UP students in the Arizona desert

Renee Ambacher (back row, second from left) was among the University of Portland students who spent their spring break learning about the plight of migrants in Arizona.Photo by Melissa Boles, University of Portland



By Renee Ambacher
Student Guest Columnist

I didn’t spend my spring break with my family, and I didn’t spend it tanning on a beach; instead, I took my head and my heart on a trip and spent a week learning about the immigration issues facing our country.

Why would I want to do such a thing? I know I speak for myself and other trip participants when I say that education requires firsthand learning. Previous trips to Baja California had piqued my interest in Mexico-U.S. immigration, and I felt like I could not truly understand these issues until I went to the source.

Myself and 20 others from the University of Portland decided that during our spring break we wanted to learn more about our country and the injustices occurring toward others. The University of Portland offers a one week trip, called the Border Plunge, to Tucson, Ariz., for students to experience what is occurring at our border. We asked for our eyes and our minds to be opened. Our request was granted.

During our week we met all sorts of amazing people, from undocumented students fighting for fair tuition prices to a man who has been deemed a terrorist by his own native tribe for simply creating water stations for dehydrated immigrants. We heard harrowing tales such as the account of a man who was left behind by a coyote and his group only to die under the harsh desert conditions. We also spent a frustrating two hours listening and attempting to politely negotiate with members of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) whose viewpoints differed greatly than ours.

Yet despite the constant frustration and sorrow we felt, there were great moments of joy. One such moment occurred when we met a woman named Shura, who in her retirement had founded an organization dedicated to helping immigrants. While she led us on a desert walk, an amazing experience for us to see firsthand what immigrants face in their travel, several of us spotted two people walking in the distance. Before any of us could even react Shura had begun running through the cacti and other thorny bushes yelling, “¡Somos amigos!” —“We are friends! We are here to help you!”

While the wanderers just turned out to be a couple on a stroll, the intensity of the moment and the amazing demonstration of a woman whose body was much frailer than ours was a moment I will keep forever. Throughout that morning she had spoken to us of the dangers of the desert and the importance of stepping carefully, yet the instant she thought she was needed, she took off running without a care to her own safety. I know I speak for all of my fellow travelers when I say this woman immediately became a role model in my life.

So what did we take back? In a few words: pain, frustration, anger, and sorrow, yet also hope. Our week of learning only led to more questions as we wondered, “How will this change?” and, “How can I create change?”

The initial answer is that we now have the strength of knowledge. We are ready to face and educate others who may disagree with our positions. With our attained information we can answer confidently to those who question us.

I mentioned before that despite all the negative feelings we felt, we also felt hope. For me this hope arrived a night before we left when our guide, Manuel, sat down and discussed his life and situation with us. When one of the group members asked Manuel how he dealt living with the violence in Nogales, he said something I found intriguing: “It is what it is.” The point he went on to make was that it was not his job to change the violent atmosphere but instead to change his outlook. He suggested to us that by changing our attitudes we could bring change to the minds of others. We should not try to change others without first changing ourselves.

My first week back after the trip was difficult, and I could see this reflected in other participants as well. I felt overly emotional, yet I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions I was feeling.

Ultimately, I have kept Manuel’s words at heart. While I cannot force others to change, and I cannot force the U.S. to change the immigration policies that I find so unjust, I can adapt my attitude. I can be an example to others of indiscriminate love. Through such an example and through my new understanding, I hope to influence the minds of others in the future.

Together we can reform our immigration system and make human rights and dignity of the highest importance.

Renee Ambacher will be starting her junior year at the University of Portland in the fall. She is double majoring in political science and Spanish with the intent of one day attending law school and eventually working on immigration legislation. Her dream career would be working as a political writer for media sources such as NPR or Al Jazeera.