Whenever sociology professor Patricia Sánchez-Connally sees pictures of undocumented children being put in detention centers, she can’t help but think of her own experience of coming to the United States as a child herself.
At the age of 11, Sánchez-Connally left her home country of El Salvador with her mother and illegally traveled to the United States to live with relatives.
She said, “That could’ve been me. That could have been my brother. That could have been a family member.”
For Sánchez-Connally, who became a legal citizen seven years ago, immigration is a very personal topic. She is always striving to help those who are in her former situation.
About two years ago, during one of her sociology classes, Sánchez-Connally decided to share an idea she had about volunteering near the Texas/Mexico border.
“I actually had a fellowship four years ago and it was in Texas,” she said. “I talked to a lot of people who were doing work in Texas with unaccompanied children and undocumented migrants. So it became a possibility.”
Junior Sasha Espinoza loved the idea and suggested the group head down to El Paso, Texas, as Espinoza knew the area since she was going to see relatives there during spring break.
What started out just as an idea became a reality, as more students decided they wanted to come along for the trip.
After receiving a grant from FSU’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, fundraising via social media, their GoFundMe page and through a number of other payment methods, five FSU students were able to accompany Sánchez-Connally to El Paso, Texas this past March during spring break.
Four of the five students discussed what they learned during the trip in the Center for Inclusive Excellence last Friday morning.
The students were Espinoza, junior Thaissa Campelo, junior Estefany Gonzalez and sophomore Kevin Peña.
During the trip, the group went to the Border Patrol Museum and visited a number of organizations which provide housing and job support for marginalized low-income immigrants.
While at the museum, the group met with two Border Patrol agents, who discussed the logistics of legally entering the United States.
Gonzalez said the agents claimed 60 percent of people who cross the border are criminals, including rapists, pedophiles and murderers.
However, according to a report from The Migration Policy Institute, only 7.5 percent of undocumented Mexican immigrants have been convicted of a crime and less than 3 percent have been convicted of a felony.
Additionally, the group learned that the chances of refugees seeking asylum from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala or Mexico “are zero to none.
“The way our immigration system is established, the countries that are very frequent to have immigrants coming in are automatically denied,” Gonzalez said. “So, if you are from another country in Europe and you seek asylum, your chances are pretty high.”
Sophomore Kevin Peña noted if a Mexican person wants to come to the United States and doesn’t have family members already living in the country, they had to wait over a century to get in.
Sánchez-Connally said that if a Mexican person wants to become a permanent citizen in a timely manner, they must not only have a relative living in the country, but that family member must have been in this country for 25-plus years, make more than 100,000 dollars, and have a clean record. If they don’t, they have to wait 115 years.
“Let that sink in,” Sánchez-Connally said.
Students also visited Mujer Obrera – a local organization aimed at supporting low-income female garment workers who feel disenfranchised economically as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. While they were there, they heard women workers’ stories firsthand.
Gonzalez said it was “eye-opening” seeing the real effect economic decisions have in affecting the lives of people who make up part of the El Paso community.
She said a single phrase was constantly brought up during their visit – “It’s not immigration, it’s displacement.”
Gonzalez said as a result of jobs being taken out of the country, many factory workers have been left jobless and currently live in unsafe environments.
“They also mentioned how the high schools and middle schools are actually right by the border where all the trucks go by,” she said. “So all the children are smelling in gasses and such.”
Sánchez-Connally said more conversation about immigration needs to occur, as it is a complex topic that is anything but “black or white.”
She added, “The reality is, there are a lot of us out there, but we just don’t talk about it. There isn’t a support system strong enough for us to have these conversations.”