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Border Visit Illuminates BCSSW Immigration Course

01/30/15
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School of Social Work Associate Professor of Macro Practice Westy Egmont, director of the BC Immigrant Integration Lab, and part-time faculty member Maryanne Loughry, RSM, associate director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, took a group of students to the Arizona-Mexico border as part of an innovative course on immigration. (Photo courtesy of BCSSW)

By Nate Herpich | Chronicle Contributor

Published: Jan. 30, 2015

Once again, the United States is at a crossroads on the issue of immigration. In the wake of President Obama’s recent executive order allowing some five million undocumented persons to stay in the US at least temporarily, community leaders across the country are faced with the challenge of building new systems to better integrate immigrants into American life.

An innovative course at the Boston College School of Social Work is addressing this challenge head-on, and offering a unique field-based experience for a next generation of social workers devoted to shaping immigration policy. Services to Migrants: A Border Perspective is co-taught by BCSSW Associate Professor of Macro Practice Westy Egmont, director of the BC Immigrant Integration Lab, and part-time faculty member Maryanne Loughry, RSM, associate director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia and an advisor to the Australian government on migration and refugee matters.

The course included two weeks of recent intensive on-the-ground inquiry along the Arizona/Mexico border. Twelve select MSW students walked the desert where hundreds of thousands of immigrants have crossed into the United States, and where many others have died; they visited detention centers where undocumented men, women and children are locked up between countries; and they met face to face with migrants who described their experiences in search of a better life.  

It was these personal stories of perseverance that made the greatest impact on MSW student Luzelly Frias. Visiting a detention center on the American side of the border, Frias recognized a detainee whom she had met just two days earlier at the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) Aid Center for Deported Migrants in Mexico, a bi-national Jesuit organization that gives direct humanitarian care to migrants and promotes change in immigration policy. They exchanged nods of recognition, and she noticed that he was now wearing the jumpsuit issued to all those in the facility.  

“It made it so real to be able to say, ‘I know that person, I had breakfast with him, and he is a person with a story and a family,’” said Frias. “It’s thought-provoking to be able to put a face to this truly pressing social justice issue.”  

One morning, the group was guided on a desert walk by Kathy Babcock, a volunteer with the Green Valley Sahuarita Samaritans, which provides water, food, and first aid to migrants suffering from heat, dehydration and other injuries associated with the often grueling trek from places as far away as Central America.  

The desert told its own story of migration. Kelly Morgan, a dual-degree candidate in BCSSW and BC Law School, noted that among the harsh landscape were countless memorials to those who have perished, as well as shoes left behind, completely worn through from days of walking. On a separate visit to a border crossing, the group saw a memorial to a fallen teenager, allegedly shot by border police for throwing rocks. Bullet holes remained, riddling a nearby fence.  

“We heard a lot during the week about how immigration policy in America has been changed in recent years, so that crossing the border is now a criminal offense,” Morgan said. “In our detention centers, drug runners are locked up next to women and children. It was eye-opening to learn who, in their eyes, was a criminal.

“I’m opposed to our system of locking people up and warehousing them. Seeing this firsthand has only solidified my desire to learn the law and defend immigrant communities.”

Throughout the course, Morgan and her classmates engaged in informed conversations around immigration in America, to help them develop the necessary tools to promote social changes and policy interventions toward establishing a more just system. Discussing the importance of dispelling myths that often adversely affect policy, Egmont said current rhetoric on the imminent need for increased border enforcement belies the reality: Statistics actually show a downward trend in the number of undocumented immigrants in the US, and net zero migration from Mexico.

“BC has a long, distinct history of border visits devoted to cultural immersion and service,” said Egmont, an advisor on immigration to five Massachusetts governors. “But this graduate course was different: Its emphasis was on understanding the systems of national protection and migrant intervention currently in place.

“My hope for this unique group is that many of them will go forward in possession of this knowledge, in pursuit of improved policies and more humane practice.”   

–Nate Herpich writes for the Boston College School of Social Work