News News: Hispanic Studies

Borderlands: Students Research Immigration Issues over Spring Break 2009

[By Steve Otto]

On the Mexican side of the Nogales border fence, an art installation titled Paseo of Humanity

Over spring break 2009, Professors Bickham Mendez (Sociology and Latin American Studies) and Tandeciarz (Hispanic Studies) led a research team of eight students to the Tucson/Nogales region  of the U.S.–Mexico border. The pilot project combined interdisciplinary field research, course work, and civic engagement to focus on “border issues”: the political, social, and cultural effects of immigration from Mexico/Central America to the United States.

Participating students co-enrolled in either Hispanic Studies 361 or Sociology 440 and received 1 credit for their work. Borderlinks, a bi-national organization “bringing people together to build bridges of solidarity across North and Latin American borders and to promote intercultural understanding and respect,” acted as institutional host and provided delegation leader Lilli Mann ’07. The project was funded through the Charles Center’s QEP/Mellon grant.


The project team hiked a migrant trail near Arizona’s Lake Arivaca. Along the trail they found evidence of migrants’ night-time passages, including discarded clothes and water bottles.

The Tucson/Nogales region has become one of the most heavily trafficked and perilous crossing points between Mexico and the United States. The W&M group met with humanitarian organizations, customs/border and courtroom officials, and immigration attorneys to gain an understanding of the complexities of immigration issues as they play out on the border and beyond.

On the Mexican side of the border, students and faculty shared meals with migrants who had recently been deported from the United States, and they interviewed migrants preparing to make the treacherous journey across the desert. They learned about the militarization of the border and its human cost, and were guided along one of the desert trails frequented by migrants on their way to the United States. Several of the students posted their field notes to blogs:

This poster, distributed on both sides of the Nogales border by Mexico’s Commission of Human Rights, asks, “Has an authority mistreated you?”

On returning to Williamsburg, the students presented their findings at a community event titled “Crossing Borders in Our Communities: Latino/a Migration and Border Issues.” Included in the audience of about 100 were representatives from area social services, the Network for the Latino People, and various other organizations that work with the local Latino/a community.


Isabelle Cohen ’11 and Amanda Potter ’10 created a photo essay [pdf] about the project. Sewon Chung ’09 and and Katherine Schaller ’11 produced a two-part video documentary and posted it to YouTube.

The professors explore their experiences with this project in another related video.

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