UCF spring breakers witness and document asylum seekers’ plight in ‘A Break for Impact’

The Matamoros border camp
The Matamoros border camp

College spring break can be a mind-altering experience, no matter what you spend the week doing. For a group of UCF students, their 2020 trip was a true eye-opener. While Texas' South Padre Island hosted its usual party influx, this group was 45 minutes away in Brownsville, at one of the more than 300 U.S. Customs and Border Protection ports of entry.

University of Central Florida legal studies professor Irene Pons and four students from her Immigration Law and Policy class, accompanied by a UCF videographer, traveled to the southern border to volunteer with a legal organization handling asylum seekers. When that group nixed video documentation, they had to switch gears.

They ended up assisting a group called Team Brownsville in their humanitarian efforts at the Matamoros tent camp, the largest gathering of U.S. asylum seekers in Mexico — distributing food and clothing, helping with art classes for the children. While there they met members of a group called Witness at the Border, and ended up witnessing — and, crucially, documenting — much, much more than they had expected to see.

While the lack of sanitary facilities and basic human necessities in the camp was distressing, and the system of which and how many immigrants are allowed to cross over seems cruelly arbitrary, the students observe something much worse: the deportation flights in which the United States ships shackled men, women and children to Honduras and El Salvador, regardless of their country of origin. The level of effort the CBP puts in to attempt to hide what they're doing, and how they do it, is telling, amounting to an admission of shame.

And who knows? Shame is as likely, if not more so, than nobility to motivate change. As Lee Goodman of Witness at the Border says while the students record the proceedings, it's important to "make sure that the doers know that there are watchers."

History is repeating itself right now with thousands of Haitian migrants camping under a bridge in Del Rio, Mexico. Who will be the watchers?