Sometimes we learn a lot more than we expect to from the kids that we’re supposed to be teaching.
And so it was during my visit to Kate Gannon’s audio/ visual production class at UTEP – The University of Texas, El Paso.
I was asked to speak to the young students about my career in journalism, radio and podcasting. But during our 90 minutes together, I’m pretty sure these smart, switched-on students gave me something of much greater value than I was able to share with them.
The majority of the undergrads at UTEP are Mexican-Americans. Many come from poor families and struggle to keep up with tuition. But thanks to this school and its visionary President, Diana Natalicio (named to the TIME list of the world’s 100 most influential people), they’re on the up escalator.
That’s true of this class. Some come from the city of Juarez, which shares the same crowded valley as El Paso – just across the Mexican border.
Their stories of what they must do to get to campus are moving. One young woman told me about her friend from Juarez, who wakes up at 5 a.m. each day, rides three buses and makes a time-consuming trip across the border to make a 10 a.m. class.
Armed with the right documents, you can walk across the bridge from Juarez. But going to a job, a University class or visiting a family member isn’t nearly as easy as it once was. And if Donald Trump gets his way, it could get much more difficult.
Another young Mexican in Ms. Gannon’s class burns with irritation over how Jaurez is portrayed by the media. After graduating, she wants to do something to change perceptions of her home town.
“It’s nothing like what they say,” she says, speaking of Juarez’s stark reputation for murderous drug gang violence. Another student tells the story of a young Italian man who fell in love with a woman from Juarez and moved there.
“He says he feels safer in Juarez than he did in Italy.”
Perhaps the crime statistics tell a different story. And there’s no doubt that the gangs are still a malevolent force in Jaurez and many other parts of Mexico.
But a city or a country is more than numbers or abstract concepts. It is the sum of its people, its families, workers, grandparents and students. The vast majority of Mexicans shares the same hopes for a better tomorrow as we do. Dreams don’t stop at the border.
For far too long, Mexicans have been considered “the other.” The U.S. immigration debate needs to be reframed. As with Canadians, Mexicans are our neighbors. We are all North Americans together.
In this bilingual city, the people on the other side of the valley are not “them.” They are “us”. More than three-quarters of the residents in El Paso are of Mexican descent. This region has the largest bilingual-binational work force in the Western Hemisphere.
None of this means the border should be forgotten or that U.S. immigration law can be flouted. Those who are here illegally should face deportation or other penalties.
But both countries need to have an understanding of their shared history. Since 2007, the border flow has changed dramatically. More Mexicans are leaving than coming to the U.S.
One gesture that could send a powerful message and change the conversation: The next President should come here, walk across the bridge to Jaurez, arm-in-arm with civic and business leaders from both cities and speak of our shared humanity.