Writing anything about what I saw in Arizona is difficult. It's one of those experiences that has to be seen first-hand to understand on a gut level. A very quick summary: Very flawed border policy has led to a shift in migration from urban centers like San Diego and El Paso to grueling treks across the desert in rural Arizona. This shift has occurred as a result of two immigration policies: Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper, a product of the Clinton Administration which features stadium lighting, razor wiring, and a huge militaristic presence along the border in San Diego. These policies have not curved immigration, but they have added to the human suffering and desperation of crossing. People now have to cross the Sonoran Desert and risk their lives to reunite with family members and make money to feed family at home.
Until 1997, there were no records kept of immigrant deaths because there were none. Since 1998, an estimated 4000 people have died while trying to cross into the United States, but this number is highly disputed because so many bodies are never found.
No More Deaths is a consensus-based, grassroots organization based in Tucson "engaged in direct and symbolic action to save lives, advocate for immigration-policy reform, and raise public awareness about the present-day crisis of migrant deaths in the deserts of the southwest."
Among the many actions of No More Deaths is the operation of a desert camp called "Bird Camp" that provides direct humanitarian assistance to migrants. I spent a week at Bird Camp during which time I went on several "patrols". During these patrols, we carry food, water, and first aid kits to offer to anyone we encounter in the desert. Typically, we walked a few miles along known migrant paths and yelled into the hills: "Hello friends- we are volunteers with the church. We have food, water, and medical aid. Do not be afraid. If you need anything, call out to us." Most often, the people we found had been separated from their coyotes and were completely lost without food and water in the desert. A hike across the mountainous desert takes roughly 4-5 days if there are no problems. Many people wander for 10 or more days.
During my week with No More Deaths, I saw a number of troubling things that I can only briefly describe here.
#1 : Separation of Families:
Among the migrants I personally encountered, their primary reason for attempting an illegal border crossing was family. Juan had lived in the U.S. for 27 years with his wife and four children before being deported. He was traveling to Seattle to meet his grandchildren and to try and earn money to help his ailing mother. Felipe was trying to reunite with his wife and five children in the United States. These two stories were parallel to nearly every story in the desert...and made me realize that ANYONE under these circumstances would try to cross the border to be with their families.
#2 Militarization and Inhumanity:
The authority structure in the desert is an authoritarian cluster you-know-what. Several agencies operate there including Border Patrol, Fish and Game, Fish and Wildlife, ICE, DEA and State police. At night, I went to sleep in my tent to the sound of helicopters flying over.
On Thursday, June 14th, we were going to an area near Chavez Siding to drop off some water when we learned that a migrant had been found and was waiting for Border Control to come pick him up. We went and met Felipe to give him some food and water and to keep him company while waiting on Border Control. While waiting, three men drove up on ATVs (four-wheelers) and asked if we were dropping off water. They identified themselves as members of three different law enforcement agencies, the primary being Fish and Game. They took our IDs and informed us that it is considered littering to leave water for migrants, and that we would be cited for future infringements.
Meanwhile, Felipe was listening to this entire exchange 100% shocked that they were concerned about US and not him! When he realized why we were being threatened, he became very angry: "What? Without those waters, I would be dead right now."
Border Patrol finally showed up three hours after being called. An officer stepped out of the white truck and said in English, "Did you have a nice siesta?" before placing Felipe into the back of the truck and disappearing.
Later in the day, we were back at camp when helicopters began to fly over. Then about fifteen border patrol agents raced by camp. Some volunteers and I climbed to higher ground to get a better view and saw unmarked law enforcement vehicles go by along with a number of sheriff and border patrol cars. Quite honestly, we were very fearful because we had no idea what was happening. It literally felt like a war zone. Later we learned that the three agents who stopped us that day had been fired upon, most likely from drug smugglers. The massive show-of-force that we witnessed must have cost taxpayers about $250,000 in a mere three hours.
#3 Poverty and Politics
Since the signing of NAFTA, indigenous farmers in Mexico have been pushed out of business by heavily subsidized, genetically-modified and chemically produced corn from the United States. Livelihoods gone, they are driven by poverty into the United States where they are exploited in low-wage, difficult manual labor...
We found a number of bottles that had been slashed in the desert. Some volunteer leaders believe this might be a new Border Patrol policy. Others blame "rednecks". Some volunteers have resorted to writing messages like this one on bottles of water: DO NOT SLASH THIS BOTTLE. People are dying of thirst out here. If you slash this, just realize it's the equivalent of murder."
Irony in action: Though Fish and Game and Fish and Wildlife threaten tickets for littering, volunteers actually spend a great deal of time picking up litter while traveling the trails. A recent trial convicted a No More Deaths Volunteer for "knowingly littering" by putting out water in the Buenes Aires Wilderness Preserve.
I include the pictures below because they illustrate just how beautiful this area is when you know where you're going and have plenty of food and water:
This shrine marks the location where a fifteen-year-old girl, Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros was found dead in February 2008.
When Juan left camp, he expressed deep gratitude to the volunteers that helped him and said that he believed Americans are good people, an irony difficult for me to reconcile. Something has to change for us to be able to accept this heartfelt compliment.
Group Photo of the No More Deaths Crew June 6-June 12 Bird Camp. Thanks to all these good, conscience-driven individuals.