Guest blog by: Cat Willett
No More Deaths is an organization based in Tucson, AZ. They work in the Sonoran Desert where many migrants cross from Mexico to the US. Somewere between 300-500 migrants per year die in the desert, many are never found. The organization walks the desert, providing water, food, and medical assistance. In addition, they work to document abuses of those who have been deported to two border towns (Nogales and Agua Prieta). The extent of my expectation was be hiking a lot, carrying water, and camping out.
That, however, wasn’t why I’d come all the way to Arizona. Our No More Deaths training took place in Tucson and was a full day of learning about border history, nonviolent communication, and the foundational principles of No More Death (including civil initiative. A good primer on that can be found here: http://designop.us/wrote/about-civil-initiative), and the various legal issues around this work. Everything that the organization does is legal and is actually a way of ensuring that the US meets the Geneva Convention principles on providing food and aid to migrants in a foreign land.
We left for the desert Sunday. The general schedule for camp was to rise at 5am, eat breakfast and head out on morning patrol. Patrols consist of visiting an area of the Sonoran desert that No More Deaths mapped out. There are several “water drops” which are distinct points on migrant trails where we hike in gallons of water (between 15-40, depending on how well-used the trail is). After driving to a certain water drop, we will hike the trails carrying food, extra water, and medical supplies. Someone will call out, in Spanish, that there is no need to be afraid. We’re not the border patrol (la migra). We have food, water, and medical supplies. Then we wait to see if anyone responds. We did this twice a day, with a siesta in between.
The dangers of the desert are very real. The Border Patrol has been up front about the fact that they are attempting to beef up security in more urban areas so that crossing through the Sonoran desert becomes the only option for migrants. Their thought is that the dangers of the desert will be an adequate deterrent for migrants. The fact that the US needs low-paid labor in our fields, hotels, nursing homes, and construction sites is a reality that I believe many people ignore. Until this system is reformed and until we look clearly at how intertwined the United States and Mexico are, we will continue to see people cross the Sonoran desert.
I also learned it is impossible for a person to carry enough water to survive. The average crossing time from a Mexican border town through the desert is about 5 days. That is, if you don’t get injured, lost or left behind. The stories told about people who have been in the desert for a week or more are stunning. They travel at night to avoid police but that leaves folks vulnerable to injury on steep trails, as well as bandits who lay in wait in the Sonoran Mountains.
One of the more powerful experiences of my time with No More Deaths was witnessing Operation: Streamline, the latest in deterrents by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Operation: Streamline is a new way of trying people picked up by Border Patrol. Each day, 70-100 people are randomly selected to be part of a mass trial. These people agree to plead guilty and waive their trial in exchange for not receiving long prison sentences and a felony charge. It seems like a mockery of our justice system to see 70 people represented by 10 lawyers, who have about 20 minutes to meet with their clients, learn their stories, and walk them through the process.
This trip caused me to think about the people I love and how desperate I would have to be to leave them. Pause for a moment and think about spending your savings to get to an unwelcoming land, alone, or with someone you love. Think about wanting to contribute, to make money for loved ones back home, to work, to be useful. This is the average migrant’s story, based on what I’ve seen.
This trip didn’t give me any easy answers about political solutions. What it did was show me that our immigration system is broken. We’ve denied how inextricably our fates are tied up with migrants who come here for work. I believe we are towing a dangerous line of denying the basic humanity and human needs of those who cross the desert everyday in hopes of a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Whatever politicians decide to do, whatever walls and checkpoints border patrol builds, there will always be a space for people who believe that faith, or human decency, requires us to meet basic needs for everyone, regardless of their immigration status.
Cat Willett is currently an MSW student at Loyola University Chicago. She is passionate about social issues, especially as they relate to her love of others and helping her neighbor. She was recently inducted into Loyola University’s Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honor Society.
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