Today we walked a migrant trail with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths. We left food and water on the trail and visited a shrine for migrants. We also met with the humanitarian group People Helping People.
WHAT WE SAW:
The first time we crossed through the border patrol checkpoint, we didn’t even have to stop because we were headed towards the border so the Border Patrol didn’t care. This particular checkpoint, we later found out, has never actually apprehended someone and was originally established as “temporary” over a decade ago.
After meeting with the organization People Helping People in their office, we drove into the desert to a migrant trail head. The Sonoran desert is not a stereotypical desert; it is incredibly hilly and is made of a mix of tall grass and dirt. There are lots of small, scratchy trees and fewer cacti than expected. On the way we passed many green Border Patrol SUVs sitting, waiting, and saw one of the surveillance towers that have been built in the desert. The tower has proven useless; it takes poor quality photos and is not reliable in differentiating cows from crossing immigrants. But the tower is still an effective deterrence to funnel people into more dangerous areas, like the Border Patrol checkpoint.
While we walked a migrant trail today, our experience was nothing like that of an immigrant walking the same trail. We walked during the middle of a cloudy day; as our guides pointed out, immigrants would be walking this area at night to avoid being seen, and usually the desert climate is much harsher and hotter. At one point we climbed up and down an empty waterfall bed; none of us could imagine attempting that in the dark, in a hurry. After dropping food at a point on the trail, we walked on to a shrine along the trail. The small niche with images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary also held some candles and rosaries. We sat there and read a short prayer, as well as some of the names of those who have died on the trail in the past year. Beneath the shrine were empty cans of food, and some water bottles with messages about love and safe passage written on them.
WHAT WE HEARD:
In Arivaca, a small rural community on the border of about 700 people, we met members of the organization People Helping People. They gave us a brief history of how the border and Border Patrol have evolved from the 1900’s until now. The organization provides aid for those who are crossing or who have recently crossed. They have a clinic that will treat people who have been injured during crossing and act as a sort of service for the community, which can call the organization if an immigrant comes to their home asking for help. One of the leaders discussed “the weight of human tragedy in a small community,” and how the residents have responded to immigrants passing through, but sometimes don’t know what to do. That’s the goal of People Helping People; giving the community someone to call when they want to help immigrants, but don’t know how. The leaders expressed that is it still hard to communicate what is happening in this border town to the larger world because the community is so small. They also told stories of the Border Patrol resistance to their aid; how they’ve slashed water jugs left on the trail, or put food coloring in it so it looks poisoned.
While at the shrine, we read the list of immigrant deaths in this area in 2016; most around 30 years old, some our age or younger. The leaders encouraged the use the rhetoric of “disappeared” as a verb, because the US policies are what is making others disappear. In addition to names, there were many unknowns, some where even the gender was unidentifiable due to the destruction of the body by the desert. At the shrine, the immigrants are within the US, but they still have 100 miles to walk before they are safely within a city. Many human remains are found in this zone of the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction, which extends 100 miles from the border.
WHAT WE FELT:
Today we all felt small; in terms of the terrain and the issue. Some of us felt sick, either due to actual illness or to the situation. As we headed out into the desert by choice, many of us reflected on how privileged we were; we were entering the desert with guides, well prepared, with a safe home and citizenship waiting for us afterwards. We saw shoes and clothes abandoned as we walked, and after we read the names of the deceased, these had new meaning. At the shrine and on the trail, we felt somewhat displaced; we didn’t really belong there and we were intruding, as we were not travelers, but simply guests, trying to fathom someone else’s struggle, which is impossible. When we started the hike, it felt more like a normal outing, but the shrine made it seem much more real.
The emotions of the day definitely brought us closer as a group. Now that we have exposed ourselves to something we’ve previously only read about, we have to consider what we will do with all of this information. When we met as the end of the day, we ended with a question:
Where do we go from here?