Students tour WA, study immigration issues

by Christina Russell

With the October break approaching, one group of Whitties is sacrificing opportunities to catch up on sleep and homework in order to educate themselves on the immigration debate in Eastern Washington.

Entitled “The Border in our Backyard: The Immigration Debate in Eastern Washington,” this project received funding through the Mellon Diversity Grant. “Immigration is one of the most controversial political issues,” said project coordinator Laura Hansen, “and it’s especially relevant in our community because it reveals vast disparities in access to public resources, social tensions between different economic and racial groups, and prompts serious questions about our responsibilities to a group of people who are marginalized in our society.” Hansen has worked as a coordinator with Laura Fletcher and Sophie Kittler alongside politics professor Bobrow-Strain to make this trip possible.

Inspiration for The Borders in our Backyard is rooted in several experiential learning programs that have been made available to Whitman students in the past through the Politics department. Last May a group traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border where students garnered a multifaceted perspective on the opinions and tensions intrinsic to the immigration debate.

Students toured maquiladoras, which are U.S. owned factories in Mexico, and shared meals with local workers. They interviewed workers’ rights activists, U.S. immigration government workers, the border patrol, religious leaders and Mexicans attempting to cross the border and even walked the Sonora desert in order to understand what many Mexicans endure in order to reach the United States.

After returning from the border trip, students felt it was important for their fellow Whitties to confront the reality that immigration is not an issue solely dealt with on international borders but rather is one serving to define Walla Walla and the greater Eastern Washington community. “Immigrants support many of our local farms, providing a large labor supply for agricultural business that is so important to this area,” said Borders in our Backyard participant Andrea Miller.

“Most farms in the Walla Walla valley couldn’t function without immigrant labor,” said Hansen, “but immigrants often suffer from discriminatory implications that they are ‘stealing Americans’ jobs.’ This kind of rhetoric is directly contrary to economic realities and the American values that I personally think we should espouse when we talk about ideals of citizenship and democracy.”

The Borders in our Backyard group is composed of 18 students, three coordinators and Professor Bobrow-Strain. They will begin in Walla Walla on Saturday, Oct. 7 and proceed to visit Granger, Yakima, Sunnyside, the Tri Cities, Broetje and Hermiston. Throughout the course of their trip they will participate in community events and hear a series of speakers that will familiarize them on the components of immigration in Washington. Speakers include Andrew Dankel-Ibanez and Victor Chacon, professors at Walla Walla Community College.

Selection has already been made for the October break Borders in our Backyard trip; however, students “should know that there will be a lot of programming for the entire year,” said Hansen. Specifically, the Mellon Grant will be funding a series of relevant lectures in the spring.

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