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A Maine Student's Trip To The US Border: 'You Could Hear The Chains In The Back Room'

Irwin Gratz
Maine Public
Cheverus teacher Haley Malm, left, with student Danielle Whyte, at Maine Public's studios in Portland.

Some students at Cheverus High School in Portland have gotten a lesson in current immigration issues: They made a trip to the southern border region with teacher Haley Malm. "It's definitely asking kids to come out of their comfort zone," Malm says. "And, it's not your typical fun summer camp."  One of the students Malm recruited was Danielle Whyte, who had just completed her freshman year at Cheverus.  Whyte spoke about the experience with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

WHYTE:  With the border being talked about as so dangerous and not a place you want to be, I was very scared of that. But since Cheverus is all about stepping out of your comfort zone and doing what you feel like is best to help with your personal growth, I decided to end up joining.

GRATZ:  Tell us a little bit about the trip.

WHYTE:  The first day we got there was a Sunday, and we watched a documentary called “Immigrants For Sale.” And then that tied in to the next day where we went to a court case where we watched deportations of multiple migrants who had been caught crossing, or in that situation. Then, the next day we went on a water drop, where we placed water in spots that migrants most often go when they're on the brink of dehydration and passing out from exhaustion.

GRATZ: You mentioned at the beginning there that one of the things you went to was a court hearing involving deportation. Tell us what happened there.

WHYTE: People were let in groups of seven and they stood before the judge with their attorney behind them - some public defendants and some federal defendants, I believe - and they just sat there as the judge asked questions. And they asked the questions of the first person, and then it was just “yes” or “no” to the first question. So, we really saw how you could easily be confused because one person was really struggling with the idea for one of the questions, and he kept saying “yes” to something that wasn't a yes-or-no question.

And you could just really tell that - these people had translators, yes, skills -they were confused and scared, and just the attitude and vibes around them was just of pure fear. And it was really heartbreaking in that the lawyers were sitting talking, laughing, drinking coffee in their nice suits, and we saw migrants standing there shaking in the clothes that they had been caught and found in. And there was one man in scrubs, one man was holding a shirt. And it was just really heartbreaking to see. And you could hear the chains from the back room, which was a sound that I personally never want to hear again.

GRATZ:  Did you see anything on this trip that made you understand why the government has chosen recently to be so much more strict with migrants coming across the border?

WHYTE:  I've always understood the issue of national security and wanting to keep a border safe. However, after seeing the people who had crossed the border, I still don't understand why they need to be so strict. We read a poem later in the week that says, “No one leaves home unless home is the belly of a shark.” No one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.

And you could really tell that these people weren't coming here with the idea of, “Yes, I'm doing something illegal.” They're coming here because they need refuge and they are seeking a better life for themselves and their children. So, there is nothing on the trip that really proved to me that, yes, we should be far more strict, we should really be separating parents from children, we should really be borderline evil with our immigration policies.

GRATZ: Did you come away with any suggestions for how we might better handle the influx of people who do come across the border?

WHYTE:  Absolutely. I feel like to better handle that influx of people we need to get to the root of the problem. by placing a wall there, we're not getting to the root of the problem, we're just making it harder for people to come here safely and have their human dignity valued. So, I feel like the main takeaway was if we can help these countries from the root then there won't be a need to immigrate illegally.

GRATZ: Danielle Whyte will be a sophomore at Cheverus High School in Portland this fall. She went on a school trip co-organized by the Arizona group Border Links.