Teachers & Students Crossing Borders: The Decade of DeathTim Conrad
Elisabeth Jordan headed for her ESL class, but not just down the hall at the University of Arizona. She boarded a shuttle bus south for 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) from Tucson to Nogales, Mexico, on I-19, the only route in Arizona signed in kilometers instead of mileposts. Looming ahead was a garish, wooden wall still under construction, razor wire strung along the top. Then she walked across the border through Garita A, a 24-hour walking entrance opening to the “Flag Island of the Americas,” with its multi-colored banners of Mexican states, and caught a taxi to Escuela Ganté, where she finally greeted her students after a two-hour international commute! Classes used to be offered on campus at the Center for English as a Second Language, but because of border-crossing restrictions since 9/11, ESL instructors have taken the program directly to Nogales during the past decade, “a remarkable teaching situation,” according to Elizabeth, because of the unique logistic and intercultural adjustments required in order to “address the needs and expectations of the students.”

I had contacted Elizabeth looking for reports about innovative ESL (English as a Second Language) and bilingual programs as the focus of an upcoming English Linguistics Session to be held in Tucson, Arizona. I decided to visit this fascinating southwest border region during my spring break at Weber State University in Utah before the October, 2006 Conference. I was to discover how a variety of schools, organizations, and adventurers like Elizabeth find creative ways to cross increasingly restrictive borders for the sake of greater educational opportunities and dreams.

“Last summer, illegal border crossers were dying daily.” Newly arrived in Tucson, I was reading the Arizona Daily Star’s front page story, May 20th, 2006, and draining a 24-ounce Venti Starbucks ice tea, grateful for the air-conditioned comfort after biking from nearby Sabino Canyon back to the outskirts of the city in the already 100-degree-plus heat. According to the Star, the U.S. Border Patrol had just reported over 216 deaths, including women and children, in the Tucson/Mexico sector for the previous nine months.

Sabino Canyon is famous for its spooky landscape of Giant Saguaro cactus, brittle bush, devil’s claw, gila monsters, scorpions, tarantulas, and signs warning hikers about mountain lion attacks. But the real dangers are the heat and lack of water. According to a park guide, The Sonoran Desert is one of the major “hot deserts” of the Southwest, spanning both Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora, a potential death trap which evaporates more water than it receives in annual rainfall, summer highs exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Why would people put themselves at such risk, not just climbing over the fence from Nogales, Mexico, to Nogales, Arizona, but continuing 60 miles on foot to the Tucson city limits?

I immediately remembered Tucson’s Sun-Tran downtown station and a friendly guy named Hector who had helped me put my bike on metro #9 after his well-worn bus schedule showed my Sabino Canyon destination was also on his route. Hector was dressed in dusty work clothes, cowboy boots and hat and was from the bordering Mexican state of Sonora. Because we were dads and sports lovers, there was a lot to talk about in both Spanish and English. He told me he used to watch my Utah Jazz on TV, but when Karl Malone and John Stockton retired, he lost interest. We shared wallet photos of our children, discovering we each had future attorneys: my daughter had just passed her bar exam and his son was working his way through the University of Sonora law school. That was why he had been working on both sides of the border for years: to support his wife and family back home and his son’s education. He hadn’t seen them for months because without papers border crossings were too risky.

A militarized monsoon was brewing in the desert with record numbers of border patrol officers, National Guard troops, and Minutemen private citizens arriving to deter border crossings and continue construction of a 2000 mile security fence. During my week in Tucson, President Bush had already requested $2 billion in emergency funding to secure the border after being escorted by the Border Patrol on a dune buggy in nearby Yuma.

I also learned that Tucson is famous for the Samaritan Patrol (samaritanpatrol.org), a humanitarian organization which every summer sends hundreds of college students and people from all walks of life to the border area between Mexico and Tucson. Tucked away in a side street just off Tucson’s busy Speedway Boulevard was one of their locations: St. Mark’s Presbyterian, 3809 East 3rd Street. Walking through the arch of the Spanish mission-style church into a courtyard passageway, I saw a table of banners, signs, and postcards with the declaration, “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime. No More Deaths. No Más Muertes.”

At the table was a sweet, grey-haired retired teacher who told me about the Samaritan Patrol team she led, three to four volunteers who take their EMT training into the desert to provide medical aid, water, and food in the spirit of the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. She also told me the shocking story about two recent college graduates, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, arrested and awaiting trial for medically evacuating three dehydrated men baking under the desert sun in critical condition, sickened from drinking water from a contaminated cattle trough.

Throughout my week in Tucson, I was educated about border issues I’d never heard before. For example, for years, the Samaritan Patrol and other groups have worked to promote awareness of U.S. immigration issues and to respect the historic southwest-desert traditions of caring for travelers in distress. No More Deaths (nomoredeaths.org) patrols the desert and was campaigning to have all charges dropped against Shanti and Daniel. Humane Borders puts water tanks in strategic areas of the border country and posts maps on the Mexican side showing where deaths have occurred and warning in Spanish, “Don’t go. It’s not worth the suffering.” The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project provides free legal services for those who have been detained, sometimes wrongfully. For example, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who live south of Tucson on both sides of the border, have complained to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about continual harassment, even arrest, saying, “Our people are no longer free to travel. We are told we must obtain immigration permits to enter our own lands.” The National Farmworker Jobs Program reports that border-crossing obstacles have made it difficult for farmworkers to reach the program’s skills training, computer proficiency, and English language classes. Too soon, it was time to go back to Utah, with much to ponder from what I had learned in the border regions of Tucson’s haunting Saguaro-cactus landscape.

In October, I returned for the Tucson Conference. Elizabeth had moved to the West Coast, but put me in touch with Robert Cote, one of the other University of Arizona instructors teaching in Nogales, and he gave the presentation at the conference. Robert explained that for many years the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) at the University of Arizona had been receiving 600 students per semester from Mexico, Asia, and the Middle East, but when enrollment took a big hit after 9/11, going down to 150 a semester, CESL began satellite programs in Japan, China, and Nogales. Robert connected me with a married couple, Dot and Rich White, who coordinated the Nogales Program. They took me to Escuela Ganté to meet the students: teenagers, maquiladora workers, and professional people aged 16-60. Eight classes are offered in general and business English.

Miguel, a maquiladora assembly line worker, told me that he and his family had moved to Nogales from Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, Mexico (175 miles to the south) because the wages were better: the 50 pesos (5 dollars) he used to make in a week, he could make in just a day in Nogales. Of course, the pull of the frontera is even greater. In Tucson Miguel would be able to make that much per hour (and in January, 2007, Arizona voters increased the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.75 per hour). In recent years nearly 100 maquiladora assembly plants (apparel, electronics, data processing, locksmith, bowling balls, etc.) have opened in Nogales, Mexico, with U.S. businesses taking advantage of the lower labor costs. Basic English skills can help someone get an operator job while increasing conversational and reading/writing abilities provide opportunities to advance to crew leader or manager positions.

A teenage student, Roberto, enjoyed the classroom opportunities to talk about film, culture, and music. He urged me to watch films of his favorite Mexican actor, Hector Suarez. For example, Suarez's film "Al Otro Lado" (“To the Other Side”), was Mexico’s official selection for the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and was also selected for the Border Issues Series at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.

As Rich drove Dot and me home late that night after our long day in Nogales, traffic started backing up on I-19 as cars, trucks, and vans were stopped and searched at a tactical Border Patrol checkpoint. But Rich showed me a time-saving trick employed by other weary UA instructors. He took the exit before an approaching overpass, then reentered the highway beyond the checkpoint.

Other roadblocks are not so easily overcome. The Samaritan students Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss endured months of legal limbo before Amnesty International and other supporters finally succeeded in getting all charges against them dropped. Through my experiences in the Tucson/Nogales border region, I found that people will take great risks to cross borders for the sake of education and a better life. I also learned that crossing borders is a life-altering education in itself, redefining the location and identity of the community we seek to serve and research.

Sadly, the death toll for border crossers keeps rising. According to the Tucson Samaritans, Tucson/Nogales has witnessed a “Decade of Death” since another famous and tragic date: the 9/11 attacks. Last year’s 2010 count of 224 precious human lives lost was the second highest in the past 10 years(http://roygermano.wordpress.com/2011), an ominous foreshadowing as we face the end of 2011.