On the U.S.-Mexico border with Aspen area students and World Leadership School | AspenTimes.com

On the U.S.-Mexico border with Aspen area students and World Leadership School

Michelle Skagen
For the Aspen Times Weekly

The six students who traveled to the border with World Leadership School will share their experiences and pictures in an Aspen Chapel service on Aug. 18 at 9:30 a.m. All are welcome. The Chapel will host local service opportunities and experiences, open to interested students throughout the valley, this fall.

Every day there is a new article or story about immigration and the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border. Depending on one’s media source, the news regarding this complex issue either fuels existing fears, increases anger, polarizes people or deepens feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Our attitudes about immigration are shaped by our own life experience and the information we choose to consume, which typically reinforces our opinions. But what has become a political issue is actually a human issue that’s afflicting countries all over the world due to changing climates, dysfunctional economies and corrupt governments.

Within this mass migration of people are individual stories. No matter where we stand in regards to policy, if we knew each person and his or her story, this would cease to be a political combat zone and would instead become a massive humanitarian challenge in need of creative solutions.

Two years ago, for my second trip as a World Leadership School instructor, I was sent to El Paso, Texas, to facilitate a border immersion program and leadership curriculum with a group of students from Rye, New York. I had no idea what I was getting into, and was preoccupied with what team-building games we would play and where I would fit learning sessions into the tight schedule with this group of high school students. But as soon as I arrived at the Catholic retreat center where we would stay, I was invited to a press conference for a man whose wife was being deported after being detained for a month in El Paso. They came to the U.S. in 1998 with their 4-year-old son to flee drug violence in Colombia. Their application for asylum was denied four years after they arrived, but they continued to build a life in Las Cruces, New Mexico, had another child, and developed roots in their schools, church and volunteer efforts until May 9, 2017, shortly after the Trump administration promised to deport not only undocumented people with criminal histories, but also those with clean records.

Interacting with Jorge Taborda and holding him as he cried was heart-wrenching. Holding his hands and seeing the pain in his son’s eyes put a human face on what had been a distant issue for me as a mother of two from Boulder County. After experiencing the border and meeting so many people and hearing their stories, I realized the only way to develop an informed position on such a critical issue is to get close to it with an open mind and heart, whether you’re meeting face-to-face with an undocumented person, a judge who issues deportation orders, or a border patrol agent.

In November 2018, I was hired as youth coordinator at the Aspen Chapel, but was still serving as a contract instructor for World Leadership School. Since my life was completely transformed by a travel experience when I was 17, I’ve always been drawn to work that allows me to facilitate service-based travel for young people. It seemed appropriate to partner these two organizations together that are devoted to personal transformation and to create an experience around this critical and relevant issue, especially since the success of our local economy in the Roaring Fork Valley is supported by the hard work and long hours of people who have made the impossible choice to leave their roots in Mexico and Central America for a more promising future here.

World Leadership School typically works with private schools, and they maintain relationships with faculty through repeat visits to communities around the world. Aspen Country Day School goes to Peru each summer with World Leadership. It was my dream to create an open-enrollment program for students from a variety of schools in the Roaring Fork Valley who could bring different perspectives to the group and to the border experience.

After weeks of reaching out to local high schools, meeting interested students, exchanging numerous emails and working with World Leadership School in an unconventional way as an instructor and chaperone, we ended up with a group of six girls representing Aspen High School, Basalt High School and Colorado Rocky Mountain School. It wasn’t until June when we departed for Denver in a minivan that these students met as a group. Building trust within the group was critical in order to have productive discussions about such a contentious, multifaceted topic.

Our border immersion experience was curated by an NGO called the Border Servant Corps, which is devoted to education and service in the borderlands. Due to the expense of this trip and the very small window we had to plan, we only had five days in El Paso and Las Cruces. In order to conduct meaningful service and build real connections, it’s ideal to have two weeks, but due to the intense nature of the program we still managed to learn a lot, hear multiple perspectives and build bonds within the group.

First we met Carlos Marentes, who works as the executive director at the Sin Fronteras Farm Workers Center, providing hot meals, a place to sleep and showers for farm workers. They also partner with University of Texas at El Paso Medical School to provide free health evaluations. As a former farm worker himself, he is a strong advocate for fair labor practices and organic farming. He pointed to an area at the port of entry, just below the bridge over the Rio Grande where people stood for hours waiting to plead their cases with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. On the American side of the bridge behind barbed-wire fences were make-shift tents that had been recently erected after weeks of no sun protection for asylum seekers.

Next we visited the Diocesan Migrant & Refugees Services, an immigration legal aid clinic, where a lawyer explained how difficult it is to win an asylum case or to obtain legal residency. The facts were sobering, shedding light on the reasons people over-stay their visas and cross between the ports of entry. We also met with a doctor who offers free medical services to whoever enters her clinic in Juarez, Mexico. As a devout Catholic and someone who paid her way through medical school, she believes health care should be available to everyone. She crosses from El Paso to Juarez every day to fulfill her mission.

We shared lunch with a woman who is a legal citizen from Mexico, but who lived here illegally for years to access hospitals for her terminally ill daughter. She risked everything to get care that was unavailable in Juarez to extend her daughter’s life. We also visited an undocumented family on a colonia, which is a devastatingly poor, unincorporated makeshift community that lacks basic infrastructure and services. There are many colonias along the borderlands. The family members shared their difficult story of coming here to give their children an education and a community free of extreme violence. According to current immigration law, these hardworking, religious, family-oriented people are felons.

We met families who were staying at a hospitality center after being processed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They were lucky enough to stay together as families, and were awaiting travel to their family sponsors who will house them until their court dates. These families have a 2% chance of winning their asylum cases in court. Their court dates are expected to occur in one to two years, depending on the backlog. These interactions were very meaningful to our students, who found common ground playing soccer with the children. We also met with an author and her husband, who run a small bookstore that donates Spanish and bilingual literature to refugees.

One of the most impactful interactions we had was with Border Patrol officials. We met beside the border fence separating El Paso from Juarez. What surprised the students was the humanity and compassion that emanated from these individuals who are husbands and fathers who joined the Border Patrol out of a love for the rule of law, its enforcement and their patriotic duty. They keep a close watch on drug cartels, which control many regions in Mexico, including Juarez and surrounding areas, creating a terrifying existence for many Mexican citizens and refugees from Central America. They expressed embarrassment and shame when they discussed the recent policy changes that have occurred on the border.

Finally we attended deportation proceedings in U.S. District Court. There were 10 to 20 people who appeared in front of the judge at once in the two hearings we saw. They appeared in court with handcuffs and chains around their ankles, having come from private detention centers that make $126 to $182 in taxpayer dollars per day per detainee. If they have entered illegally once, they are charged with a misdemeanor and deported. If they have crossed a second time, they are prosecuted as felons. This was an intense and difficult way to end our trip, leaving the students with wrenching questions as they returned to their lives here in an area rich with opportunity.

This trip impacted our students on many levels, which will take years to process. They all expressed gratitude for what they have, what’s available to them, and for their families who have all made great sacrifices for their education. Two students expressed a desire to spend three weeks in El Paso to provide more service to organizations desperate for help. One student shared how passionate she is about experiential education, and hopes her school will incorporate it in the future. Other students shared a new understanding for the great challenges newcomers to our valley are facing and how it impacts their experiences in school and family life. Finally, all six girls developed close bonds and friendship.


I don’t think I will ever forget the people we met on the border and the stories they told us. They made me appreciate everything I have and made me thankful to be living the life I was given. I can see how fortunate I am to have both of my parents here with me and for being able to accomplish great things with their help. I work hard to show that their struggles were not in vain. Being the daughter of immigrants means you have to learn to interpret as soon as you learn English. It’s about helping your parents in any way possible because they sacrificed everything so their children could have a better life and better opportunities than they did.

Listening to the story of one of the undocumented families we met confirmed everything I have ever felt and learned about this issue. They struggled to stay together as a family through violence in Mexico, health problems with their children, and the challenges that come when a family member is deported. Family will always be there for you no matter what situation you’re in and your parents will always try to help you to the best of their abilities.

Talking to Border Patrol and going to court was definitely very scary for me because all my life I have tried to avoid them, not because I have done anything wrong, but because they are strong people with strong mindsets trying to do a very hard job, and going to talk to them on purpose was something that was hard for me. I definitely did learn a new perspective and a new respect the difficult job they have, but it also made me stronger in how I feel about how terrible the conditions are on the border.

Going to the deportation hearings was my first time in court. Witnessing people, including kids my age, handcuffed and going through that process definitely made me think twice about everything. It made me feel sad because we knew more or less what was going to happen to them. It made me think of what could have happened to me if life dealt me different cards. Seeing what people go through in court definitely made me look up to people my age who have had the courage to risk everything to come to the United States for a chance at a better life.

— Gabriela Silva, Basalt High School

It is almost impossible to choose which experience changed me the most. We did so many impactful things that made me feel so whole and grateful; like playing soccer with refugee kids, watching a prosecution of multiple immigrants take place in under 20 minutes, speaking with and hearing the stories immigrant families have gone through just to live in safety, or to speak to Border Patrol agents with open minds. Each of these experiences opened my mind in a different way, each unique, and each important. Playing soccer with the kids made me happy to be free, to be an athlete, and share a passion with anyone around the world. Playing soccer showed me I can have a connection with someone even if we don’t share anything else in common. Immigration court opened my eyes to the real-life situations these immigrants go through, how the law works and how it should be changed. In hearing personal stories from immigrants themselves, I became more sympathetic and allowed myself to listen without expectations or the images that I had associated with an immigrant from the news. Lastly, in talking with the Border Patrol I gained awareness, information, and a bit of wisdom. In hearing the facts straight from the source, I am now able to create my own opinion instead of having to decide between Fox News and CNN. The most important aspects I learned from the trip would be gratefulness, knowledge, awareness, sympathy, drive, sadness and happiness.

The best way for someone to help this situation is to research and learn everything about the subject from different perspectives. You cannot help if you don’t know what exactly you are trying to help and that comes with knowledge. This trip gave me knowledge and now it is my turn to share that knowledge so that other people can begin to help as well.

— Nicole Peirson, Colorado Rocky Mountain School

We split the world into pieces and called them countries. We claimed ownership over something that never belonged to us. We created barriers where barriers should have never been, but migration has always been something that comes naturally to humans regardless. No one chooses to migrate away from home unless home is a gun pointed at your head threatening to kill you and your family. No parent would put their child in so much danger if they didn’t believe that by leaving home they might find a better life.

As we heard the stories of immigrants in and around El Paso, we learned more and more reasons why they chose to face death in the desert and why it was important for them to take the journey. Yet here we are, convicting them as criminals for trying. By coming they are sacrificing a part of themselves and trying to integrate themselves into another culture because they have been told they can have a chance here. So why, why are we turning away from immigrants? Why are we letting people die in their desperate attempt to survive? If America is so great, why do we turn away when we need to lend a hand? By turning people away at the border and by creating a more dangerous situation for thousands of people, we are not living up to their idea of a great country that could offer them a second chance.

– Carla Soto Michelle Guerrero, Basalt High School

Everything we did in El Paso opened my eyes to new pieces of life in this world. During our short trip, we visited the farm workers union and climbed to the roof of the building, where we could see the ports of entry, the bridges across the fence. In the center of these bridges were canvas tents, where the U.S. Border Patrol decided who could and who could not cross the bridge. In Juarez, on the Mexican side of the border, the bridge was covered by thin fabric, and filled with people in a line spilling into the streets. On the American side, in El Paso, a red, metal, roof shaded people’s heads as a steady stream walked into the U.S. I was shocked by how many people were at just one port of entry, and more than that, how most of the people were entering legally. The term “illegal immigrant” is, in most cases, a falsehood. The only crime in immigration is crossing between ports of entry, and all these people who’ve been deemed “illegal” did everything right. I had always assumed most people crossed the border, and that it was a crime we should forgive, but in reality, there’s nothing to forgive because there’s no crime.

In the media, immigrants are broken down into categories: criminals, refugees, aliens, illegals, and dangers. The situation has been oversimplified to the point of being meaningless. We need to stop and re-evaluate how we see the people entering our country in search of a better future.

— Tilly Swanson, Aspen High School

Michelle Skagen is youth coordinator for the Aspen Chapel and instructor for World Leadership School.

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