Many are calling Arizona “ground zero” of the immigration debate in the United States. Ground zero shifted north last week, bringing the debate to Flagstaff.
About 100 people piled into Gardner auditorium in the W.A. Franke College of Business on Monday, Feb. 3 to hear human rights activist Ray Ybarra speak about the motivations of migrant people who brave the harsh desert along the U.S.-Mexico border in search of work and basic human necessities in the United States.
Ybarra addressed governmental policy that has militarized the Arizona border. Ybarra also spoke about the minutemen project, a civilian vigilante group that patrols the Mexican border—a group Ybarra calls racist.
Ybarra said a life dedicated to the struggle of migrant people coming to the U.S. is about expelling fear on many different levels.
“It is important to not be afraid of living your life because of fear of repercussions from someone else,” Ybarra said. “It is about the freedom to be who you want to be and not be constrained by the physical borders, but also the mental borders that keep you from being who you want to be.”
Ybarra jokingly compared his presentation to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, as he clicked through slide after slide of charts and data about the migrant plight. Ybarra also presented a short video clip from his documentary Rights on The Line: Vigilantes at The Border. In which a group of about eight migrants are spotted by minutemen and reported to border patrol after their fourth day roaming the desert.
Ybarra’s showed powerful images of tanks and battle-ready National Guard troops patrolling Arizona’s hundreds of miles of borders. Also included were shots of gun-tower-like look out points used by federal border patrol agents.
Ybarra’s grassroots methods aim at persuading people to take action against groups like the minutemen.
Ybarra also compared the present immigration situation to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and called on students to be the ones to initiate change.
“Right now we are in the Alabama of the civil rights movement,” Ybarra said. “But who is doing the sit-ins? Who is doing the freedom marches? No one. Students are the ones with the time we are the ones who need to be more radical and creating and pushing forward.”
Ybarra’s work on the border consists of legal observing. He and other volunteers take cameras and keep a vigilant eye on people, including minutemen to make sure they or no one else harasses migrants trying to cross the border.
Jesus Brito, a senior political science major, said the issue extends past mere border conflicts between the U.S. and Mexico.
“I think this is important because it is a human rights issue,” Brito said. “We spend so much money on trying to protect our border through fear tactics and politicians are trying to scapegoat migrant people and it is making them second-class citizens.”
Brito said he also believes the U.S. is sending a “can’t do” message to people who want to migrate for a better life.
“What we are doing is telling these people ‘no you cannot, you cannot come here to work, you cannot come here and better your life, you cannot come here because you are not like me,’” Brito said.
Brito said he would like to see the government allocate the same amount of money to minority education.
One faculty member in attendance said the language barrier is the first wall that needs to come down to resolve the border debate.
“I am an instructor of Spanish at NAU and I see my students trying to learn this language and only through this can we close this communications gap and hopefully everyone can come together and stop this,” said Juliana Suby, adjunct Spanish instructor.
Ybarra said whenever he speaks he tries to relay the horror stories he has witnessed to show people what goes on near the border.
Ybarra never tries to victimize the people he documents, but to educate.
In his presentation Ybarra showed U.S. border spending in relation to the amount of apprehensions made at the border. A graph showed that border spending increased nearly triple from around 350 million in the early 90s into the billions last year—spending that Ybarra said will not keep migrants from crossing the border.
“They can keep putting up cameras and ground sensors and walls up, but that is not going to stop us, we are going to keep on coming,” Ybarra said.
Ybarra said the people who cross now are facing nearly insurmountable odds.
“These are people who are going up against the biggest baddest most militaristic government in the world, perhaps that the world has ever known,” Ybarra said. “They have nothing but a backpack, some water, a can of tuna and a red bull and that is what they are using to go up against a government that spends billions to keep them out.”