Ontario Program Goes to the Border

by Morissa Zuckerman

Staff Reporter

The border. Photo courtesy of Allison Donine
The border. Photo courtesy of Allison Donine


Participating in the Ontario Program this semester has been a big adjustment for me. I only have classes two days a week and take all of those classes with the same 13 people. Finding time to schedule 15 hours per week at my internship site is entirely up to me, as is creating a research focus and carrying out my research project. These responsibilities, combined with the hundreds of pages of reading per week in addition to extracurriculars and making time for friends and my personal life has forced me to get my time management skills in check. It’s definitely been a bit of a struggle.

But perhaps the most difficult part has been having to confront, again and again, the painful reality of how unjust, exploitative, and truly broken our political and economic systems are. The Ontario Program covers a number of topics including environmental justice, education, homelessness, and immigration, all while situating ourselves within our physical location of the Inland Empire. Examining these issues through a critical and intersectional lens has been incredibly powerful and eye opening, and at some points hard to come to terms with. Many of us are abstractly aware of these injustices, but unless we are forced to confront them we allow them to be pushed to the back of our minds as unpleasant realities that exist in the world, but probably don’t directly affect our everyday lives.

Discussions of privilege go hand in hand with many of these issues. I entered the Ontario Program thinking I understood how race, class, and gender privilege operate, only to realize how many nuances and important pieces I had been missing. Being forced to fully acknowledge and confront my own privilege has been difficult, and at many times very painful and uncomfortable.

Through the Ontario Program’s partnerships with community organizations, we have been able to see firsthand examples of how these inequalities and injustices exist around us. We were able to go on a tour of a huge warehouse in Ontario, which has one of the largest concentrations of warehouses in the whole world and employs thousands of workers with often unsafe and underpaid jobs. Last month, we visited social justice-based organizations in Los Angeles’ Skid Row to learn about homelessness and the housing crisis. And just this past weekend we took a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Spending two days near and at the border was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had, and was definitely the most unusual school trip I have ever been a part of. We heard stories from three people who had migrated to the United States without documentation, and learned about their struggle to stay united with their families and while surviving in a society that labels them as “aliens” and “illegals.” We heard about incredible stories of bravery and hard work, and gained understanding about the United States’ numerous immigration policies that are largely inadequate or that exist primarily to exploit cheap labor. 

We visited Chicano Park in San Diego, a 7.9-acre area located within a largely Mexican American and Mexican-immigrant community. Chicano Park has the largest collection of murals in the entire United States, and is an incredible display and testament to a rich cultural heritage. Murals include representations of Cesar Chavez, Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and hundreds more.

Courtesy of Morissa Zuckerman
Courtesy of Morissa Zuckerman

We then went to see the actual border. Reading about border policy and immigration control in a class is very different than standing on the beach looking through a fence, and talking to the people on the other side. We spoke to a border patrol officer and saw Friendship Park, where separated families are sometimes allowed to congregate and talk through a fence, but only on specific days. Then, as we were leaving, we saw a mother and her daughters approach the boundary to try to meet their grandmother and talk to her through the fence. We saw the border patrol speed down to them in his SUV, and we saw him tell the family that they couldn’t be so close to the fence and that they would have to leave. One of the little girls started screaming and crying, and couldn’t be quieted. She was yelling for her grandmother.

The next day we met up with an organization called Water Station, a non-profit organization founded in 2000. Water Station was in part a reaction to the alarming rise in migrant deaths, resulting from U.S. policies such as Operation Hold-the-Line and Operation Gatekeeper that increased border militarization and strengthened enforcement in the easiest crossing areas, which knowingly and intentionally forced migrants to try to cross in more dangerous and remote areas, leading to more deaths. Water Station puts out water at dozens of locations throughout the Yuma desert to try to “help reduce the heat related death of any individuals crossing the Southern California desert and surrounding areas.” While their website explicitly states that they do not encourage illegal border crossing, the vast majority of people who die in the desert and who are likely to benefit from the water stations are undocumented immigrants.

We spent the morning loading plastic barrels and gallons of water into trucks, and then drove out into the desert to set up the stations. This process involved hauling bulky and heavy barrels, wooden covers, water, and bright blue and orange flags. After setting up only one water station we were already sweating and tired, and feeling the physical strain of the desert heat and dry air. Even though we were only in the desert for a little over four hours and we had an air-conditioned truck to drive us along our route as we got in and out setting up stations, many of us began experiencing the first symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration.

This trip for migrants looks very different. Most migrants who cross the desert on foot are walking for days on end with limited water and without shelter or shade, often carrying belongings and helping children. To us, that kind of journey seemed unimaginable and nearly impossible. At the end of the morning, we came across a pile of rocks constructed in the shape of a cross, marking the place where a migrant had been found dead.

I’m only a 20-year-old college student, and I’ve been studying immigration with the Ontario Program for a total of 2 weeks and 3 days. Our trip to the border was an intensely emotional one, but I’m not going to try to pretend that I have any kind of solution, or suggest some kind of a fix-all policy. Although I realize it is frustrating to hear someone critique a system without presenting any viable alternatives, I think all I can do right now is watch, listen, and learn.

And I hope others will do the same. We all have an obligation to educate ourselves about the injustices in which we are implicit, and hear the perspectives of those who are being exploited because of the way our foreign policy and border boundary is enacted and enforced. I look forward to delving deeper into these issues and having more conversations, and I hope to eventually find a way to take constructive and supportive action. But in the meantime, the things I saw and the stories I heard on this trip weigh heavily on me, and my heart is aching.

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