April 1, 2010 - 1:21 PM
Since October 1, 2009, eighty-six people have died on the US/Mexico border in Arizona alone. Eighty-six people.
I spent spring break with six other University of Oregon students and a larger group of volunteers, hiking the migrant trails and providing water, food, and medical assistance to individuals on the border. This was my third time volunteering with No More Deaths, and yet I find myself more strongly influenced than ever by my experiences there. Witnessing human suffering is never easy. It is completely different from sitting in a sociology class and discussing statistics of border deaths or migration patterns. This is seeing the faces of strangers, their broken feet, and hearing their voices telling me their stories. This is the ongoing understanding that hundreds of people die on US soil every year, suffering through hyperthermia and broken limbs, trying to reach a land of opportunity.
If you haven't read my previous blogs about my work with No More Deaths, you can find them here on my blog. I first spent a five-day trip with them through my church in Colorado, traveling to various places to understand the human-scale issues of immigration policy. I was so moved by the stories I heard and by the experience of the desert that I organized a group of University of Oregon students to volunteer for the week of spring break 2009. We spent the week in the desert, hiking through cactus and up mountains, encountering three migrants and stocking water drops on the trails for those we didn't see. Hundreds of people cross that section of the Sonoran Desert every night, traveling at least three, but usually closer to six nights through incredibly rugged terrain in order to reach a first destination in the US.
Last week was a fabulous continuation of last year's work. I learned, again, about US border policy which, since 1994, has been heavily influenced by NAFTA free trade agreements and a policy of deterrence which builds heavily fortified walls along the easily-navigated border, forcing migrants into the most dangerous sections of the crossing. This year, because of the recession, fewer migrants have crossed. One might imagine this would lead naturally to fewer deaths. This is not the case. Increased enforcement and harsher legal action has no influence on people's decision to enter the United States, but has resulted in 60% more deaths during the 2009-2010 winter months than in the previous years.
John Fife, one of the leaders and founders of No More Deaths, provided a training session about the NMD mission and vision, along with policy and rules. Some of the video from this talk is available on my YouTube channel, and more will be uploaded soon. Another speaker, lawyer Isabel Garcia, provided background and context for immigration policy and the work No More Deaths does in this difficult context of politics and human rights. She thanked us for being there, telling us "this really is a matter of life and death."
What John Fife describes, and what Isabel Garcia contextualizes, is a border reality in which US immigration policy has deliberately shifted migration patterns into the most desolate and dangerous areas of the boundary between the two countries, which has resulted in at least 6,000 deaths. The United Nations has found this to be in violation of international human rights agreements-the policy of our country is deliberately causing the deaths of migrants and refugees. No More Deaths is involved in Civil Initiative-work that upholds international law where US law falls short. The act of giving clean water to someone dying of dehydration is not a question of labor policy or national security, it is a question of the ethical obligation of one person to another: the fundamental principle that people should not be allowed to die when their deaths could be prevented.
So that is what I did with my spring break. It was a week of severe emotions, from the most heartrending to the inspiring and hilarious. I am fed by that kind of work, and by that setting. The desert is beautiful. The time I have spent there has been time living my beliefs and my knowledge, intimately involved with the details of working for change, and working to save lives.
As for the daily reality on the ground, here is a brief sketch of life with No More Deaths.
We arrived in Tucson on Saturday (more on the nature of our arrival later), and had three hours of training on the background and philosophy of No More Deaths. Sunday morning we held more trainings and then packed up to head out to the desert. The No More Deaths camps are out in the middle of nowhere, close to Arivaca, a tiny town of ranchers and old desert dwellers. This year the Oregon students made their home at Byrd camp-erecting the two tents (Ben brought a single and the rest of us bonded in a single large tent), and settling in. Byrd camp is on the property of Byrd Baylor, a fabulous local woman with a deep love for the desert and an incredible talent for writing (both children's books and essays). For the next five days, we lived out there in the middle of the hills, grasses, coyotes, and migrating individuals. We saw people walking by our camp one morning, heading down a dry wash moving north. Last year our camp included an electrical outlet and a port-o-potty. No such luxury this year-it was flashlights and gas stoves, a friendly bush to pee behind and a tarp screen and bucket for the other business. No mirrors, no showers. No phones or computers.
Each day we woke up at 6:30 to the sound of a volunteer singing. We ate oatmeal and sometimes French toast. The first night was about 50 degrees, the second it rained, and the third it froze. Mornings were beautiful, and watching everyone stumble from their tents to greet the day was wonderful. We would then gear up, choose a group to hike with, and head out on the trail. The patrols ranged from flat, relatively short hikes to near-vertical scrambles over mountain passes, all carrying water and food packs. We would eat lunch on the trail or return for lunch before another patrol. We carried GPSs and followed trails well-known to the volunteer coordinators. We would call out to the desert, (in Spanish) "We are a humanitarian aid group. Do not be afraid. We have water, food, and medical supplies. If you need us, please shout." I yelled that into the desert over and over.
In the evenings, we would gather around a fire and share stories, sing songs, and be in community together. The group from Germany sang for us, and even taught us a dance. We helped each other through the difficult things we witnessed. Then, at the late-late hour of about 9:30, we would head back to our tents, cram ourselves into our crowded sleeping space, maybe write a line or two in our journals, and fall asleep. I slept every night in the secure knowledge that I was doing exactly what needed to be done-the exact action required by the moment.
The only day that was different was Wednesday, when we took a day trip to Nogales, Mexico. I will write in detail about this later, but the idea was to tour some of the services and organizations there, and to talk with people who had been caught by Border Patrol and deported. This was both the most rewarding and most difficult day for me-I heard stories that broke my heart, and which have been very present in my consciousness since then.
Our final day was Friday, which included a patrol, taking down camp, and an evening celebrating the week. The celebrations began with the Oregon group at La Gitana Cantina in Arivaca. This was the bar where I celebrated my twenty-first birthday last year, and which is actually my favorite bar I've ever been in. It's a funny place, complete with a wall of pictures of regulars who have died, a sign that reads "shots happen," and a large mural of a gypsy dancing, from which the cantina takes its name. I recognized some of the regulars from last year, and they remembered me. They even gave me a shirt from the bar to celebrate my birthday! I'm planning to spend at least another two birthdays there.
The week ended with celebration and community, just as it began. It left me with so many stories and too many heartaches. It also left me incredibly refreshed-a full week without any of the concerns of my ordinary life, from electronics to bathing (a whole eight days this year!). I have a couple more stories to tell, including some sad ones and a joyful description of the road trip (complete with video!).
Thank you, readers, for your participation in this story. By reading, you are affirming my experience, participating as a friend and as a recipient of my experiences. There is much to be said, and most of it is both sad and difficult. Thank you, therefore, for reading.