Oberlin Blogs

Students and Samaritans

February 1, 2009

Alice Ollstein ’10

Today, all six members of my program went to a voluntary meeting for Samaritans, one of the several local organizations that drives through key points in the desert to give water, food and first aid to migrants. Everyone at the meeting was either a college student or a retiree (the two groups that have the time and resources to do such work, I suppose) and it seemed that people had come for pretty diverse reasons--political, humanitarian, etc. One man said he was moved to join Samaritans because he had just been in the hospital for dehydration and didn't want anyone to go through what he had been through.

The presenters explained the current situation: Border Patrol initiatives like Operation "Hold the Line" in Texas (note the military jargon, characterizing migrants as an invading enemy) and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego haven't deterred migrants from crossing, but have instead forced them into the dangerous deserts of Arizona, where they have to walk anywhere from two to five days before getting picked up. The presenter explained why such "operations" haven't reduced the number of people attempting to cross: "It's not like, 'I want a better job.' It's like, 'My kids only eat every other day.' " According to the organization, more than 2,000 men, women, and children have died trying to cross since 1998. There's an illuminating and thoroughly depressing documentary called "Crossing Arizona" if anyone's interested.

Another speaker explained what we might see on a day with them in the desert, everything from migrants with badly blistered feet and severe dehydration to a group of 20 or 30 migrants being detained by a single Border Patrol officer. "You might wonder how one person can make 20 or 30 people obey him," said the presenter. "It's because an act of terror probably happened before you got there." In that case, you hope that the officer lets you give food and water to the detainees, and lets you talk to them and ask if they're okay or need medical attention.

The group explained that they practice civil initiative, not civil disobedience, and thus cannot break the law by giving a migrant a ride. For some bizarre reason, letting a migrant use your cellphone to call his or her family is also illegal. But they do just about everything the law allows them to do, though they say the most important thing of all is simply being an advocate and a witness.

We've been talking a lot on my program about service work--whether it's better to directly help migrants through programs like Samaritans or do policy work that makes sure they aren't suffering in the first place, and what is the right attitude to have. We all share a mutual distaste for programs that send rich, U.S. to impoverished places so they can foist a project on the locals, then leave after two weeks feeling great about themselves. We're especially grappling with this as we prepare for our trip to Mexico. I hope that the more I learn (both academically and experientially) the closer I can come to finding a meaningful, beneficial way to serve those in need.

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