Every other year since 2012, Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Johnson’s class, Borders and Border Crossings, has visited a bollard wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. This year, the wall had seen some additions: It was wrapped in hoops of razor wire, and a waist-high wall was installed a few paces in front.
“Those particular additions are not making it more difficult for people to come across,” said Johnson. “What our government’s done is add infrastructure that prevents activists from getting close to the border wall and holding vigils.”
The activist group School of the Americas Watch holds an annual vigil where participants on either side of the border link hands between the wall’s slats and give speeches. Borders and Border Crossings is a bi-annual sociology course dealing with the role borders play in a global society.
It was really surreal,” Emma Steinert, one of Johnson’s students, said. “We were at the border of Nogales, someone was shot by a border patrol officer through that wall, so we saw right where his memorial is, where he was shot. That was such a powerful moment, after reading the news article in class, to be standing right there.”
Although in previous years coursework dealt with border crossing across the globe, Johnson, who was employed as a social worker in Mexico for several years and has done extensive research on social movements in the country, has shifted the class’s focus to the contemporary relationship between the United States and Central and South America. For several years, the class has included an eight-day trip to Tucson, Arizona and several towns in the Mexican state of Sonora, where students conducted field research on Central and South American immigration.
On returning, some members of this year’s class felt they had not done enough. “It felt not right, like we were leaving something unfinished,” Steinert said. “Professor Johnson did talk to us after, the point of this trip is not to go in and do any sort of service, the whole point of this trip was to learn.” Steinert clarified that she did not believe any of the students could provide more help in the areas they visited than the paid workers who were already there. Instead, members of the class have pushed to establish a student group addressing immigration, on the advice of some of the activists they met on their trip. The group would fundraise for immigration causes, host educational events and work with the local migrant community. At the time of printing, the group has sent out an email to the student body gauging interest.
“I think more than half the class is interested in changing their career paths,” said Steinert, who might be working with the group the Ajos Samaritans in Arizona over the summer. According to Johnson, many of her students have gone on to do social work on the border. “It really has made a difference in some students’ lives,” Johnson said, “and that’s really all it takes for me to want to continue to teach the course.”