Teaching and Justice

Teaching and Justice: Reflections from the U.S./Mexico Border

by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

As we begin the new term, I have been thinking about the Reinert Center’s theme – teaching and justice – in light of new insights gleaned during a recent immersion trip to the U.S./Mexico border. The people I met, the stories I heard, have me thinking in new ways about how we educate students “for justice.”

I spent last week in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico), moving freely back and forth, thanks to my privilege as a U.S. citizen (and importantly, as a white U.S. citizen, which was a clear advantage each time our group was simply waved through at a border patrol checkpoint). I was there with eleven other staff and faculty from Jesuit universities, part of our participation in the Ignatian Colleagues Program, to learn about the lived realities of those whose homes are at the border, of those desperate to cross into the U.S., of those who commit their lives to serving migrants. The trip was in partnership with the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), an amazing bi-national organization that works to support migrants and to advocate for just and humane immigration policies.

As we prepared for and reflected on our experiences, we frequently were asked to keep in mind three key purposes for our visit: humanize, accompany, and complicate. To humanize and accompany, we served food to migrants most days, listening to stories of individuals who have experienced tremendous violence, poverty, and, often, heartache. We sat with them in shelters as they awaited an opportunity to present their cases for asylum; we watched courtroom proceedings as they were sentenced to the “crime” of coming into the U.S. illegally. (It is worth noting that not all nations criminalize crossing a border without papers.) To give you a sense of the people* I met, let me introduce you to . . .

Elicia: At 26, she was awaiting an opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S., along with her husband and three children, ages 5, 2, and 4 months. Each day when she came into the comedor (a cramped room filled with long tables where migrants can come for two meals a day), her face showed the worry and stress of waiting. Her family had escaped the violence of their home state, only to find themselves waiting everyday for an opportunity to present their case to the U.S. authorities.

Eva: who was deported on New Year’s Day. She had lived in Arizona for more than 30 years, since she was taken there without authorization by her parents when she was 15 years old. Eva has four children, ages 4 to 22, two of whom are special needs, all of whom are U.S. citizens, and all of whom are going about their daily lives without their mother. Eva describes her deportation as a “bitter swallow” and asks me to tell other U.S. citizens that her being separated from her children is not making any of us safer. Before she was deported on New Year’s Day, Eva had worked two jobs and paid taxes. She now finds herself in Nogales, Mexico, where she knows no one and is desperate to find some way to return to her children.

Luisa: At 18, she was one of the most memorable people I met. She had fled the violence of her home state in Mexico, along with her mother, father, and three brothers. All presented themselves for asylum. All were initially detained in the U.S. At the time of detention, Luisa was separated from her family because she is “an adult.” She had never been separated from them before. Her older brother was sent to a detention facility in another state, while her parents and two younger brothers were sent to a different facility in Arizona. Luisa spent 5 months in detention, watching her cell mate almost die from appendicitis because the “emergency button” in her cell had been deactivated. She saw a great many injustices that 18-year-olds in St. Louis would find hard to imagine. Eventually, her family – her parents, her two younger brothers, and her one older brother – all were granted asylum. But her case for asylum was rejected; she was sent back to Mexico, where she finds herself without any family, in a small shelter, hoping someone will be able to help her reunite with her family, now in the U.S. Luisa is the same age as our first-year students. Essentially, her equivalent to a first semester away from home was spent in a U.S. detention facility; the lessons she learned were far more difficult than studying for exams or preparing college essays. When I remember her sad smile, her dark brown eyes, her small anxious hands, I see a young woman who could easily be sitting right outside my office, in the Quiet Study Area in Pius Library.

There are others whose stories I could tell – Marco and Alberto and Luis. . . . Stories of striving and dreams; stories of having lived decades in the United States; stories of families with young children, most of them U.S. citizens, who are now deprived of their financial and emotional support systems. Sitting with these individuals, listening to their stories, the “migrants” and “caravans” of television news became individual people, with individual stories, with hopes and dreams that sounded an awful lot like mine. The goal of humanizing is just that – a commitment to seeing the whole person in each migrant, of accompanying them (however briefly) on a part of their journey.

Every experience I had served the goal of complicating my understanding. This was particularly true when I met Jack and Sara, white American ranchers whose land abuts the U.S./Mexico border. As Jack explained, about 14 miles of their property exist in between sections of “the wall,” bounded only by 4 rows of barbed wire fencing. Jack showed video footage of people with large packs (apparently of drugs) easily crossing under the barbed wire fence and walking across his property. He and his wife had encountered men with AK-47s crossing their land, had their home broken into twice in recent years. For them, a small section of “wall” would offer an important deterrent to such crossings. But it also would not solve their problem entirely. For one thing, it takes Border Patrol about 3 hours to get to the border on their property, so even when the authorities can see (from drone cameras) that someone is crossing, the person is long gone by the time Border Patrol arrives. But they expect the U.S. government to help them figure out a way to address these crossings. Their views are completely understandable – and more complicated than one might assume. Jack and Sara advocate legal status for migrants who came here without authorization and easier access to work visas to allow workers to come into the U.S. to work while living in Mexico. They have installed water fountains on all the water tanks on their 50,000 acres because “no one, not even a ‘drugger,’ should die of thirst in the desert.” Complication, indeed.

Humanize, accompany, complicate – these terms were the touchstone for my trip, but they also offer a framework for ways faculty can bring justice into their courses. Literary texts and case studies can humanize all kinds of “others” for our students; service learning experiences provide opportunities to accompany people on journeys that differ from students’ own; and reading competing and contradictory perspectives on a topic can help to complicate students’ understanding of complex social problems and systemic injustices. As you begin a new semester, I encourage you to consider the ways in which your courses and the content you’ve chosen might serve these goals.

A week at the border is not enough to make a material difference in the lives of those living between freedom and oppression. It is not enough to change systems or policies. But like an intentionally designed course, it presented opportunities to encounter people I otherwise wouldn’t have and to understand nuances I otherwise would have missed. From now on, when I hear pundits and politicians speak of “the wall” or “immigrants,” I will instead picture the faces of Elicia and Marco and Luisa and the others I met. The experience helps me to ground my conceptual understanding in “contact,” as Kolvenbach makes clear (drawing on the words of Pope John Paul II) is our obligation in a Jesuit university.

If you are committed to “teaching and justice,” please consider sharing some of the ways you help students to encounter lived realities of those in unjust situations and systems. How do you move students beyond “concepts” and into “contact,” as even if it’s only through creative works and case studies?

*Note: I have changed the names of the people I encountered in order to respect their right to privacy.



Kolvenbach, S.J., Peter-Hans. (2000). The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education. LINK.

1 thought on “Teaching and Justice: Reflections from the U.S./Mexico Border”

  1. Debie, wow, thank you for sharing these powerful stories. It is helpful to read about your descriptions of individual people that don’t make the media headlines. This provided a needed pause to the flurry of the semester, so thank you.


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