This past December, Boston College School of Social Work Visiting Professor Maryanne Loughry joined Professor Westy Egmont to teach an innovative immigration course at the U.S./ Mexico border. In some ways, teaching in this part of the world was like second nature – Loughry has worked in refugee camps and resettlements in communities across the globe, from Nauru to Syria to Vietnam to Sierra Leone. But in other ways, the ten days spent on the border were eye-opening: She says she was surprised to see how militarized the American southern border truly is.
In this conversation with BC Social Work, Loughry, who is also a member of the Sisters of Mercy, talks in more detail about the course in Mexico, the work she’s done as Associate Director for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia, and her hopes to educate a next generation of social workers who are better prepared to work in global settings, accept and integrate diverse communities, and to do so across borders.
Thanks so much for your time today Professor Loughry. Talk to us about your experience this past December teaching Services to Migrants: A Border Perspective.
Maryanne Loughry: When Professor Egmont mentioned he was going to be bringing a group of students for a course at the U.S. Mexico border, I put my hand up to be a part of it. I’ve been coming back and forth to Boston College for a number of years in my role as visiting professor, and while I work in the area of immigration and refugees, I’ve become very aware that a lot of people in the U.S. don’t really have an interest beyond the border. What is it about this area that preoccupies so many people in this country? I wanted to find out.
My goal was to help place the course in an international context – I brought in readings and my experience on other borders to create a more holistic understanding of what it means to be an immigrant in today’s world. I also have a background in psychology, so I wanted to provide students with the opportunity to do some deeper thinking about what they were experiencing at the border.
As you mentioned, you’ve spent much of your life working at borders, in many countries, from Palestine to Nauru. What struck you about your first visit to the American border with Mexico?
ML: In particular, I noticed the very strong influence of the American authorities on the border, and not only on the border, but one hundred miles in.
In my work through JRS, I’m used to there being some border control, but nothing as concentrated and militarized as what I saw here. I also didn’t hear a lot of discussion, although I know it does happen, about how people can try to seek asylum; how they can indicate that they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted back home. The border is a deterrent, and while this is certainly true elsewhere around the world, I’m used to their being a stronger discourse on a government’s obligation to consider asylum.
There is such a mixed flow of people making their way to U.S. via Mexico – I think this has a lot to do with why these conversations don’t happen as freely. Certainly, many are coming for economic reasons, but many others come escaping cartels, gangs, and repressive governments, and all of these migrants seem to be placed into one category of “illegals.” So, deterrence ends up being the major goal of American border policy.
You mentioned that your background is in psychology. Tell us more about how you, and the students, worked to process your experiences.
ML: These ten days provided a very rich experience as we met with a lot of proponents for different solutions to what’s happening in Arizona and Mexico, from officials, to ranchers, immigrants themselves, as well as citizens who experience migrants going through their backyards. Many of these people were very convincing in their arguments – we heard from proponents of the legalization of drugs and how this could help to curb illegal immigration to the U.S., and then we heard from government officials as to why this wouldn’t work.
In addition to learning about the diversity of viewpoints, the students were engaged in their readings, and they also met with migrants and families of migrants themselves, including with those who had been deported. There was so much information to take in, as well as emotional input to sift through.
The reality was, we were all forming our opinions throughout our time there, which was great, and which meant that we were able to share where we stood in terms of policy, and have some really dynamic conversations.
I should also add that seeing a border is very thought provoking. Often in other countries, they exist as rivers or span lands, but to see a fence like the one in the U.S. is particularly confronting. It’s striking to see people on both sides of this fence, all of them human beings, with a great disparity of lifestyle between the two populations. We spent a lot of time unpacking what this meant to us.
Some of your work with JRS has been to teach mental health professionals in Gaza, where perhaps the most famous wall in the world still looms large over the Palestinian people. Tell us more about this important work.
ML: For a number of years, I collaborated with several universities on this initiative. We worked with mental health professionals who are on the ground in a conflict setting, equipping them with the skills to counsel their fellow neighbors. Their lives are of course full of hardship – they see bombings and death on a frequent basis, and are often without basic needs.
Many of the people I worked with in Gaza could never understand how I could just come into the Palestinian territory for a few weeks or so, do what I do, and then leave. For them, it was always such a short amount of time and it’s true. It’s always been a delicate balance in doing this kind of work –I want to spend sufficient time for the population to get to know me, but I also want to ensure they know that I do understand that I am leaving them in difficult circumstances. I get to leave, when they’re imprisoned. It’s also a challenge to try to connect with people in awkward situations meaningfully when they’re impoverished and I’m clearly not. I only hope that I’m able to provide some small measure of insight that they can take with them, even as I go back home, or to another country.
My experience in Gaza led me to work with JRS staff in Syria and Lebanon to help them develop skills to manage their work life, and to cope with the personal stress that they were experiencing living in a region torn apart by war.
In addition to all the research and training you do abroad, you’ve been a mainstay with JRS since 1988. What is your role with the organization when you’re at home?
ML: My main role is advising the Australian government about asylum seekers and detention, which means I’m on the Minster of Immigration’s Advisory Council. My most important recommendation is always to detain people for the least amount of time possible, as this doesn’t help anybody’s mental health. While people are being held, I advocate for children to have schooling and others to have appropriate activities for people of their age. Most importantly, though, I work hard to get children out of detention – unaccompanied minors are at high risk when locked up.
While there aren’t a lot of undocumented immigrants in Australia who are in detention – about 2,000 – the conditions can be harsh. And like in the U.S., the policy is being used to deter others from thinking about seeking asylum in Australia. The reality is, these individuals haven’t done anything criminal, they’re merely seeking a better life away from the ravages of poverty, war, persecution or other forms of violence. I believe it’s our responsibility to help these people.
What has it meant in your own life to be able to come in contact with so many diverse perspectives, living on the margins all over the world?
ML: First of all, it’s a very rich life. I’ve been to many parts of the world and encountered people in varied trying situations, which has in turn presented some powerful insights into life and what it means to be human. It’s a rich tapestry.
I have so much experience in these difficult parts of the world that I remain more willing to go back, or to go to new places, than other people might feel comfortable doing.
I also hope that, in addition to providing the on the ground training that corresponds with my professional background, I can begin to shed light on truths that aren’t covered in our media. So many stories are left untold.
I once gave a talk called “My Life As a Camera” – I often see things that I would love for other people to know about. The fact that I can come back to BC and teach and share my experiences is actually a great privilege for me. I’m very fortunate.
What do you hope to be able to impart to BC Social Work students, in terms of building their understanding of our global world?
ML: I believe we have an opportunity to graduate students with a widespread understanding of some of the most pressing global social issues of our day. While very few will go out and actually work in refugee camps once they leave Boston College, many more will come in contact with immigrants in their life’s work, and all will be voting members of a democratic society. I hope that we are able to instill in them an awareness of the big issues of our world, as well as a sense of social justice that compels them to take on careers that serve those who are living at the margins of society, no matter where they may be.