Amidst Battle Over Border Wall, MSW Students Studied Migrant Issues in Puebla, Mexico

January 10, 2019

As the battle over the President's proposed border wall raged in Washington, eight NYU Silver MSW students took an intensive, January-term course in Puebla, Mexico on Migration and The Trump Wall: Health and Social Welfare Issues of Latino Migrants. Taught by Professor and Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health (CLAFH) Director Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, CLAFH Research Scientist Adam Benzekri, and Professor María de Lourdes Rosas López of NYU’s partner university Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), the course combined substantive lectures, structured group discussions, student presentations, and case examples with site visits to social service and health providers along the migratory path and a trip to “La Bestia,” the freight trains on which migrants travel, for cultural exchange with migrants themselves.

Dr. Guilamo-Ramos noted he has taught an annual course in Puebla on migration to the United States from Latin America since 2013, with the angle changing periodically to reflect the national discourse. The location is particularly significant for NYU students because New York City is currently home to roughly a half million Mexicans, most of whom come from the state of Puebla. It is also a strategic position in terms of how migrants access the United States; many of Mexico’s railways to major U.S. border crossings pass through Puebla.

Dr. Guilamo-Ramos said the course has taken on added significance during the Trump presidency. “There has been misunderstanding about what is really happening in terms of Latino migration to the U.S. We expose students to the complex and urgent social welfare issue by providing an overview of the multifaceted forces currently impacting migrants from Mexico and Central America. The intense stressors affecting their health and well-being have increasingly been exacerbated by chronic poverty and violence in the countries of origin and the difficulties we in the United States have had in responding to this humanitarian crisis.”

Dr. Rosas added, “To observe migrants aboard ‘La Bestia’ in route to the United States represents a unique opportunity to better understand the reasons why migrants leave their countries of origin, the adverse conditions and extreme risks experienced by migrants while in transit to the United States, and the hopes and dreams of migrants seeking a better life in the United States. This course provides participants with greater comprehension of how best to address the ongoing migratory dynamics and humanitarian needs of migrants traveling to the United States from Central America and Mexico.”

Through their classroom and field experiences, students gain a regional rather than solely U.S. perspective on migration and develop the ability to critically and reflectively analyze how socio-political processes affect migration throughout Mexico, Central America, and the United States. Dr. Guilamo-Ramos explained, “We hear from Mexican colleagues from academia, non-profits and non-governmental organizations, as well as Mexican elected and appointed officials. They provide data on migrants which is often different from what we hear in the U.S. and they shed light on the communication between our federal governments. They share insights on how people in Mexico feel about the utility of the wall and lessons learned from how Mexico has dealt with migrants from Central America. One of the things that almost never gets talked about in this country that we address in the course is the southern border between Mexico and Guatemala, which is also part of this equation. And we examine the major drivers of migration, not just out of migrants’ countries of origin but also into the United States.”

The course also provides a sophisticated lens for delivering direct services to migrants by exploring their experience at each stage of migration – from leaving their country of origin, to the transport stage, interception in the U.S., settlement, deportation, resettlement, etc. – at the micro, mezzo, and macro level. Dr. Guilamo-Ramos noted that on average, migrants travel for many weeks at a time. “Typically, the individuals the students encounter are dehydrated, cold, haven’t had adequate nutrition, haven’t been able to sleep, and they may have injuries associated with travel, have been sexually exploited, and/or have been involved with gang activity. There are all sorts of things that have happened to those individuals and many challenges that they have endured before they make it to the United States and interact with our system.”

As a result, Dr. Guilamo-Ramos said, students come to appreciate that any migrant they work with will likely have an extensive trauma history, which, depending on where they are in the migration process, will need to be met with different interventions. “In our site visits, we see examples of micro level practice and the kinds of interventions that are done with migrants during their transitory phase. We also have lectures on the mental health needs and appropriate interventions for migrants once they are in New York given what their experience has been. Students realize that treating migrants is more complicated than what they might have envisioned if their sole exposure was working in an agency in New York City.”

He noted that one of the most surprising things for this year’s students was encountering a fairly large group of approximately 30 Central American migrants at a Red Cross station, who said they said they were heading to New York City. “It surprised the students that the migrants had an address they were going to, that they had family members waiting for them, and that for many of them, it was not their first time making the trip,” Dr. Guilamo-Ramos said. ”Some had tried six or seven times in the past. They may have had failed attempts or they may have been able to get into the U.S. but then returned home because of family obligations.”

Students also visit local Mexican communities including La Preciosita, where there are almost no men. “The women who live there have taken the remittances from their husbands and male children, who are in the U.S., and they have created microenterprises.” Dr. Guilamo-Ramos said. “It has changed gender norms about who runs the household. It has changed community dynamics. And the women have come together to form coalitions to prevent further migration from happening by creating more economic opportunities in the community. The students see that and realize that even when migration is seemingly successful, there is a huge toll from the personal sacrifices that people make.”

One of the misconceptions about the course, according to Dr. Guilamo-Ramos, is that it is too heavily focused on policy or macro practice. “In fact,” he said, “it is explicitly designed to look at direct services, to consider institutions and major actors, and then to think more broadly about migration as a macro level contemporary social and health issue and how we should be thinking about it in terms of response. Students complete the course with a solid foundation in the stages of migration and their impact on the health and social welfare of migrant populations as well the impact the current socio-economic and political context have on trajectories of Latino populations born in the United States,” he said. “This understanding of the unique issues and challenges experienced by migrants and other Latino communities in the U.S. prepares students to better respond to the populations’ needs and is invaluable to our students’ training.”

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