She's not trying to fix border, just helping out

She's not trying to fix border, just helping out

URBANA — Cristina Lucio knows what she doesn't like about U.S. border policy, but she doesn't think it's her job to fix it.

She's focusing on the human side — whether it's dropping off jugs of water for wayward immigrants in the Desert Southwest or matching DNA samples from the bodies of those who didn't survive with missing persons reports from south of the border.

A daughter of immigrants who has overcome some trauma of her own, Lucio, 23, just wants to help families.

"That's what I like to do. I like grass-roots work," said the University of Illinois senior, who will be honored Saturday with the C-U Immigration Forum's Student Leadership Award. Lucio is passionate about service, to the point of neglecting her schoolwork, says Ricardo Diaz of the Immigration Forum.

"The way she gives herself to the task of attending others is just beautiful," Diaz said.

Born in Chicago, Lucio is a first-generation college student who initially planned a career in fashion and marketing.

She said she grew up in an abusive household, was kicked out of the house at age 17 and later went through a bad breakup.

"It just made me re-evaluate life," she said.

She turned her negative energy into writing about social justice issues and realized she loved "helping people and working in the community," she said.

After finishing a two-year degree at Morton College in Cicero, she worked for the City Year program, a division of Americorps, which sends young adults to work in schools. She found the one-on-one work of tutoring students "meaningful and fulfilling."

She had applied to the UI and chose to major in anthropology and Latino/Latina studies. She became interested in immigration and co-chaired a student advocacy group that organized rallies and other events around the issue.

One of her anthropology professors, Cris Hughes, also hooked her up with a summer internship at the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tucson, Ariz., a family advocacy organization that works to end migrant deaths and suffering on the U.S.-Mexico border. Hughes had worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Pima County medical examiner's office and knew the organization well.

"I have never met a more insightful, engaged, compassionate and scholarly undergraduate as Cristina.  She is the epitome of what I hope for in a student, and a community member," Hughes said.

The center's director, Robin Reineke, initially didn't want to make Lucio do the grim missing persons work, but there were so many cases that first hot summer that she was needed. She jumped right in, though she admitted it could be depressing.

"It was really hard. It's still really hard," Lucio said.

Lucio ended up working there for two summers, taking reports about people who had tried to cross the border but never contacted their friends and relatives. The details that relatives provided would be cross-referenced with medical examiner's reports from bodies found in the harsh region inside the Tohono O'odham reservation, where migrants cross to avoid the heavily fortified border checkpoints that were looser in earlier decades.

With help from a grant, the Colibri Center now can test DNA samples from family members and compare them with the bodies they find, making identifications much more quickly. But in the beginning, they worked without that technology.

"It was like finding a needle in a haystack," Lucio said.

On an average day, they would take seven to 10 or even 15 missing-person calls. And they would find four to seven bodies.

There were a few happy calls, when Lucio would follow up with families and learn that their loved one had turned up alive. "But that's rare, I think."

Family members would often talk to her for quite awhile, grateful for a kind ear instead of the suspicion they would get from immigration agents, she said.

Colibri tries to keep "an archive of that person," she said. "It would be a shame for them to just not be remembered, you know?"

Lucio also volunteered with an organization called No More Deaths, which leaves large jugs of water in the desert so migrants don't die of thirst. The group also puts out signs that tell migrants to go back, "that it's not worth it," something Lucio didn't necessarily agree with.

The nonprofit's office is in the county morgue, where Lucio would think about the human toll of U.S. immigration policies and its history in the region.

"I would just see the person there, lifeless, and think about how this situation is the absolute result of all these structures we have in place. This is the result of the U.S. lack of accountability ... for why people have to flee their countries, why poverty exists" there, she said.

Lucio isn't sure what the answer is, though she believes in "demilitarizing the border," removing the "layers upon layers of security checkpoints," walls, barbed wire, cameras and surveillance towers that push people to cross in more dangerous terrain.

It takes 10 to 15 years for people to get papers to enter the United States legally, and they usually have to prove that they would be self-sufficient, which is "ridiculous" when most of them are trying to leave because they live in poverty, Lucia said. She said people will continue to cross, unaware of the danger or just because they want a better life.

Her own parents crossed the border illegally as teens in the 1970s and 1980s. Her mom told her that "she just didn't want to live like that any more. She didn't want to live in poverty. She wanted something more for herself."

Lucio prefers to see the issue in moral terms: "This person really didn't do anything wrong besides just try to get into a different country."

She hopes to continue grass-roots work, either with Colibri or with another advocacy organization in Chicago or New York — work that involves direct contact with families.

"What I've learned is that I don't need to find the answers. I just need to contribute to the larger conversation about how to fix these issues," she said.


Sections (2):News, Local