Psychology professor reflects on immersion trip to U.S./Mexico border

"St. Ignatius encouraged people to experience with the heart, mind, and soul, and this trip was designed to help us do so."

By Nick Alexopulos
El Comedor

El Comedor, a soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico, run by the Kino Border Initiative.

In January 2015, Rachel Grover, Ph.D., associate professor and associate chair of psychology at Loyola, traveled to the U.S./Mexico border in the Pacific southwest for an immersion trip with the AJCU’s Ignatian Colleagues Program. On the trip she spent time in Tuscon and Nogales (Ariz.) and Nogales, Mexico. She reflected on the experience for a year and shared her insights with other Loyola employees during a Mission Over a Meal lunch discussion hosted by Campus Ministry in April 2016. She agreed to share some of the key takeaways from her talk, “Listening at the Border: A Story of Immersion, Migration, and Immigration,” with Loyola magazine as well.

Why did you participate in the Ignatian Colleagues Program and why did you choose this trip?

I chose to participate in the Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP) because I wanted to know more about the Jesuit context so I could better integrate it into my courses and my administrative work. ICP is an 18-month course in which participants from Jesuit universities learn about Jesuit history, philosophy, and pedagogy. ICP participants engage in readings, phone meetings, the occasional in-person meetings, an immersion trip, and a silent retreat.

I was also excited about the opportunity to experience something new. I had never been on an immersion trip or on a spiritual retreat. We had a couple of choices for an immersion trip, but I was really excited about the prospect of visiting the U.S./Mexico border and learning about immigration issues. When we were deciding on the trip, there was a great deal of news about the high number of unaccompanied children who were making their way across the border. As a child psychologist, I was curious about the experiences of these children.

What was your experience like?

The experience was amazing. St. Ignatius encouraged people to experience with the heart, mind, and soul, and this trip was designed to help us do so. One of the goals was to try to meet with and talk to people in all aspects of the immigration experience. As such, we met with recent deportees, undocumented immigrants in the United States, immigration activists, border patrol officers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and ranchers who live along the border. We also spent one day working at a soup kitchen in Mexico run by the Kino Border Initiative (KBI). KBI provides meals, clothing, advocacy, and other humanitarian aid to recent deportees. In addition, we witnessed “Operation Streamline,” which is the legal process of trying and sentencing undocumented immigrants en masse – up to 60 to 70 people are tried and sentenced at one time.

Border wall from Nogales, Mexico

Nogales, Mexico side of border wall.

It is difficult to select one moment as the most memorable, but what sticks with me are people’s stories. One young man told me that he had lived in the United States since he was two. In this country he had a job, a significant other, and a daughter. One night he got into a minor car accident, the police asked for his papers, he was detained for several months, and then deported. He is now in Mexico, separated from everyone he knows. Despite the risks, his plan was to try to cross the border as soon as he could find someone to take him.

Another story that I often think about is from one of the ranchers living at the U.S. border in Arizona. He told me that he used to leave water and food for the migrants that would cross his land, but that now he is scared to help anyone because the migrants are often accompanied by the drug cartel who carry weapons. The rancher’s eyes teared as he said, “It is a horrible thing to find a body on your land.” I also think about the Border Patrol agents and how difficult their job must be as first responders to calls about migrants in distress.

What were your key takeaways?

When I first signed for the ICP border trip, I naively thought, “This is great. I will travel to the border, learn about immigration, and be able to see the solution.” So, one of the big takeaways for me was the complexity of the issue.

The migrants are desperate, the border is highly guarded and protected, so they hire people to guide them across. These guides are often drug runners who promise to guide the migrants in return for carrying drugs. The crossing is incredibly difficult and involves days in mountainous terrain and the desert. The migrants are often poorly equipped because the drug runners tell them to carry few supplies (so they have the ability to carry more drugs). The ranchers are frightened of the cartel, and yearn for more protection from the Border Patrol and a taller fence. The Border and Customs officers are trying to follow the changing immigration laws. In addition, the deportation centers are run by private companies that have a vested interest in keeping the facilities open and full.

How was this trip important for you in the context of Jesuit pedagogy?

Fr. Mark Ravizza, S.J., associate professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University, wrote that, “Ignatian pedagogy is not a spectator sport.” After this experience, I completely agree! I encourage my students to experience the world, interact with people, grapple with complex issues, and work toward alleviating human suffering. After returning from this trip, I have been more mindful of our Jesuit context. For example, this past year, I introduced my Messina students to the Examen and encouraged them to routinely reflect on their first-year experience at Loyola. The trip also helped me understand the importance of immersion experiences for our students.

ICE detention center

Rachel Grover (second from left) and immersion trip colleagues at the ICE detention center in Florence, Ariz.

Was it rewarding to discuss your experience at Mission Over a Meal?

Yes. A good number of faculty and staff attended the event. Attendees were eager to hear about the trip, and after the talk, some shared their personal experiences with immigration.

I think we all benefit from being reminded of how our shared experience of the Jesuit mission helps to strengthen our community. Conversations about Jesuit philosophy and pedagogy also help us to formalize ideas about how to meaningfully engage with students about mission.

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Rachel L. Grover, Ph.D., has taught psychology at Loyola University Maryland for 11 years and supervises doctoral students at the Loyola Clinical Centers. She researches social skills development in adolescence and young adulthood, and child anxiety. She has particular interest in the social skills needed to successfully negotiate relationships with the other sex. Her co-authored book, Treating Internalizing Disorders in Children and Adolescents: Core Techniques and Strategies, was released in June 2016.

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