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Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022
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Law Students Get Dose of Reality, Working for $60 Per Week South of the Border

Reality TV shows have featured aspiring pop stars, survivors, and the biggest losers on amazing races around the world. Now, several area law students have embarked on their own reality documentary show to reveal issues of globalization.

And it doesn’t get more real than transplanting U.S. law students a few miles south across the border into one of the poorest neighborhoods to work long hours in a plastics factory for little pay to unravel issues such as border security, illegal immigration and labor conditions.

San Diego-based California Western School of Law professor James Cooper filmed law students working 48 hours a week in a Mexican factory for a reality documentary titled “Globalization: The Reality Show,” as part of Cal Western’s Fair Trade Academy summer program. The students were paid $60 per week.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, summer program sends students across the border to live, work and explore labor issues with lectures and field trips in Tijuana and other parts of Baja California, Mexico. About 20 students were part of the program.

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Cooper said the program is very innovative, sometimes depressing, and always interesting.

“It is one thing to study the issue and read the relevant laws, it is another thing to live these pressing border issues,” said Cooper.

The students also meet with U.S. and Mexican government officials, local activists, law enforcement, jurists, diplomats and other stakeholders involved and invested in the border region. Topics include health and public safety concerns regarding cross-border pharmaceutical sales and food security.

“Through these shows, viewers will be able to explore issues of border security, illegal immigration and unfair labor practices, as well as the consequences of globalization along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Cooper.


$10 A Day

For $10 a day, the American law students pulled apart extremely hot plastics from a mold, shaved them down with razors, and packaged them into boxes.

“I don’t know how people do it day after day, week after week, month after month when 10 miles north you can make the same $10 an hour painting fences,” said Cal Western law student Matt Holt. “It would be hard not to want to progress, to be able to afford necessities.”

Holt said his salary was actually quite good for maquiladora work. He said minimum wage in that area was closer to $40 a week. Maquiladoras are assembly plants, typically foreign owned, that manufacture products.

“The problem is that a gallon of milk costs the same in Tijuana as it does here,” said Holt. “I can’t imagine having a family to feed.”

Many students learned firsthand that earning $60 a week would not last a full seven days and not supply them with living conditions they were accustomed to.

They built the only shelter they could afford during their stay, small quarters without running water or electricity in Colonia Chilpancingo in Tijuana made from packing crates and pallets from nearby factories they worked in.


Worth A Thousand Words

The people they saw, the experiences they lived, and the stories told by impoverished Mexicans impacted many of the students who participated in the reality show filming.

During the pilot, students interviewed locals who found their way to the U.S.-Mexico border for one reason or another. One 25-year-old man was planning an illegal entry to the United States by traveling in the ocean on a beat-up bodyboard and another had traveled to the maquiladora district of Tijuana because employers in his hometown of Mexico City had discriminated against his disability.

“It showcases the impact of the fair trade agreement and demonstrates that the benefit has gone to so few people in the U.S. and been so detrimental to so many in Mexico,” said Holt.


Stay Tuned

Cooper said he was tired of attempting to teach law to artists and has ventured into sharing art to the law and business world. Cooper refers to the documentary as a jurisprudential performance art piece for students, business leaders and union leaders.

He has been a photographer for Marie Claire magazine; international relations and legal affairs analyst; and a writer, director and producer of documentary films.

Cooper said he is not ready to put down the camera. The law professor is the assistant dean for mission development, co-director of the Center for Creative Problem Solving, director of the NAFTA Summer Program, and teaches many courses, including international trade law. He has been meeting with network executives to promote the pilot episode in the United States and Mexico.

It may be challenging to pitch a smart documentary featuring migrants from rural Mexico taking U.S. jobs, said Cooper.

The program is open to law schools from all over the world and is organized through a partnership among Cal Western, the New England School of Law in Boston and William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. The schools, along with the South Texas College of Law in Houston, make up the Consortium for Innovative Legal Education, a partnership that offers students expanded opportunities for legal education through combined resources and cooperation.

The Fair Trade Academy reality show is airing this month on a local TV station, ITV Channel 16. Showtimes include Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 25 at 10 a.m.

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