From December 4 through 11, 2008, Walt Michael, Founder and Executive Director of Common Ground on the HIll was in southern Arizona along the US-Mexican border. During this time he participated in the work of the
Green Valley Samaritans, who provide water, food and first aid to people in need.
Last summer, Ted Ramirez and Michael Ronstadt of the Santa Cruz River Band asked me to come to the Arizona border in the Sonoran Desert. The purpose of this trip was to observe the work of the Green Valley Samaritans, a humanitarian volunteer organization whose mission is "to save lives in the Southern Arizona desert." In my four days with the Samaritans, I came to a new and more informed understanding of what is taking place in the desert. I hope that by reading this journal you will be encouraged to seek more information and think deeply and perhaps creatively about what is going on at our southern borders.
It will be helpful to the reader to go to the Green Valley Samaritan website before reading my journal.
I arrived in the retirement community of Green Valley on Thursday evening, where I was greeted warmly by my hosts, Shura Wallin and Rich Ramirez. Shura was to become my mentor in the desert. In four short days, she became one of my all time heroines, an immense energy of genuine concern, searing intellect, great experience and good will. Shura was to make very sure that I learned what is happening in the desert. She is a small woman with a huge heart. A warrior of the heart.
Our first day started by meeting up with Shura and two other Samaritans, Harry Smith and Rev. Randy Mayer of the Good Shepherd UCC www.thegoodshepherducc.com. We climbed into the Samaritans' 4x4 and rode south on I-19 searching the desert for migrants who might be stranded in the aroyos (dry stream beds) near the highways. These people would have crossed the border at Nogales or Sasabe and walked for perhaps three or four days and/or nights to make it this far north. It is estimated that an average of 1,000 immigrants are captured in the Arizona desert every day. In this year alone, 183 migrants have been found dead ..... men, women, teenagers, children. Many more have been found wandering aimlessly or down on the desert floor unable to proceed. It is fair to say that an unknown number of people have never been found. The desert floor reaches as high as 140 degrees in the summer, and the night brings extreme cold. The hundreds (if not thousands) of walking trails are littered with discarded clothing, empty water bottles, blankets, shoes, backpacks, even an occasional baby stroller. We found many such articles as we called out "sommos amigos!" This would let those in hiding or in big trouble know that we were Samaritans, with water and medical help at hand. Throughout the day we searched, always scanning both sides of the road while driving, looking for any sign of someone in trouble. I was keenly aware that we might happen upon a person in dire need of help, or even worse, a person beyond help.
Gradually we made our way closer and closer to the border, taking Arivoca Road to Arivoca, a small town and outlying community in the desert, long known for its artists as well as its gun-toting militia types. A strange combination of attitudes to say the least. We made our way over miles of hilly rough dirt/rock roads to the No More Deaths Camp. This camp runs full tilt in the summer, staffed by mostly young student volunteers who camp in the rough, running path patrols, leaving water in the desert, searching for people. At this time of year (winter), the camp is empty, but the shrine to those who have died in the desert remains, constructed of items found in the desert. it is a sobering reminder of the gravity of the plight of the migrants. Throughout the desert, Samaritans have placed water stations, powder blue-colored barrels that are marked by blue flags on twenty-foot poles, beacons for those who might be within sight. These are the oases of the Sonoran desert. As well, Samaritans place gallon plastic water jugs along the paths. The hundreds of empty jugs that I saw throughout the desert attest to the thirst of the migrants.
After leaving the camp, we drove to the home of well known and celebrated author Byrd Baylor, a free spirit and long time quiet conscience in the desert. Her house is always open to whomever might pass through ... whether migrants, Border Patrol Agents, rattlesnakes, roadrunners, you name it. Many a thirsty and hungry person and creature has found solace at Byrd's desert abode. Her voice and presence is highly respected in the desert. When she is off lecturing far and wide, her house remains open to all. The Border Patrol kept its eye on Byrd.
After leaving Byrd's house, we drove south to Ruby, an old mining town, where Sun Dog is the caretaker and guide. The mining camp is long since inactive, but migrant trails abound. Sun Dog told us that a number of migrants come through his area. When the Border Patrol comes near, the migrants merely trek 300 yards to the east or west of the position of the Border Patrol ..... which is usually riding the roads, unless they are not on the trail of migrants they have spotted, at which point they might mount horses and search on horseback. If caught, the migrants are arrested, handcuffed and taken to buses run by the private contractors, Wackenhut, known for horrible human rights abuses. The Wackenhut buses transport the captured to a variety of destinations, including jail, the Nogales Processing Center and the Mexican border. The Border Patrol, in my limited experience, in general, are cordial, well mannered and respectful agents who are there to do their job. Before leaving Sun Dog's house, we see a picture of a recently photographed jaguar, a recent returnee to the Arizona desert. (I wonder if the border fence will impede the jaguars as they attempt to repopulate Arizona?) In the near distance, we see Tascosa Mountain and the further distant Chimney Rock. We drove out of Ruby and soon encountered a Border Patrol vehicle. A brief conversation with the officers reveals that a group of migrants had been detected in the area, and officers were hot on their trail. We realize that migrants are in the area, and that we might encounter them.
Soon we were hiking a winding, climbing and challenging trail in California Gulch. It's a well-worn path, but a difficult climb for me because of the altitude. Along the way we found a number of backpacks, water bottles, etc., and evidence of a migrant camping spot, where it would appear migrants would hold up in the shade until night, when they would drop down to easier paths near roads. While climbing, I slipped and was spined by a century plant, taking a needle in my forefinger. It helped me begin to realize what the migrants experience as they walk through the desert at night . The desert is an unforgiving and very dangerous place. Three days later the needle finally worked its way out of my finger. We topped the trail, affording us a profound view of the mountainous desert. We descended the trail and got back in the Samaritan 4x4, driving the long road back to Green Valley, always peering into the desert, looking for stranded souls.
Shura and I meet at 8 AM and drove toward the Nogales border. Our mission was to bring medical supplies, food packs and clothing to people on the Mexican side of the border. At a Methodist church parking lot, we opened the provisions shed and packed up our 4x4 with supplies. Parking at the border, we loaded up two push carts with supplies and walked across the border to the tent where people are given aid and sustenance. They were both people readying to cross the border and those who had been returned to Mexico with no hope of crossing the border.
I met a man who had lived for 23 years in the USA. While riding his bicycle without a light at night, he was arrested by the police and put in jail. He spent 9 months in jail, and was then deported to Mexico. While in the United Sates, he had worked a number of jobs, at times working as a foreman in painting large buildings. Most recently, he has worked as an electrician. He told me that he likes to work, it is all he wants to do. He has a wife and child living in California, where he was arrested for riding his bike. Today, as we spoke, he clutched his various papers, hoping against hope that somehow he could make his way back to central Mexico, where he hoped that a brother he had not seen in 23 years would take him in and allow him to get back on his feet. He hopes that perhaps in a year he can try to gain legal entry back into his home of 23 years. He pulled a bible from his sack and told me that he studied about the bible while in prison, and that it has been helpful to him. At this point in his story, he turned his head from me and began to weep. He had no clue as to how he was going to get out of Nogales and make his way to his brother's home. No way to make a phone call. Stranded with nothing. At this point, my gift of water and food seemed at best a feeble gesture.
I met another young man who told me his story. By this time we had walked to the Comodore, a soup kitchen run by nuns who work along with the Jesuits. Juan was young, bright-eyed and articulate and I could tell he had the respect and admiration of his fellow travelers. He had lived and worked in Lake Tahoe for a period of time. His three year old daughter and young wife were waiting for him to return. I do not know why he was now in Mexico; perhaps he had been deported, or perhaps he had returned to Mexico to visit famlily. In any event, here he was, on the border, ready to try to cross and travel back to Tahoe to be with his young family. He and three other young men, two of them from Honduras, were preparing to cross the border that night. There is safety in numbers, so people planning to cross the border often form-up in small groups. Being alone in the desert with a vague sense of where to walk is a recipe for disaster. Another man in another group was a classical musician, whose family awaited him in Colorado. I took no pictures on the Mexican side of the border, but you can imagine the faces of these young men, anticipating a run toward freedom through a hostile environment. Running against the odds.
After doing what we could do for the day, we packed up our medical supplies, etc. and crossed the border back into the USA. All I could think about was the many people I met on this day. No matter what you have heard about the border and the realities of illegal immigration, unless you have seen this in person, you can't imagine what goes on, how beautiful these people are.
At 7 PM, it was concert time in Green Valley, at the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ. I was emotionally drained from the day's experience, but ready to play some music and tell some stories. Before making this journey, I thought hard about learning some songs about the border and issues of immigration. After a lot of thought, I concluded that the best thing I could offer was to sing songs that reference images of home and separation and hard times, no matter from what circumstance or culture. The brotherhood of man. A recent pilgrimage to visit old friends in Appalachia weighed heavily on my heart. My family's part in the Underground Railroad is always present in my perspective on today's world, especially as it relates to the plight of the migrants. So, songs such as Hello Stranger, Legacy and Stepstone made sense in the context of what is happening at the border. It was a memorable night of music. I was joined by old time banjo and fiddle wizard Dan Levenson who winters in Tucson! The Santa Cruz River Band showed up and performed, as usual, a stellar set of music from the Southwest. We all sang Tom Paxton's "Ramblin' Boy" for the finale, with Rev. Randy, a fine musician, joining us. As always, I was buoyed by the power of music in community.
I went to bed that night thinking about the young men at the border, who by now, must have attempted their run toward their waiting families. Had they escaped detection? Were they lost and cold? Were they alive? My concert was an inconsequential and priveleged activity in the face of the reality these young men were facing.
Two days after returning to Maryland, I received this email from Shura: "Hi Walt, Remember Juan from the Comedor? He tried again and, once again, was returned. His 3 friends were taken into custody. More despair!"