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On our very first day of DukeEngage in Chiapas, Mexico, I took a cab back “home” with one of our program leaders, Cathie. She asked me if I had ever been to Mexico before – a casual question, yet it will be forever engrained in my memory because of my naïve response. I replied that no, I had never been to Mexico, but I had been wanting to go to Central and South America for a while.

Cathie quickly addressed the inaccuracy of my statement: “But you know, we’re still in North America.”

And I was immediately embarrassed.

While we were in Chiapas – the southernmost state of Mexico that borders Guatemala – in a city that is less than 100 miles from Central America, we were still in Mexico, and still in North America. Chiapas, my first exposure to Mexico, is so very different from anywhere I have been to in the US – it is surrounded on all sides by luscious, rain-forest-esque mountains; the narrow streets are made of old, gray stone; the shops display a vibrant array of colors; and the sun shines intensely over a calm, walking-paced lifestyle.

I am embarrassed because the novelty of this land and culture caused me to forget that I share an identity with these people and this region – North American. I have never ever considered myself a “North American” – or even thought about my position within this continent – and the past nine weeks have taught me how much of a privilege that ignorance is.

Complicated Powerful Policies

North America – Canada, the United States, and Mexico – engaged in a trade agreement in 1994 that has had enduring consequences, on these three countries and on the millions of inhabitants. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was created to eliminate trade and investment barriers between these three nations to prompt economic growth by increasing competition and investment. While I am still learning about the depth of the impact of this trade policy, there have clearly been detrimental effects that greatly exacerbated growing economic inequalities.

One way that NAFTA devastated Mexican agriculture was through the elimination of the constitutional protection over communal indigenous land. This privatization of native farmland led to displacement and subsequent exploitation of the land, resources, and people. [The Zapatista movement stemmed from this governmental intrusion – which we spent much time learning about during our week in Chiapas.] The Mexican government bought off farmers to create monocultures of crops for biofuel, build dams, and expand mining – ignoring the harmful impacts on the environment and on the 70% of the population left poor and incapacitated. At the same time, U.S. agricultural subsidies made corn (a staple in Mexican culture) cheaper to import than purchase domestically.

Thus, this international free trade protected corporations, ignored economic, environmental, and labor standards, and impoverished millions of Mexican farmers. Meanwhile much of production and employment were relocated to more profitable farms and factories in the U.S., which also had more industrial capacity. Instead of creating a middle class, NAFTA benefited the elite and widened the income gap. The clincher is that at the same time that NAFTA was being drafted, three operations went into effect to increase Border Patrol presence and restrict undocumented immigration. Operation Gatekeeper (in California), Operation Safeguard (in Arizona), and Operation Hold the Line (in Texas) all increased border occupancy to thwart immigration, while NAFTA would soon diminish opportunities in Mexico and push many to migrate north.

Other international free trade policies like DR-CAFTA (in the Dominican Republic and Central America) have had similar effects, and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership has exploitative potential on a much larger scale.

Not only has the U.S. been involved in the Mexican economy, but also in their immigration policing. The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border has extended to the Southern border of Mexico, and all throughout the country. The U.S. not only patrols 100 miles inland from all its borders/coasts (land that includes 2/3 of all American inhabitants), but also extends militarized policing to Mexico and Central America. At the School of the Americas, in Virginia, federal funds from the Department of Defense are being used to train Latin American soldiers to apprehend and deport Central American migrants from Mexico. The U.S. has essentially expanded border patrolling into Mexico, which comes with expanded human rights violations.

Attempting to make sense of it all

Trying to comprehend all of this intentional, institutionalized oppression has been challenging. Not only has the US profited off of exploiting millions of undocumented immigrants, but also the US has largely contributed to their need to migrate.

It’s been unsettling and upsetting. But it’s also been eye-opening and provocative.

I have lived 20 privileged years of never having to truly understand, feel, and confront systematic oppression. The engrained labyrinth of impunity in both Mexican and United States government takes advantage of many, many, many people. While these past months have begun to strip me of my ignorance, I’ve also begun to feel a heaviness in my heart. This heaviness, this increasing awareness of oppression, has been nurtured by daily phone calls with insolent detention center operators, frequent “unidentified unknown” bodies found in the desert (their remains are so decomposed their names and even genders cannot be determined), recurring murders by Border Patrol (who are somehow allowed to not release recorded footage), militarized separation of families all along border communities, countless barriers to education and employment for undocumented U.S. residents, the list goes on and on.

This systematic oppression not only burdens immigrants, but also black lives, queer communities, Muslim-Americans, indigenous people, women, and everyone else who desires equality and freedom and safety and peace.

While this heaviness can be discouraging and overwhelming to everyone working together to fight it, it is an ominous sentiment that I do not want to forget. That I cannot afford to forget. Because although the relentless reminders of the exploitation and subjugation of undocumented migrants are cruel and sickening, they fuel the fire that creates change to restore human rights to people of all colors, nationalities, sexualities, gender expressions, religions…

We are currently living in a nation that is committing murders, violating human rights, and denying freedoms to a minority of inhabitants (a recurring theme in our history). As with all other civil and human rights movements of our country, we must fight for the equal treatment and opportunities for all people – by changing the present immigration system.