Travel 100 miles inland from any point along the United States’ shores and borders, and you’ve passed through what the ACLU calls a “Constitution-free zone.” Here, in an area that contains two-thirds of the country’s population, US Border Patrol enjoys extra-constitutional powers, including the use of stops and searches.
Tucson, Arizona, is one of many cities located within this area. The Tucson Sector happens to also be one of the busiest crossing areas for undocumented people, mostly from Central America and Mexico. The heavily militarized area is guarded by a fleet of military-grade Predator drones that buzz across the Sonoran desert skies and more than 4,000 agents on patrol who maintain a massive high-tech surveillance regime of walls, motion sensors, Israeli-built towers, fences, bollards, Normandy-style vehicle barricades, and numerous permanent and roving checkpoints.
A three-room office just a few blocks from the University of Arizona’s expansive 400-acre campus houses the Earlham College Border Studies Program, where students from across the country study the people and communities that such a “Constitution-free zone” impacts. “You get an education through the program because of its methodology that you can’t get in a normal college setting,” said Jacob Ertel, who attended Border Studies in the spring of 2014. Ertel, a 2015 graduate of Oberlin College, currently lives and works in New York City as a union organizer of JFK and La Guardia airport workers. He said the Border Studies Program’s rigorous curriculum of political economy analyzing the history and current state of border militarization set him on an academic and activist path.
Earlham College, a small liberal-arts school in Indiana, created the Border Studies Program in 1997 with financial support from from the Great Lakes Colleges Association, a consortium of liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. The program found its first home at the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border region and moved permanently to Tucson 10 years later. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy meant to “conscientize” students, the program aims to establish an awareness of and personal connection to the area they are learning from. Students are placed in Spanish-speaking homes during their time in the program, and are shown how daily border realities and immigration laws impact families. Says longtime host mother and Homestay Coordinator Rosalva Romero, students’ education follows them to their home stays where they “can personally experience the dynamics of an immigrant family, their history, the close relationships that stretch across the border, and the binational culture of the family.”