Thursday, June 05, 2014

Volunteering and Learning Along the Migrant Trail in Southern Arizona

This past week I visited Southern Arizona to immerse myself in border issues. The US-Mexican border in Arizona crosses the Sonoran Desert, which is hot and inhospitable, but for many it is an important path to economic survival.  Current immigration policies and the border fence erected since 9/11 have made what many longtime Arizona residents told me was a routine crossing into the US for seasonal work into a dangerous activity.  In fact, between 200-400 migrants die each year in the Tucson sector of the border while making this journey.

It takes migrants about 6 days to walk from the border to Tucson where they can slip into anonymity and travel to their final destinations around the US. As they begin the journey they can carry about a day or two’s worth of water and after that they are often forced to drink from cattle troughs and other dirty water sources that can make them sick and even more dehydrated or not drink at all.  This dehydration slows them down and can lead their coyotes to leave them behind as to not hold back the rest of their groups. Left alone in the desert with out water or food or a guide has led to at least 2,666 migrant deaths in the Tucson sector according to No More Deaths, an organization  whose mission is to end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border.  They and other social justice groups have sprung up in Southern Arizona to try to help with this crisis. 

I volunteered a day with both the Tucson and the Green Valley Samaritans hiking into the US desert leaving bottled water and food along known migrant routes.  These groups, along with No More Deaths, also do searches deep in the desert looking for migrants in need of help, carrying food, water and providing basic medical care.

I also spent a morning serving food to the recently deported at El Comedor, in Nogales, Mexico, where I had the chance to hear many stories.  El Comedor run by Jesuit nuns and the Kino Border Initiative feeds migrants who have just been dropped back into Mexico by US Immigration. Each day American volunteers come across the border and join the nuns to serve breakfast and dinner to up to 100 migrants a day.  They also provide medical care and advice on how to re-group and figure out what to do next.  They help migrants get bus tickets home, get money wired to them, take testimony of any abuse they may have suffered in the hands of Border Patrol and most importantly offer kindness.  I met people from all over Mexico and many from Honduras, whose countries political challenges as well as the rising ravages of the drug war have forced them to search for better economic prospects.

I was most struck by hearing the stories of those who have lived their whole lives in the US, but are victims of the rising deportations happening these days.  I really hadn’t thought as deeply about the implications of these deportations.  The two men I spoke to for the longest both lived in the US since they were young children.  They said they have no family or ties to Mexico anymore and instead have wives, children, mothers, fat hers and siblings in the US.  Clearly they were going to keep trying to cross back to their loved ones until they succeeded and who could blame them.  (Anyway, it really gave me the faces to remember, when I hear more about the debate about not ripping apart families. It just doesn’t seem like a good policy in many ways.)

During the week, I visited the Federal Courthouse in Tucson to observe Operation Streamline, where the US prosecutes about 20% of the migrants caught near the border, who have tried to cross before, and sentences them to time in a US detention center before they are sent back over the border.  This was the most painful hopeless stop of my week.  62 migrants with shackled hands and ankles shuffle up to the judge and plead guilty to crossing into the US and then are taken away to basically serve prison time.  Many advocates are enraged by this process, but honestly, I saw judges, lawyers and prosecutors making the best of a bad situation.  Until our immigration policy changes, a system like this will have to exist and I was just glad to see a judge that addressed each migrant with compassion. (I’ve heard that some judges do not show the same kindness.) Hearing one migrant address the judge and tell of the immense financial duress his family was under and another say he was so afraid to go back to Guatemala that he would rather serve a long sentence, made clear the urgency many migrants face when they decide to leave their homes in search of economic prospects.

One night, I participated in a vigil held by the Border Patrol Victims Network to bring attention to the 42 people who have been killed by Border Patrol and ask the US government to investigate the murders rather than the total silence they have found so far.  To date, not one person has been prosecuted for any of these deaths.  (Last Friday, after yet another Border Patrol shooting, they finally published a few suggested guidelines to attempt to deescalate situations between Border Patrol and migrants and prevent future deaths.)

To experience a totally different side of the border issue, I took at cross border tour to learn about the Mexico side of Nogales, which has a vibrant community. You can read more here, but in short there is a lot of effort to make sure they build a cohesive community. Splitting Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico with the border wall took a toll on the community, but it continues to live on and for me it was fun to get a solid dose of Mexico spirit.

All in all, as usual with all these things, I leave more confused about what to do then when I arrived. There are definitely no easy answers.  The US economy is hungry for more immigrants to work our low paying jobs, that American’s don’t seem to want to do, so we lure them north. Our economic policies, like NAFTA, have decimated their small farms and our voracious need for drugs has led to a painful drug war spreading into Central America. Most of the Arizonans that I spoke to really believe that we need to provide more temporary work visas so that the migrants can come work in the US and then go back home, like they did before the border wall.  Residents in Southern Arizona are fed up with the militarization of the border area with Border Patrol vehicles zooming up and down all the roads and checkpoints stopping them in multiple places.  It truly feels like a war zone at times, with vehicles swarming and helicopters buzzing overhead. I was particularly horrified to learn that so many people are dying due to the harsh conditions of the crossing.  Something just has to be done.

I was very touched by the experience and from now on will be able to understand what is behind all the rhetoric in Washington about sealing the border.  I also was moved by the incredible dedication of volunteers in the border area to fight for migrant rights and offer water, medical care and kindness.  It showed the best of the human spirit. I leave wishing there was more I could do and I will keep looking to figure out what that might be.

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