Border TownND students learn about immigration through community

There’s a peculiar tract of land east of downtown El Paso, Texas, set aside as a national memorial to diplomacy. It marks the end of the Chamizal boundary dispute, in which the United States and Mexico settled a near century-long disagreement over about 600 acres of land. The acreage effectively shifted from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande to the American side after a flood altered the river’s course in 1864. The dispute was finally resolved in 1963, when both sides agreed to terms that carved up the land and constructed a permanent channel through which the Rio Grande would flow.

The agreement was hailed in a series of celebrations along the border as a shining example of a peaceful resolution to an international conflict. But the happy ending didn’t come without a human cost: Some 5,000 residents were displaced as a result of the deal. Many had to resettle into neighborhoods culturally very different from the ones they occupied in the Chamizal, amid a period of high racial animosity and mistrust.

An obelisk reads 'Boundary of the United States. Treaty of 1849. Re-established by treaties of 1864-1889.'
U.S.-Mexico border marker at Chamizal National Memorial.

Chamizal is viewed as a triumph in the eyes of history, but there’s a postscript that echoes in El Paso loudly, if differently, today: government policy impacts human life.

It’s a truth that is reinforced every day at the Annunciation House, a Catholic organization that gives shelter to refugees in El Paso. Two Notre Dame students, junior Francis Brockman and sophomore Daniel Rottenborn, are working at one of the organization’s facilities, Casa Vides, a weathered two-story facility that has the look of a small apartment building just a few blocks from downtown. Inside, murals commemorate watershed moments and important figures in Central American conflicts, the bright colors painting a literal picture of the past that still impacts the people who come through the door today.

A bus pulls up to the two-story brick building that is Casa Vides.
A bus contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement drops off asylum seekers at Casa Vides.
Francis Brockman, left, and Daniel Rottenborn stand in front of colorful mural in Casa Vides.
Francis Brockman, left, and Daniel Rottenborn.

It’s here that asylum-seeking migrants spend a few days in between their release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and continuing their journey to a sponsor somewhere in the U.S. Brockman and Rottenborn are working here as part of the Summer Service Learning Program through Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. The program aims to address questions of social justice in light of Catholic social teaching. At Casa Vides, Rottenborn and Brockman are living among a population most only know through news reports, and gaining a perspective that only community can provide.

“Refugees that come to us, more often than not, they have nothing but the clothes that they are wearing, maybe a small bag of possessions,” Rottenborn said. “We offer them a change of clothes, change of shoes, whatever they need, with the understanding that they can’t take everything that they want because this is all we got and this is for every guest that we get and we get a lot of guests any given week.”

There’s a routine to the work they perform here, but it’s far from the normal summer job: Each day the students get a text from the director indicating how many people ICE will be bringing to Casa Vides. When the bus arrives, the work begins.

“They get released directly from the detention center to this house with a bunch of murals and words on the walls, and a bunch of white people that don’t really speak Spanish that well,” Brockman said. “It’s a bit jarring but we try to explain, ‘You’re fine now, you’re in a shelter. We’re part of the Church. We’re volunteers. We’re here to help.’”

Brockman sits at a table with pen and paper, interviewing a woman.
Brockman interviews a recently arrived guest at Casa Vides.
Rottenborn stuffs a pillow into a pillowcase inside a room with 'Chico Mendes' on the door.
Rottenborn sets up a room. The rooms are named for human rights and migration rights leaders.

The new guests are shown around, explained the house rules, and taken to the basement where they can select some items from the clothing bank and pantry. The volunteers take down their information and begin making phone calls to sponsors that are in the U.S., notifying them of their loved one’s status and inquiring if they can provide money for bus fare for the rest of the trip.

The job combines aspects of administrative and custodial work. Brockman and Rottenborn help prepare meals, do laundry and clean rooms. They live with the migrants in the way they might at a residence hall: eating together, watching the World Cup together, talking with each other. The kinship they’re building is providing them a different dimension of learning than is found in the classroom setting. This was the gig they signed up for several months ago, anyway.

“With the plight of immigrants in the U.S., it seemed like a good time and good opportunity to go down and learn about it,” Brockman said. “We had no idea how crazy it would get.”

A variety pack of snacks and a box of baby food sit in the pantry.
Guests can select some items from the clothing bank and pantry when they arrive.
Shoes and clothes on racks.
Shoes, clothes and other necessities wait for guests.

Almost immediately after the students arrived, activity ramped up. Not only did the number of guests the house received dramatically increase, but the national attention being paid to immigration increased as well, especially attention paid to the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso. As questions were raised over asylum seekers allegedly being turned away at the border, politicians from Washington came to survey the scene. Brockman and Rottenborn escorted U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) on a visit to a port of entry bridge in El Paso, where people seeking asylum declare their intention to Border Patrol agents.

A short time later—just over 3 weeks into their 10-week stint at Casa Vides—the immigration issue became white hot, with headlines bringing news of the separation of migrant families at the border. Once President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order ending the practice, Casa Vides found itself at the center of the aftermath, when 32 migrant parents (19 men, 13 women) were released from prison and dropped off there in late June. They were believed to be the first group in the nation released from prison after the executive order was signed. Brockman and Rottenborn watched the fallout unfold from up close, working in the organization as it pivoted to contacting social workers and lawyers on behalf of their guests, beginning the process of reunification.

Drawing by a child depicting violence in Honduras.
A drawing by a child depicting violence in Honduras hangs in Casa Vides.

The experiences have been a sort of extra credit for a political science major (Rottenborn) and an economics major (Brockman), who view the additional duties with a touch of trepidation: Not that they mind the extra or unexpected work, but rather that the course of events has made it necessary. As Rottenborn puts it, the debate around immigration quickly polarizes to the detriment of those at the center of it.

“It’s easy to see that there’s a lot of misinformation in the media today in regards to this issue,” he said. “On both sides of the political spectrum, there’s a lot of sensationalizing…(T)he population we’re serving, they’re not the heroes of the economy that some on the left portray them. They’re not the criminals that some on the right portray them as. They’re just people.

“This population that we serve is used a political tool every day,” he said.

Close-up of feet in sandals, with ankle monitor on the right foot.
A recently arrived guest at Casa Vides wears an ICE-issued ankle monitor.
Brockman welcomes a mother and child into the building.
Brockman welcomes new guests at Casa Vides.

The vulnerability of the people who come through Casa Vides is always at the forefront. The stories of the people Brockman and Rottenborn have met within their first month will stay with them a lifetime. Still, they balance the importance of forging community with the necessity of discretion: There are policies that the volunteers must abide by in dealing with the guests, mostly to keep from interfering with due process in their asylum claims. Those claims will be adjudicated by courts’ interpretation of standing law—a policy impacting the course of a human life. (“These people need more help than we can give them,” Rottenborn said.)

The pace of change in policymaking is usually quite slow. Much slower, at least, than the pace of life for those affected by it. In the interim, in the spaces between events and awareness and change, there are opportunities to learn and to serve.

“I think it’s wonderful that the University provides these sorts of experiences,” Rottenborn said. “This summer fills in a cultural gap in knowledge and learning and teaching that you just can’t get on campus.”