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At The Border: Witness, Tourist, Worker?

At the Border: Witness, Tourist, Worker?

A number of memes on social media ask some variation of this question – What would you have done in Germany in the 30’s, or Mississippi in the 50’s? And then the punchline: You’re doing it now.

Maybe. Yes, people are being oppressed by our government at the southern border – based very much on race. Children are suffering. People are dying. And it’s being done in our names as Americans. It is indeed a horror.

There’s a lot we need to do. Vote, for certain. Think carefully, clarify the human cost being paid, raise our voices. And go to the border – see it. Make a difference.

Or maybe not. The trade-off is a challenging one: in some cases, volunteers are providing counsel; warm human presence to people confused and in need; healthcare services; and much-needed advocacy. In other cases, well-meaning folks show up and tell their own stories – variations of “here’s me helping at the border.”

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Most of the well-organized, better-known organizations aiding migrants, including Al Otro Lado, the Kino Border Initiative, and No More Deaths, ask volunteers to commit to at last a week of work at a time, with volunteer openings scheduled months in advance, and strongly prefer folks who can commit a full month.

On the ground, these organizations lean heavily on relatively small groups of long-term volunteers who quickly become indispensable, providing aid for migrants and – vitally important – managing short-term volunteers. Why are the day-trippers and short-week helpers a part of the equation? Mostly for practical reasons: they help tell the story, whether they stay long enough to become truly helpful or not; they give money, and generally give more once they’ve seen what there is to see; and bearing witness does matter, especially bearing witness with quiet humility.

It helps to take inventory – to ask, what am I good at? Aid at the border is often hard physical work; is that what I’m good at? Am I better at making money up north, and sending it down where the need is? Am I better at sharing the story? Or supporting the helpers who live for months in turn supporting migrants trapped at the border? One long-term volunteer in Tijuana often focused on giving massages to other volunteers when they came back to the hostel many shared after working in densely populated makeshift refugee camps.

Ask the people you want to help what they need. Ask the organizations what they *really* need, and don’t be insulted if they say “money,” or “winter coats,” or people willing to sit for four hours waiting to drive back north through the border crossing after dropping off a load of supplies. Ask the migrants what they need. Study their languages. Offer them a patient and supportive place to land if and when they make it through the border. And share their stories.

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