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Into the divide

Service trip gives students firsthand perspective on the immigrant and refugee experience.

September 6, 2018

Susan Cacique ‘19 carries a gallon of water in a well-traveled migration route near the Mexico-U.S. border during an alternative spring break service trip in March.
Susan Cacique ‘19 carries a gallon of water in a well-traveled migration route near the Mexico-U.S. border during an alternative spring break service trip in March.

By Phillip Jordan

Thirty-five years ago, the parents of Susan Cacique ‘19 journeyed northward, by foot, across the Mexico-U.S. border in search of a safer, healthier life for themselves and for their future children. Since then, her parents have received U.S. resident status, earned a living working in warehouses and packaging facilities, and raised four daughters in Pomona, Calif.

Over the years, Cacique — a senior psychology major — has heard her parents describe the dangers they encountered as they crossed the inhospitable desert landscape spanning the neighboring countries. This past spring, those scenes sprang to life before her in stark, sun-scorched, sand-brown color.

In March 2018, Cacique was one of 10 Athenians selected to join an alternative spring break mission to the border between California and Mexico’s Baja California. Organized by the University’s Community Engagement team, the expedition gave students a chance to volunteer with Border Angels, a San Diego-based nonprofit that advocates for humane immigration reform and offers humanitarian aid and other services to immigrant and refugee communities. 

The students hiked well-traveled migration routes near the border to perform “water drops” — stashing jugs of water in the spindly scrub that dots the arid landscape, in hopes that the water would provide life-saving sustenance for those attempting to traverse the unforgiving borderland. The group also visited a dirt-field pauper’s cemetery in Holtville, Calif., which holds the remains of hundreds of unidentified migrants who succumbed to thirst, heat or violence in their attempt to begin life anew in the United States.

“When we walked up to the border, there was a range of emotions that came over me,” Cacique says. “I was grateful. Grateful for the sacrifices my family made for my sisters and me, and grateful that my family was not among those laid to rest in those unmarked graves.”

This was the fourth alternative spring break mission organized by Mount Saint Mary’s, and the first to focus on immigration.

“This is such an important issue to our campus community,” says Kim Terrill, director of community engagement. “This was an emotional trip. There were lots of tears shed. The majority of our students at the Mount are first-generation college students and many of them are the daughters of immigrants, or are DREAM Act and DACA students.”

Athenians on the trip also visited with day laborers in San Diego, bringing them sandwiches and hygiene kits; traveled to Friendship Park, where families separated by the border meet on either side of a heavily patrolled, mesh-metal fence that runs 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean; and met with local government officials to discuss the effect that immigration policies have on families and communities on both sides of the border.

After returning to the Mount, students gave presentations on campus and shared photos, videos and insights from their experience.

“This has inspired me to do more, to go back and do more water drops, to inform people of their rights, and to educate others on what they can do to help and to fight for immigrants’ rights,” Cacique says.

For Terrill, stirring that depth of passion was the goal.

“My hope was that they would go home and tell their family, friends and colleagues about what they learned,” she says. “Raise awareness. Empower people to take notice and get involved.”