childhood Education/Spanish
Donglei Li ~ Beijing, China ~ International Studies
Cindy Lopez-Pas ~ Appleton, NY ~International Studies & Communication
Mary Bilecki ‘16 ~ Rondonkoma, NY ~ International Development & Anthropology
Daisy Paz ‘17 ~ Westtown, NY ~ Criminal Justice & Sociology & Latino Studies
Alejandra Escudero ~ Albany, NY ~ Lecturer  - Spanish
Kayla Barnes ~ Sauquoit, NY  ~ Early Childhood Education & Spanish
Ruiru Wang ~ Lianyungang, China ~ Fashion & Textiles
Sakura Abe ~ Fukuoka, Japan ~ Communication
Scott Lehmann ~ Oneonta, NY ~ Student Advisor Office of International Education

spending time on the border

Over the course of five days, students toured several communities along the Arizona/Mexico border, learning about the issues migrants face there. Lecturer Alejandra Escudero, who is originally from Venezuela, feels that an immersive experience is the best way to understand a culture. “Being this is an election year, I thought this was very relevant, with all the discourse in the media... I think it’s something very important for students to live and experience first hand,” she said.

To find out more about the places students visited, click on the pins of the map.

the deadly path to a better life

One of the most powerful experiences was the desert walk. Students walked for two hours across the Arizona desert in 90-degree heat, following trails used regularly by immigrants battling the unrelenting sun and evading capture by the U.S. Border Patrol.

“As a future educator I feel I need to learn about situations like these, because I could have students who come from these backgrounds in my classroom. I’m not an immigrant myself, I don’t know anything about that experience. Getting a green card, getting a visa, any of those things, let alone coming across the desert illegally without any other options. I thought it would be really interesting for me to learn and experience these things first hand so that I could take them back to my classroom and further relate to my students.” Maegan Crawford
A BorderLinks staff  member shows materials left behind by migrants crossing the desert.
Students walked two hours in the Arizona desert along trails used by migrants on a daily basis.
Humanitarian organizations place containers of water along trails for travelers.
Daisy Paz observes a place where two migrants perished in the desert.
Students walked two hours in 85-degree heat along trails used by migrants.
Students discuss the risks migrants face when crossing the Arizona desert.
“I was on the phone with my mom yesterday, and she told me ‘As bad as it sounds, it’s a reality of everyone trying to cross the border. It’s just with a different story.’” Cindy Lopez-Pas


The border between the United States and Mexico border is 1,989 miles long. Natural and manmade barriers separate the two countries. One of the most widely used border crossings is located in Nogales, AZ. A city of just over 20,000 people, it is separated from the city from Nogales, Mexico. Culturally and historically, Nogales may be one community. But a steel fence 18’ high splits it in two.

Students arrive in Nogalez, Arizona, for an up-close look at the border wall.
The border wall separates Nogalez, Arizona, (left) and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) (right)
Denis Muganza and Donglei Li observe the border wall.
U.S. Border Patrol surveillance tower (from Mexico side)
Students had lunch with a family in Nogalez, Sonora.
In 2012, 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was killed by a Border Patrol agent on International Street in Nogales, Mexico.
“You just can’t put up a wall. You can’t just cut off and militarize the border. There’s roots here not only for the families that have been here for decades, but the Native American settlements and indigenous people who have lived on what is called the ‘U.S. Territory’ for centuries, and that just can‘t be eliminated because of a wall.” Mary Bilecki

Ice Detention center

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency operates detention centers that hold and process illegal immigrants for deportation. Through the nonprofit organization Mariposas Sin Fronteras, students met with migrants in the detention center who were persecuted for their sexual orientation in their home countries.

many points of view

Through BorderLinks and one another, students gained a deeper appreciation of the complexity surrounding immigration, both in the United States and globally. “Everyone had a different angle to see these things from, whether you came from a small town in New York or your parents came from a different country. Everyone learned a lot from each other, almost as much as from the experience.” said Megan Crawford. “If everyone came from the same background, the experience wouldn’t have been as interesting, because we would have had all the same things to say.”

“My parents have always told me stories about when they crossed, but actually seeing it and getting a new perspective on what actually happened, it reassured me of what I want to do in the future once I graduate. I want to be an advocate for people dealing with immigration issues.” Cindy Lopez-Pas

See our students’ BORDERlinks experience through social media

BorderLinks Storify: Students shared their experiences during their trip using social media.

Footnote: Produced by Jared Stanley ~ Location videography: Donglei Li ~ Location Photography: Kayla Barnes