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PORTLAND — The more than 2,000 miles to the the nation’s southern border can make it difficult to grasp what’s at stake in the immigration debate.
But students in Kirsten Platt’s human rights class at Deering High School found a way to make the situation more real to the wider school community.
As part of a visit to the school by Malu Aguilar Rodriguez, an international advocacy officer at the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in San Rafael, Mexico, Platt’s students created an interactive slideshow asking their classmates to imagine being an immigrant and making the same choices actuall immigrants face every day.
Juniors Aidan Reid and Selam Desta said the goal of the slideshow was to help students get a real sense of what’s happening at the border. So they asked them to imagine being a 34-year-old parent of three, approached by a gang to give up 20% of their income – or be killed.
“Do you flee? If so, where do you go and do you bring your children with you?” members of Reid’s human rights class asked.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric on both sides, so we wanted to objectively present the facts,” Reid added. “We wanted to give real numbers and present what actually happens.”
Even so, he and Desta said they were both “shocked and heartbroken” by what they learned.
“The reality is that 60% to 70% of those seeking asylum get rejected,” Reid said. And Desta said what surprised her most are the allegations of physical and sexual abuse leveled at border guards and those overseeing immigrant detention centers.
“It’s really hard to believe that this kind of thing is happening right here in the U.S.” Reid said.
“How can you justify that type of treatment?” Desta added.
Reid said what he and his classmates most wanted to share is that immigrants are fellow human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Reid and Desta said the students were divided into several groups, with some researching the family separation policy that left thousands of children in the care of the government after they were removed from their parents at the border.
Originally Desta believed the family separations taking place during spring 2018 were accidental or “not on purpose.”
“Then we followed the timeline and how the chaos unfolded and read what Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. That’s when I learned that it was actually a political policy,” she said.
Others in the class looked into the social, political and economic pressures that often impact the decision to immigrate and make a new life in the U.S., particularly for those from the Central American countries referred to as the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Reid said initially he believed the decision to come to the U.S. was largely economic, but through his research he found that 95 percent of crimes, especially violent crimes like rape and murder, go unpunished in the Northern Triangle.
“These people are actually refugees who had to flee,” Reid said, with Desta adding, “they didn’t want to leave, but they had to.”
Through their presentation to the wider student body at Deering, Reid said he and the others wanted to humanize the immigrants who are coming to the border and want to cross into the U.S.
“It’s such a difficult situation that many of these people face. I don’t know what I would do, I really don’t,” Reid said. “This class really put (all the issues) into perspective.”
“The fact is that these issues aren’t going to go away by shutting people out,” Desta added.
Although they still have a year of high school left before graduating, both Reid and Desta said their future aspirations include helping people, making a difference and doing something that will have an impact.
Reid said he’s thinking about studying foreign relations or political science and said he’s passionate about funding public education because “education is such an equalizer.”
Desta, an intern at the Maine People’s Alliance and a member of the debate team at Deering, said her goal is to “be there for people who need help.”
Reid said, “it’s important to remember that we’re all human and that no matter what country or life you’re born into, it’s important to put yourself into another’s shoes.”
Aidan Reid, left, and Selam Desta are juniors in a human rights class at Deering High School in Portland, who are examining the conflict over immigration at the country’s southern border.