“Painful:” Grad Students, Faculty Visit U.S.-Mexico border

Third-year graduate student Sofia Solorzano said the hardest part was working with the children. “Seeing how they were recovering the sense of childhood,” she said. “Knowing that they have the right to play and laugh, and they don’t have to be quiet.”

These children, who Solorzano and three other students in the master’s in marriage and family therapy program (MFT) spent time playing with, watching and talking to, had just been released from a detention center on the Texas-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas. The children and their families had been stopped and held there for days after travelling for weeks — sometimes months — from Mexico and Central America. The graduate students, along with their professor, Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, were there from July 20-25 to provide support in any way they could. The group served food, handed out clothing, assisted with paperwork and facilitated shower lines.

But their most important job, according to the students, was listening to the experiences of the people they were helping.

“It was the first safe space [the families] were stepping into after being detained, so for quite a few women who I had the chance to interact with, it was an opportunity for them to let out those emotions that were compressed, that were so heavy on their chest,” Solorzano said.

“When I witnessed that, it was painful. It was pretty painful.”

“It was a lot of validation,” third-year graduate student Stephanie Lopez added. “[We were] really validating their experience, because it’s theirs to tell, [and] encouraging them to own their story and not be afraid to share it.”

Hernandez-Arriaga, an assistant professor in the MFT program who organized the trip to Texas, called this work her “research in action.” This was not Hernandez-Arriaga’s first time activating students in a time of crisis. Last spring, she organized an immersion trip to Puebla, Mexico, along with Dr. Daniela Dominguez, a fellow assistant professor in the program. Solorzano and Lopez both went on that immersion trip, during which students worked with children whose families were in the midst of their migration. When reports came in over the summer about families being separated at the border, Hernandez-Arriaga said that the children, whose lives were in flux, were her first concern.  

“I was actually getting calls from students [who went to Puebla] saying, ‘Hey, what are we going to do now?’” Hernandez-Arriaga said.

The answer came from Dominguez and the “McAllen 12,” a group of women who organized a Facebook page to collect over 1,000 pounds of supplies for the undocumented immigrants who had just been released from detention in late June. Dominguez had packed her own car full of donations from family and friends and drove to the border between California and Mexico on June 28, where she handed out donations and put up a banner USF students made for the immigrants. Dominguez, after her experience in California, said she realized “we need to go to where we’re most needed, not [do] what’s convenient.”

Hernandez-Arriaga agreed. “They just had such a need for volunteers on the ground and people that could really care and be in solidarity,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘Well, I have this amazing group of students I’m teaching [who] are studying to be therapists. This is a perfect opportunity.’”

But trips of this scale are not usually planned this quickly by USF.

Kique Bazan, who directs immersion trips through the University Ministry, explained that professors usually need to submit proposals at least a year in advance. For this trip, however, the urgency and the student demand was present, so the school made it happen.

“In [the McAllen trip’s] case, it’s a master’s of family therapy, so they have a specific skill that can really benefit the population that they are working with,” Bazan said, also adding that  because of the large number of immigrant families in the USF community, this was an even more important issue for the school to address. “Immigration is going to touch a nerve,” he said.

Once her proposal was approved, Hernandez-Arriaga worked with Bazan to coordinate the logistics of the trip. Funding came from the School of Education, the Arrupe Immersion Program funds and a private grant from the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation.

Solorzano said she is ready to continue to be of help in any way necessary. “Going in with an open mind, if things have changed and if things are functioning differently then we’re going to adjust to them because we’re there to attend to what the expectations of them are, for how we can serve.”

Solorzano said she knew she had wanted to work with community mental health, specifically in immigration, but did not know what that would look like until this trip.

“Oftentimes we see [immigrants] in our communities, but you don’t see the whole story of how they journeyed to get here; you hear their story but you don’t actually get to witness it,”

Hernandez-Arriaga said. “For our students to be able to literally witness day one [of an immigrant’s life in this country]… as they become clinicians they are going to be so ready to work with this population.”

Solorzano said the experience was not intended for her benefit, but for the people she interacted with. “It really informed my future practices within community mental health, but that was more of a bonus than was a given,” Solorzano said. “My purpose there was to be there, to be present.”

The season has changed, but the issue of migration persists.

In November, thanks to an additional donation from a USF alumna, Hernandez-Arriaga, Dominguez and their students will return to McAllen, Texas to continue their service. This time around, they will be joined by two students from the College of Arts and Sciences master’s in migration program and Dr. David Martinez from the doctorate of clinical psychology program.

“We couldn’t just go there, see things, and leave,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. The upcoming trip will be nearly the same as the trip to McAllen. Hernandez-Arriaga and her students will be collecting donations through October and November. They leave on Nov. 29.

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