Borders, Migration Report from the Road: Borders and Boundaries with Beth Simmons Part 2

June 18, 2017
By Beth Simmons | Borders and Boundaries Project, Perry World House

Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Beth Simmons is the Andrea Mitchell University Professor in Law, Political Science, and Business Ethics, with joint appointments at the Penn Law School and within the Political Science department in the School of Arts and Sciences. She is a world-renowned expert on international relations and human rights. Her new project, Borders and Boundaries in World Politics, which is a part of Perry World House’s Global Innovation Program, is concerned with boundaries between organized human communities.

Borders and Boundaries seeks to understand the multiple significances of boundaries, including those designated as state authority, security buffers, expressions of social meaning, and opportunities for economic integration.   The Borders and Boundaries project hopes to contextualize border architecture, infrastructure, and institutions as expressions of social, political, and economic anxieties associated with globalization.  Dr. Simmons will teach a course this fall on Borders and Boundaries in International Relations, which will focus on these concepts.

As part of this project, Dr. Simmons is spending time this summer on the US/Mexican border conducting research. Perry World House will share Dr. Simmons’s occasional field reports from the road for the duration of her trip.

"Do not forget the LORD, your God,…
who guided you through the vast and terrible desert
with its saraph serpents and scorpions,
its parched and waterless ground;…” (Deuteronomy 8, 11, 15.)

Maybe it was my desire for connection, but the scripture reading for June 18 seemed especially relevant to the surroundings. Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, celebrated Father’s Day with a special blessing and Corpus Christi with a three-station walk around the Church’s block. We attended for another reason as well: this was the home of The Humanitarian Relief Center of the Rio Grande Valley. I had heard of the good works of Sister Norma, and was interested to see how the experience of crossing a border zone impacted immigrants, a community, and even the human heart.

Sister Norma wasn’t in, but Cesar was, and he was a gracious and informative host. The Humanitarian Relief Center is a 2014 start-up created to help the influx of immigrants crossing the border who didn’t have an adequate place to rest. The center provides a place for men, women, children, and infants to have a warm meal, a shower, and change into clean clothing. Some stay for as much as a week, sleeping in a tent behind the building and using the portable showers provided by the city of McAllen. Some pass through for a half hour – just enough time to collect a few basic amenities like soap and diapers, maybe even some basic medicines. The Center specializes in serving folks in a specific situation: they have been “processed” by ICE, braceleted, and sent to the McAllen bus station, two blocks from the center. Within as much time as a week or as little as a few minutes, they are back on a bus, sandwich and snacks in hand, seeking family or other contacts around the country. Hearings will follow.

Who comprises this community into which these travelers passed? The McAllen-Edinburgh-Mission metro area is about 92% Hispanic, of which 97% is Mexican and almost 30% is foreign-born. It had been a while since I had seen a Catholic congregation with so little gray hair – unsurprising, since about 35% of the Hispanic community in the region is under 18.[1]Something else was notable, too. Despite its status as a “Catholic Charity,” Baptists and Muslims volunteered their time and resources.

After spending time at Sacred Heart, we spent the remainder of our Sunday afternoon in McAllen’s Anzalduas Park, swimming and splashing in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande on the Mexican side. According to a local law enforcement officer, we would not have been able to swim on the US side because of the risk of lawsuits. A stark reminder of the special nature of the border occurred when we observed a boat, launched from Mexico, full of young passengers dancing with their hands in the air and salsa music blaring from the sound system. Approximately one hundred yards away, the Texas Highway Patrol, automatic weapons ready (but never fired, they said), shared the aqua waters of the Rio Grande with bathers and holidaymakers.

Lesson #2: The Border region reflects a unique mix of conflict and cooperation – sometimes both at once.

[1] According to a Pew poll; see