JUAREZ, MEXICO – Back in Minnesota, newspapers were carrying stories about Homeland Security agents rounding up illegal aliens at a Worthington meat plant, Minnesota National Guardsmen patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border, and politicians debating the fate of an estimated 12 million “illegals” living and working in the United States.

But early on this chilly January morning on the gritty, windswept outskirts of Juarez, Mexico, a few miles south of the Texas border, a group of shivering University of St. Thomas students had something else on their minds.

They were in the backyard of a women’s center, staring into a bathtub filled with a frozen lump of mud and straw. Their job that day, as it had been all week, was to boil water, hand mix tubs and tubs of the prickly adobe goop, and use it to build new walls at the center.

It would have been understandable, but the students weren’t complaining. They knew before they signed up for one of the university’s January Term VISION trips that the volunteer work could be hard and dirty. But who could have predicted the cold?

This was Mexico. This is where Minnesotans go in January to thaw out. The high temperature in Juarez that day, 33 degrees, was the lowest high ever recorded there on that date.

And it wasn’t like they had a cozy fireplace to look forward to that night. At the end of the day, caked in frozen mud, the students trekked 45 minutes through an urban-planning train wreck back to Casa Emaus, their home in Mexico for two weeks.

Nestled on a hillside in one of Juarez’s shantytowns, Casa Emaus – a residence for volunteer workers – was expertly made from adobe-covered straw bales and designed to stay cool during the intensely hot Mexican summers. But Casa Emaus didn’t have heat. It wasn’t like the furnace was broken. It didn’t have a furnace to break. That night, the water pipes froze for the first time since the residence was built in 2001.

When the students gathered each night around the kitchen table to reflect on their day, the ultimate fashion statement involved layers of fleece and a blanket to wrap up in. The students quickly learned that decorative table candles can double as hand warmers. Thank goodness the blankets were plentiful; if you needed six of them to keep warm at night, help yourself.

Destined to become good friends by the end of their two week service trip to El Paso and Juarez, the nine women and two men, along with staff leader, Deborah Donnelly, met for the first time at a VISION orientation meeting in late November.

The trip’s student leaders, junior Colleen O’Connor and senior Caitlin Schwartz, were VISION trip veterans who reviewed practical matters like passports, vaccines and drinking-water strategies. The theme was simplicity; it was OK to bring a book or journal, but leave the iPods and cell phones at home. Same with snacks, forget the makeup, and don’t even think about long showers.

Prior to the January trip, the group also met to discuss social – and economic-justice issues and to ponder the meaning of community and service. They were told to expect gatherings each evening to discuss their day’s adventures and what it felt like to be a first-world person visiting a third-world environment.

All of those discussions in Juarez were challenging and a few were difficult. There was laughter as well as tears. The gatherings weren’t meant to be easy, but critical to what each student ultimately brought home from two weeks in another world.

The Tex-Mex trip, as it was called, was split down the middle: week one was a crash course on Third World life called the Border Awareness Experience; week two focused on service work.

As the sun was rising each morning, one group of students hiked dirt roads from Casa Emaus to the women’s center where they mixed mud and straw to rebuild walls as well as an outdoor cooking oven. A second group, meanwhile, rode Juarez’s rickety, rollicking buses about 10 miles back to the U.S. border. After crossing into El Paso and clearing customs, they hiked to Annunciation House, a shelter for undocumented men, women and children. There they repaired and repainted a chapel damaged in a summer storm.

Annunciation House, which coordinated the St. Thomas VISION trip, was founded nearly 30 years ago by a group of young people who were searching for a way to serve the poor based on Gospel values. Over the years Annunciation House has welcomed as many as 100 guests at a time. During the 1980s and 1990s it mostly served people fleeing violence and political turmoil in Central America. More recently it has served migrants and refugees from Mexico and Latin America, some of whom arrive at the house soaking wet from wading and swimming across the Rio Grande River just blocks away.

The guests receive food, shelter and sometimes medical care. “Sometimes they come here in pretty tough shape,” said Jeff Myers, a volunteer from Oregon who has worked at Annunciation House for about a year. “One guy here from Guatemala just walked two days straight through the desert, without food or water. They hear about us from word of mouth, and just show up at our door. Almost all our guests are undocumented. The police and immigration officials know about us. Sometimes, they even drop off undocumented people here so they can receive food and get out of the weather.

“They are so tired when they get here. They have almost nothing; they’ve got to carry as little as possible when crossing the border. I’ve never seen anyone show up with any food, much less anything like medications or toothpaste.

“They stay here for a while and then move on. We don’t know where they go, exactly. We don’t help them cross the border from Mexico, and we don’t help them go further north,” he said. “We offer them short-term help. It’s not that hard to sneak across the border to get here, but getting out of El Paso is difficult. Checkpoints are everywhere. And if they get caught and returned to Mexico, they just try again the next day.

“Every case is different,” Myers said, “but I think a general plan for many is to work here in the United States for a few years, send money back to relatives, and eventually return home. Many are from Mexico, but they come here from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Columbia and we even have had some from the Congo and from Cuba.

“We welcome them, but we also encourage them to eventually move on,” Myers said. There are well-worn maps taped to walls of Annunciation House where visitors study various routes north. You can tell the most popular destinations because the maps are worn in spots from so many fingers tracing the best routes.

“When some leave us, they might jump a train, or they might find a coyote, who is someone they pay to guide them through the desert. Sometimes the coyotes just steal the money and leave the undocumenteds in the desert.

“Hopping trains is one of the ways they move north through Mexico,” Myers said. “It’s dangerous. One girl who stayed with us had her foot cut off by a train. Another guy was riding between two train cars. When the track curved his foot slipped down in an opening in the coupler. When the train straightened out, his foot was crushed and he couldn’t remove it until the train went around a curve again. He eventually got free and crawled to a highway where the police picked him up. He stayed with us for months until he healed.”

Literature that the Annunciation House gave to the St. Thomas students prior to their visit explained that their Border Awareness Experience “does not seek so much to answer questions, but to raise them.” It also cautioned them to expect “an intense experience. Many participants feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they are receiving, the things they are seeing, the culture, the food, and the climate.”

During their Border Awareness Experience, the students visited on both sides of the border with residents and immigrants, both legal and illegal. They met social service workers, university professors and U.S. Border Patrol officers. They toured the countryside and visited cooperatives, shelters and one of the “maquiladora” factories.

Mexico established the maquiladora program in 1965 to stimulate the economy along its northern frontier. The factories use Mexican labor, cheap by U.S. standards, to produce consumer goods that for the most part are shipped north. By using Mexican rather than U.S. labor, the factories annually save $25,000 per worker.

The maquiladora program certainly created jobs. By 1980, 620 of these border factories employed about 120,000 workers. A decade later, there were 1,500 factories and 400,000 workers. Juarez alone has had as many as 312 maquiladoras, employing 265,000. Since 2000, though, ebbs and flows in the number of factory jobs have generally followed changes in the U.S. and world economies.

The factories also helped create an almost unimaginable urban mess. Mexicans streaming north for the jobs found nowhere to live, so they set up squatter settlements in the hills surrounding Juarez where they built homes of scrap wood, cardboard and bits of plastic. Some have water and electricity, many do not. Every morning the buses bounce and lurch through the settlements, picking up workers. Every night, they bring them back home.

Throughout their visit, the VISION trip students ate simple meals, similar to those served throughout the surrounding shantytown. That meant rice and beans, a lot of rice and beans, served at least twice a day.

Two of their most memorable meals were cooked in the outdoor adobe oven, a horno, that they repaired at the women’s center. The first meal, which the students ate with more politeness than gusto, was a lunch burrito made with rabbits. On the final evening of the trip, the horno was used to crank out one spectacular pizza after another (none made with rabbits, however).

The Border Awareness Experience concluded with an afternoon hike up a rugged mountainside that gave the students a feel for the kind of terrain that thousands upon thousands of Hispanics regularly face while sneaking into the United States. Each year – between the heat, lack of food and water, and a dangerous river – hundreds die in the attempt.

“During our first week we talked with a guy who told us how he came up from Guatemala by hopping on trains, riding a bike, and walking,” recalled freshman Kristin Seifert of Plymouth. “And after we climbed the mountain, I thought, how could he do that? He’s just 17.”

If Tyler Smith hadn’t signed up for the Tex-Mex trip, he likely would have been working during January at a furniture store in his hometown of Elk River. A biology and chemistry major, he remembers two visits the VISION group made to a chain-link fence separating El Paso and Juarez.

“On the first day we drove to the border and stood on the U.S. side of the fence and looked into Mexico. A Border Patrol officer asked what we were doing there,” Smith recalled. “And then a week later we went to the same spot, but we were in Mexico looking into the United States. It was a completely different feeling. When we looked into Mexico we were overwhelmed with the poverty, the cinder-block houses, dirt roads and garbage everywhere. When we looked into the United States, everything was clean, the roads were paved.

“I felt bad. Looking back into the United States was depressing. You can see why they would want to come here from Mexico. There’s no question in my mind that if I was living over there, I’d want to come here too,” Smith said. “Something that sticks in my mind is watching the kids playing on both sides of the fence. I thought about them a lot.”

Slathered in mud from mixing adobe soup at the women’s center, Caitlin Schwartz said she thought she had a global perspective before coming on the trip, “but this has helped to make it real.

“I knew I was coming on this trip so I had time to read and prepare,” said Schwartz, a sociology, and justice and peace studies major from Brooklyn Center. “But this experience has given me a whole new insight. You can read about it, but until you see it, and meet and get to know the people here, you just can’t grasp it.

“I’m looking forward to talking to people, when I get back home, who see immigration as a black-and-white issue,” she added. “It’s not. We all play a part in this issue through our consumer behavior. We all play some role in perpetuating a system where someone from Mexico has to cross the border to get a job.”

“Mexico has so many push factors and the United States has so many pull factors,” said Kristin Erickson, a sophomore from Willmar. “My observation is that there are things that are wrong on both sides of the border. Mexico has a lot of work to do; it has a small number of rich and a large number of poor. The United States needs to help Mexico lessen that gap, and to realize the exploitation that’s going on.”

Erickson said she already had known several migrant-worker families, including some of her friends from school, because of the turkey and sugar beet plants in Willmar. “My experience on the Tex-Mex trip absolutely will help me better understand them back home.”

Most of the 11 VISION trip students are white and come from middle-class backgrounds. Two, however, brought a different perspective to the border experience. Magnolia Mua, a junior journalism major, is a member of St. Paul’s Hmong community. Her father is a minister and her mother is a health-care liaison. Andrea Jauli, a freshman from Plymouth, came to the United States from Mexico when she was eight. Her parents are dentists.

“I’m looking forward to sharing my experience here with friends and family,” Mua said while stuffing the mud-soaked straw between wooden slats of the wall she was helping to build. “My folks were happy and excited I was going on this trip because of the things they knew I would see and experience.

“I definitely can appreciate what my parents were thinking when they decided to come to the United States,” Mua said. “I can feel for my people just like I can feel for the Mexicans. We all want our kids to have a good life.”

Immigration issues, she said, are “more complicated than people think. Last week during our Border Awareness Experience we were able to do a lot of visiting and ask a lot of questions. We got a lot of answers, and now it’s our job to figure out what’s right or wrong. There’s a lot of gray. And this week, doing the work on the house and chapel, helps us think about how it all fits together.”

“I came here with an open mind and ready to take it all in,” said Jauli. “It has been harder than I thought, emotionally and mentally.

“I haven’t talked to my folks while I’ve been down here,” she said. “But there were so many times I wanted to call my mom and tell her, ‘These are my people.’ I’m sure she’d understand. … I have felt very much at home here.

“I’m soaking in so much and still processing everything, but I know the two weeks here will help me discuss immigration topics with others back in Minnesota,” she said. “It will also make it easier to talk about these things with my family. And it has made me think more about my career. I’m considering immigration law. I’ve had great opportunities and I’d like to do something with my degree to help others.”