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American Studies seminar includes trip to border wall, view of U.S.-Mexico divisions, issues

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

LAWRENCE — President Donald Trump's long-promised border wall with Mexico won't be complete anytime soon, and in recent weeks he has mentioned a potential government shutdown in order to get a deal with Congress in place for its construction.

A group of University of Kansas students in an American studies seminar recently visited one part of the border wall already in place between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

"One goal was to have our students see the existing wall and have some sense of the distress of the neighborhoods on the opposite side," said Ruben Flores, associate professor of American studies, who took the students on the trip last November. "Then it becomes very clear why people take the chance to come into the United States."

Flores took one graduate student and seven undergraduate students to El Paso and Juárez in what he hopes will become a regular seminar course.

The day they reached the physical border left the strongest impression on the students after the long drive and a semester spent reading and discussing issues surrounding the physical barrier of the wall and the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

They encountered Mexican children playing on the other side of the fence. It appeared to be a poor area with little to no running water.

"It was hard to imagine what it was like until you physically saw it," said Angelina Robledo, a Wichita junior. "I had built up an image of what it was going to look like to see it. I was really shocked, and we talked about if you were living on the opposite side where you'd be able to physically see the city and into the other side of the wall. You're so close to it, but there's nothing you can do about it."

Vanessa Traeder, a German exchange student studying at KU that semester, said coming from Europe she compared it with the conditions and dangers of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.

"With children living in small shacks, with no electricity or running water, the difference was unbelievable," she said. "All of those people were enduring those conditions with the hope to hopefully soon be able to cross the border. For me, it is a contradiction in itself that officials let all this happen."

Flores, an intellectual and cultural historian originally from El Paso, said it was important for him to have students see the border for themselves. In the debate over immigration policy and the U.S. relationship with Mexico, many people often ask why Latin Americans seek to enter the United States instead of staying home.

Yet the rigid separation has a flip side, as well. Mexico and the United States may be separated by a wall, but they are also linked together by U.S. Highway 54, which traverses New Mexico and directly connects El Paso and Mexico to Wichita and beyond.

The trip traced the migration routes of immigrant Mexicans who travel into the United States along U.S. 54, many to Kansas, including those who settle in Kansas cities where meat-packing and agricultural jobs are vital to the Midwestern economy.

"We think of Kansas as the heartland, with Nebraska and the Dakotas, but it's very clear that the border has moved northward," Flores said. "Kansas is integrated and global now. In such contexts, the wall raises questions that we considered in class throughout the semester. Are we as remote from Mexico as we think? Or is Mexico part and parcel of what Kansas is now?"

The wall proposed by Trump functions more as a metaphor that reflects economic and cultural tensions in the U.S.-Mexico relationship than as a realistic policy alternative that can address those tensions, Flores said.

The wall appears to offer a solution, but it cannot address the larger questions of political economy and domestic practice that Trump seems to promise, Flores said.

As part of the course, the students also discussed a central critique that the unfamiliarity that many Mexicans and Americans have of one another's societies intensifies disagreements about the necessities of the border wall.

Robledo, who has Mexican heritage, said the trip and the course were important to her, and she hopes at least the added political tension surrounding immigration policy and the U.S. relationship with Mexico might spur changes that might open up the border more rather than close it with a more complete wall.

"It's so difficult of a process for people to come here to get a visa, to get residency," she said. "The process takes too long."

Flores said his goal during the course was not to demonize hardline supporters of a border wall because he wanted students to understand the complicated process of its construction. However, much of the discussion centered around the idea that a wall — if ever constructed — likely wouldn't help solve some of the economic issues that many Trump supporters have pointed to as reasons for wanting the barrier.

"It's a stand-in. It's a substitute for any meaningful solution to the problems," Flores said. "People are suffering economically much more than they were in 1975 or 1980, and the wall is not going to solve that by putting more money into people's retirement systems, for example."

Photos: Members of a University of Kansas Department of American Studies trip to see the border wall between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, last November encountered children on the other side of the fence and also viewed the constructed wall along the railroad tracks in the area. The trip was a culmination of a seminar course led by Ruben Flores, associate professor of American studies. Credit: Ruben Flores