The Common Good
March-April 2003

Straddling the Border

by Elizabeth Palmberg | March-April 2003

BorderLinks, a binational organization educating people about the realities of the U.S.-Mexico border, has always been good at getting personal without thinking small.

BorderLinks, a binational organization educating people about the realities of the U.S.-Mexico border, has always been good at getting personal without thinking small. More than a thousand people from the United States participate in its educational delegations each year, and almost all stay overnight and break bread with families in the colonias (poor neighborhoods) of Nogales, in the state of Sonora, Mexico.

"What distinguishes BorderLinks is that it's very relationship-based," says staff member Heather Craigie. That commitment has stayed constant during the past 15 years, as the group has become a vibrant combination of community center, think tank, conference catalyst, micro-enterprise innovator, and educational tourism bureau.

Born in the late 1980s as part of the sanctuary movement, BorderLinks initially brought delegations to the U.S. border to experience the realities faced by refugees from U.S.-supported conflicts in Central America. Today, the group focuses on globalization's impact. NAFTA-induced changes in farm policy are driving many former campesinos to U.S. service jobs or low-paid urban labor pools for Mexican maquilas (foreign-owned export factories), and communities face health problems, massive poverty, crime, and environmental devastation.

EDUCATIONAL DELEGATIONS remain a key part of BorderLinks' work (and of its funding structure). A typical seminar, which lasts about a week, involves a home stay, a lesson in border history, visits to a maquila, meetings with health officials and the U.S. Border Patrol, and a trip to a Sonora supermarket (where prices approximate those in the United States, although Mexican wages are much lower). BorderLinks' Mexico director, Kiko Trujillo, a former director of the Nogales Chamber of Commerce, sometimes briefs visitors on the issues overlooked by NAFTA, such as the environment, the farming community, and the small businesses squeezed out by corporations. One of the most "difficult and profound" parts of many delegations, according to Craigie, is visiting would-be migrants about to risk the desert crossing into the United States, a journey that kills dozens each year.

Delegates are encouraged not only to form relationships, but also to analyze and act. "The educational process is not really complete unless you think critically about how you are changed by the experience," says Craigie. For East Congregational Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this meant reimagining a food pantry that church members had been running for years. Delegation leader Jason Hubbard says they are grateful to BorderLinks for teaching them that "a food pantry is not just about providing cheap or free food—it's a place of connection between two parts of a community."

In recent years BorderLinks has developed into a fully binational organization. Its Sonora headquarters, La Casa de la Misericordia ("Mercy House"), hosts popular education seminars and innovative responses to community needs, including a food cooperative, a clothing bank, and an internship program. A pre-existing hot lunch program for children has become the nucleus for a vibrant array of educational opportunities: guitar classes and English classes, after-school tutoring, a bike repair workshop, and clubs for chess, crafts, poetry, and theater.

BorderLinks also hosts Encuentros, binational gatherings about topics such as migration, border economics, and border theology. At a recent Encuentro on alternative technologies, craftspeople from Arizona and Sonora taught workshops at La Casa on soap making, composting toilets, solar water heaters made from junkyard components, and alternative building techniques using recycled newspapers and tires.

Faith-based BorderLinks delegations often reflect on Mark 4:35, in which Jesus invites his disciples to "cross over to the other side of the lake," journeying past Jewish borders. Such bridge building, in its largest sense, is BorderLinks' ultimate vision: "Building bridges across borders cannot just mean the border between the United States and Mexico," according to co-founder Rick Ufford-Chase. "It has to mean the borders of misunderstanding, suspicion, and hostility that, although they may be built on historical experience, have divided us for too long."

Elizabeth Palmberg is Sojourners assistant editor.

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