Fresno State students volunteer at Tijuana border

Courtesy James Borduna

A total of 39 Fresno State social work students took a three-day trip accompanied by faculty members in October to the United States-Mexico border in Tijuana, where they learned about human rights and immigration policies.

The volunteer trip was from Oct. 17 to Oct. 19 and only open to individuals from the social work department. It was made possible through instructionally related activities funds, the National Association of Social Work and the Department of Social Work Education. 

Dr. Marcus Crawford, assistant professor for the social work department, organized the trip, along with Dr. Dheeshana Jayasundara, associate professor for the social work department; Randy Nedegaard, associate professor for the social work department; and Travis Cronin, assistant professor for the social work department.

Before embarking on their trip, the group held a donation drive. They were able to gather clothing, shoes, toiletries, non-perishable foods, medical supplies and blankets from the community. 

“We definitely appreciate the support that we got from the Fresno State community. There were people from all over campus that were bringing donations to my office,” Crawford said.

Fresno State fraternity Nu Alpha Kappa, or NAK, donated various supplies. Planned Parenthood of Fresno also contributed with hygiene supplies. 

On their first day, the group met with Birdie Gutierrez, a community activist who provides supplies, donations and needed items to migrants when they first arrive to Tijuana and are seeking asylum.

All of the donations were split between Gutierrez’s organization and the Border Angels, an entirely volunteer-based network that advocates for human rights.

The students partnered with the Border Angels on the second day of their trip to deliver food and water to those seeking work outside of a Home Depot. 

Later that day, they participated in a water drop, in which each volunteer carried at least two 1-gallon water jugs and placed them throughout the desert along high-traffic migrants paths.

“Not only did they [the students] get to save people’s lives, but they also got opportunities to kind of go in and realize what it’s like to cross [the border,]” Jayasundara said. 

Some students felt a connection as they visited the border because they have had parents or family members cross. 

“The experience that I got from the border trip was a sense of what my dad went through, what my grandparents went through and what a lot of people are going through at this specific moment,” said Eva Perez, a social work undergraduate student. 

Perez said she had a great experience by being there in person and not just seeing what is portrayed on TV or on social media. 

“This motivated me to start my own agency,” Perez said. “I think if I wouldn’t have gone for that trip if I wouldn’t have gotten the experience that I got, I wouldn’t be motivated to actually do something about it.”

She hopes to create a nonprofit organization providing services and donations to migrants and asylum seekers.

As the group of students and faculty walked through the desert, they came upon items, such as ripped clothes, shell casings, medicine and children’s toys. 

“It was powerful,” Nedegaard said. “It’s unclear when you see shell casings from bullets, you   wonder what’s that all about?”

Nedegaard recalls seeing water bottles shot and slashed as they walked through the desert. He said it was tough to see because dehydration is the leading cause of death for people crossing. 

More than 11,000 people have died over the years from dehydration while crossing over, according to the Border Angels. 

“And if somebody goes in slashing a water bottle, essentially what they’re saying is that we’d rather risk you dying then have you cross,” Nedegaard said. “That’s not a partisan thing, and that’s really powerful to see that people are so passionate about this. And they would rather have people risk dying.”

Nereida Zarate, an undergraduate social work student, felt heartbroken to see the amount of bullets in the desert. 

“I was like, ‘Why?’ I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to sleep at night because knowing that there’s all these bullets scattered around the floor of the border, like there was no way you would miss them,” Zarate said. “I think the highlight was being able to leave the water and leave knowing that you can possibly be saving someone’s life.”

Jayasundara said one of the border officials told them crossing the border is considered a misdemeanor.

The group was also told by the Border Angels that women are now taking birth control pills and are advised to take contraceptives when they’re crossing because it is anticipated they might be raped.

“And then you hear the rhetoric about calling these people invaders. And you go there and you see what they’re up against,” Nedegaard said. “It’s ridiculous to think of them as invaders when you see what they’re up against.”

Jayasundara and Crawford were able to visit shelters in Mexico but weren’t able to take students for safety purposes. 

“It was a very powerful to see the shelters.” Crawford said. “Poverty like I’ve never seen it.”

They described the room to be very small with at least 75 people living in it. 

“One shelter was essentially just tarps to make walls, there were no real walls. It was not a structure at all, and it was just mattresses laying on the ground,” Crawford said.  

These shelters house families who are seeking asylum and are waiting to enter the United States. The process can take up to months or even years.

Because of the long and tiring wait, temptation awaits at crossing the dry desert. 

“They decided that the risk of coming across the desert is a risk they would rather take than wait for a year, year and a half in Tijuana and not know what’s going to happen,” Crawford said. 

Despite the dire situations, the professors saw hope through one shelter that is unlike any others. 

The first shelter in Mexico to be built by migrants themselves. 

The group of migrants partnered with different people, music groups and fundraised to make the housing possible. The professors were able to attend the opening. 

“I think we criminalize people, when we should be looking at the resilience,” Jayasundara said. “If we can take that resilience, that courage, that talent and then build communities from the ground up, we can bring immigrants here, and we can integrate. Have programs instead of spending billions on criminalizing people so that we actually put that money to build resources in the communities where there is violence going on.”

Romyna Teale, an undergraduate social work student, was humbled by the experience and feels that others should give back. 

“I feel like people should really be out there and actually try to help others, like even in Fresno, people can make a difference by just simply feeding the homeless,” Teale said. 

This was the first trip made to the border by the department. The next visit is expected to be in the spring semester.

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