Return to the Borderlands

January 22, 2013

January 22, 2013

Walt Michael

I am writing this account as I fly back to Maryland on a night flight.  I am tired and tempted to save this task for a day when I can find a quiet moment to recollect and write.  However, my sojourn is still vivid and raw.  I owe it to the souls who are in the desert this very night to tell their story as best I can.  I have just spent five days in Arizona in the Sonoran Desert with the Green Valley Samaritans.  It has been four years since my first of now three visits (scroll down for my initial account), each one an immersion in the goings-on of the borderland, a recurring tragic passion play of human aspirations and physical journeys, profound disappointments, unnecessary deaths, all driven by the hope for a better life ….. or just a life.

Very little has changed in four years.  There is more fence on the border and migrants must therefore go to more remote and therefore dangerous areas of the desert to attempt the crossing. This also means that the journey is longer and on more rugged terrain.  Drug cartels have increased their hold on the Mexican side of the border. The Border Patrol is in full force, riding the borderland and rounding up those people attempting to walk to the north.  Helicopters rule the sky and canvas the ground.  High-end electronic surveillance equipment blankets the desert.  Mounted Border Patrol agents comb the arroyos on horseback.   And still the people come, walking in hope, in danger, against all odds.  They walk from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, crossing many difficult borders.  If they succeed in crossing the US-Mexico border, five days and nights just might get them to Tucson.  And then what?

People are still dying in the desert.  From thirst.  From exposure.  Freezing alive in the cold. Baking to death in the sun.  The crossing is so perilous that attempting the walk alone is inviting certain disaster.  At the same time, anyone who falters must be left behind lest the group be discovered in this fright-filled journey to the north.  Often, it is those who have been left behind who are discovered by the Samaritans.  If they are found alive, their wounds are attended to, their thirst is sated. But the journey never ends.

Those who are returned to or caught by the Border Patrol go through a process that eventually brings them, hundreds of them a week, in handcuffs and shackles, to the Federal District Court in Tucson, to process through Operation Streamline.  Resembling a slave auction, migrants are sentenced to various jail terms en masse. Once time is served, generally anywhere from 30 to 180 days, the prisoners are returned to the Mexican side of the border.  Often this happens in the dead of the night when Nogales comes alive with criminal activity.  No place to run, no place to hide. Men, women, children, are dumped across the border.  During the day, the Jesuits run a soup kitchen called The Comodore.  Migrants can enroll to have two meals a day for a period lasting no more than two weeks.  After that time, they are on their own.

Yesterday was Inauguration Day.  While our nation rightfully and joyously celebrated our democracy as a fulfillment of Dr. King's vision, my heart was heavy.  In this bustling yet unacknowledged borderland, my thoughts went to José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16 year-old unarmed  boy who was shot  seven times in the back and head by Border Patrol agents.  They fired, unprovoked, through the fence into Mexico, Jose's country.  My thoughts raced to Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros, a beautiful 15 year old  El Salvadoran girl who froze in the desert and was found lifeless by the Samaritans.  I wondered where the 68 people I saw in court two days ago were now.  As the Inaugural Ball coursed through the evening, I thought about the souls who at that moment were wandering the freezing desert in the darkness.

I don't think that Dr. King was at the Inaugural Ball.  His work was already fulfilled there.  I believe that he was in the desert, walking with the migrants.  Will we, as a nation, as a world, walk with the migrants?  Or will we do what has been done year after year ~ ignore and forget?   Whenever the migrants might cross your mind, remember that at that very moment, there are souls walking the Sonoran desert.  They are walking toward you in hope.