The controversy surrounding undocumented migrant workers is fueled by politics and economics, ethnicity and racism, social justice and international relations. As I am not an expert in any of these subjects, and have limited exposure through my volunteer work with No More Deaths, I will do my best to call upon my own experiences first, pulling in what data I have to support other than first hand accounts.
In subsequent entries to this “Out of America” category, I do hope to challenge some of the stereotypes and misinformation which surrounds this subject, answering questions asked of me and those which I have formed myself.
The following is my first entry, a story from just three hours out of three days on the border.
Of Boundaries & Borders
This past weekend presented an anomaly, a break from the intense late June heat with borderland temperatures in the high eighties or low nineties by mid-day and what felt like high fifties at night.
On my third day out, five volunteers for No More Deaths, myself included, drove for nearly an hour over very rough terrain, from bumpy roads to creek beds in which our four-by-four truck loaded with seventy gallons of water was routinely forced to a crawl, its driver carefully picking her way over basketball size boulders and steep, loose inclines likely impossible to pass without a low-gear transmission.
The desert trees clawed at the sides of the truck, the squeals of thorns and branches against metal and glass reminders that very little in the desert is soft, friendly, or welcoming.
En route to our final destination, we dropped a dozen or so water jugs several meters off the road at a designated water drop, and then packed food and water for migrants in addition to that which we carried for ourselves.
The five of us set out for the high saddle, likely over five thousand feet in elevation, two, maybe, three miles from the bottom of the wash where the truck was parked. Even with topo maps, a GPS unit, and two people who had been on this trail before, we found ourselves in a tight ravine, off course within thirty minutes from start. Such is navigation in this harsh terrain.
Stories in the Sand
As I have come to expect, there are signs of migrants in nearly every desert passage, high, low, narrow or wide, on or off the set trails. Footprints, water bottles, blown-out shoes, backpacks, and discarded clothing are clear signs of who has come and gone. The brittle nature of the bottles, sun baked degradation of the clothing, rubber, and plastics helps determine how much time has passed since those items were left behind when their owners passed through.
It is unlikely we will hike for more than ten minutes in any direction, on any trail, without crossing something left by a human in flight. There are running shoes whose soles are torn, ripped back, or completely missing; wing tips, penny loafers, cowboy boots, women’s high heels and children’s dress shoes too. We once found snake skin loafers with smooth leather bottoms mid-way up a very steep climb which was challenging even for me with proper, full hiking boots whose tread was designed for just such an endeavor. It was obvious that whomever once wore them realized the folly of continuing in what was likely his third or fourth day in transit from Mexico north.
There are countless thousands of stories to be told every month, millions over the years, the voices of passers by lost to the high desert wind but recorded in the trails themselves and in the personal belongings they have left behind.
The coyotes, the ones who are often paid to lead men, women, and children from south to north are, from the stories we have heard, often ruthless and without scruples.
“Victory trees” hold women’s underwear and bras to showcase those who have been raped by the coyotes, the others in the group helpless to do anything for fear of being misguided or left behind after paying incredible fees for the passage.
Everyone carries a backpack the size and style of a school book bag with thin shoulder straps and no waist belt. As the migrants are often told the entire journey is but two days walking at most, they bring little more than one or two small bottles of water, seldom more than a single liter if combined.
We have been told that on the first or second day over the border, the coyotes point to a distant glow in the night sky and announce they are but hours from Tucson. The migrants change into a fresh set of clothes, clean jeans and shirts, dress shoes and socks. They brush their teeth and hair, apply makeup and deodorant in order to appear less like migrants and more as locals, employed, and already embedded in our communities.
They drop the backpacks, soiled clothes, and toiletries in growing piles in shaded washes and then set off for what they are lead to believe is the final leg of their journey.
Three, sometimes five days later, they are without food, water, functional shoes, or hope. The coyotes long ago abandoned them, easily out-pacing their clients by day or night in order to return to Mexico and start again.
If they have a mobile phone, the battery is often dead or the coverage impossible but from saddles or peaks where they are also more likely to be spotted by the border patrol.
No, not all migrants come with coyotes. And no, not all are left to die in this manner. But the stories told are too often the same as I have shared, and the results repeated—giving up and heading back to the border, seeking the border patrol and suffering the consequences, or death.
At the time of this writing there are 128 confirmed deaths since October 2009 (one nearly every 24 hours over a given year) on the Arizona border. There are likely far more, but as these migrants are undocumented, coming not only from Mexico but from all reaches of Central and northern South America, and the vast desert able to hide bodies for years, or forever, the true count will never be known. The border is 2000 miles long, from Texas to California, and the total number of deaths each year estimated to be in the thousands.
Of Helicopters & Handcuffs
We reached the northern side of the saddle and stopped to drink and eat in the shade of a tree. But from the southern side of the saddle, we heard a helicopter, likely the border patrol in pursuit.
A few minutes later, each of us found purchase on the high rock ledges which lined the giant valley bowl, maybe a quarter mile from the helicopter which hovered too low. It swooped down to nearly touch the tree tops, rising, spinning, and moving completely around a large, high island in the middle of the valley.
Having been pursued by a police helicopter when I was younger (another story for another time), I can personally attest to the fear they instill, machines highly effective at scattering those caught in the wake beneath. The border patrol often uses the helicopters to cause groups of migrants to break-up, their chance for survival greatly reduced if no longer traveling as a group.
We were far enough into the desert to believe this was a reconnaissance mission only, or perhaps a training exercise as we were unable to locate any individuals on the ground and the area covered by the helicopter seemingly too vast to be focused on individuals.
And yet just moments after the pilot directed his airborne vehicle over our heads, the saddle behind us, and to the north, we saw four individuals emerge from a lower saddle on the west side of the valley island.
We waited, listened, and thought we heard Spanish spoken. We called out to announce that we had water, food, and medical aid if needed. We waited again. Only the person in front continued forward, the other three falling back, or at least that is what we discerned from out distant perch without binoculars or scope.
We opted to move down into the valley to determine if our assistance was needed. Fifteen minutes later, we caught a trail and crested only two rises which followed the deep ravine bottom before we came across two border patrol officers, one in front and the other behind fifteen migrants, each handcuffed to the person in front and behind, save the single woman who was without restraints.
We announced ourselves as humanitarian aid workers, desiring to provide food and water. The officer in front stated we were allowed to proceed, but needed to do quickly, while the officer in the rear questioned the former about his decision.
Given the restraints on the migrants’ wrists, we opened the bottles and bags, helping each to what they needed in the moment, placing the remaining water and food in their backpacks. The lead border patrol officer instructed them to thank us, as a school teacher would a group of children after visiting the local museum or fire house on a field trip. Each had already thanked us, as is most always the case when we meet travelers in this place.
I quickly interviewed the young lady. She said she was without pain or need for medical assistance. By her account, they had been in the desert already for five days, and yet were but two days from the border for someone who knew the route.
As always, it is difficult to determine who might have been the coyote, if there was one at all. Given their slow pace, it is possible they were already abandoned or without one from the beginning.
In just five minutes time we had emptied our packs, attended to each migrant, offered water to the border patrol officers (who politely declined), and they continued to the saddle from which we had come.
This is the point at which I always break down. Perhaps with more experience I will become accustomed to the heightened emotions which are inherent in these interactions. I hope not, to be honest, for I do not desire to become cold to this heated place. The dirt on my face was changed to mud when the procession was moved along the trail back to waiting dog-catcher trucks and eventually, the Wackenhut buses. We kept our distance, not wanting to apply undue pressure to an already tense situation. Past the saddle, we believe the officers and migrants headed west while we continued north, back to our truck.
How some sections of the trail were traversed by people handcuffed front to back is beyond me, for I needed at least one hand on the ground in a number of places to steady myself over steep, loose sections.
It was just past noon, the sun gaining its highest, hottest position in the Arivaca sky. We didn’t talk much during our retreat nor the drive back. We had done what we could. Little more to say.
No More Deaths
At camp, those of us down for the weekend packed our things in preparation to head home; those just arriving received final training by one of the No More Deaths’ founders who in his mid-seventies shows no sign of slowing. Crates of water bottles loaded into the backs of trucks, food and medical supplies into backpacks, the afternoon sun again beat down on the desert trails.
It is unlikely that today, tomorrow, or this year will be the end, a time where there are no more deaths. Until then, migrants will continue to seek a better life, the border patrol will continue to give chase, politicians who have never been to the borderlands nor spoken with an undocumented worker (nor likely a border patrol officer either) will continue to debate the cost to the American people while volunteers place water on the trails.