A couple of weeks ago, I left Evansville, Indiana, to spend time in southern Arizona working with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group that aims to prevent death in the Sonoran desert, where 170 bodies and human remains were recovered in 2016 alone. For the past twenty years, heightened obstacles along the U.S.-Mexico border have funneled people migrating north to do so in remote and treacherous areas, such as around the town of Arivaca, Arizona, where I’ve been staying. I am offering water, food, and medical care to migrants to be in solidarity with them, to accompany them briefly in their journey and to take a political stand against the ongoing immigration crisis. To read more about the situation and my motivation for spending time in Arizona, you can read my previous post here.
Someone asked me recently what I’ve learned so far in my first two weeks. A couple of things came to mind.
First, walking from Mexico to the U.S. can take much longer than I thought; sometimes 14 miles as the crow flies can take a week or longer, especially when people lose their guide, become sick or injured, or have to hide from Border Patrol. Depending on where a group launches their journey, several days could be spent walking on the Mexican side before crossing as well. Folks who have stumbled upon our camp since I’ve been here have sometimes walked for 8 or 9 days.
A welcoming sign in front of the No More Deaths camp reads, “There’s water, food, socks and blankets inside. Take what you need,” Byrd Camp, April 2017.
The terrain also seems much more intense in real life than in the pictures I’d seen. We drive on roads that I wouldn’t have thought possible to drive on and talk about landmarks such as the “truck-eating ditch.” I’ve crawled up mountainsides, scrambled down into canyons, and rolled under barbed-wire fences. Sometimes I think hiking here is like a game of Tetris that I haven’t quite figured out; my feet keep moving while my brain tries to work one step ahead, always figuring out where to place my feet next. Sometimes I wonder how migrants who travel at night manage it.
I drink about a gallon of water a day when I’m “on patrol” (out in the desert with other volunteers to drop water and food on trails, offer other humanitarian aid as needed and generally be a presence other than Border Patrol in the desert). On patrol, I also eat regular meals, have medical supplies on hand, take breaks, use decent hiking gear, and often spend the majority of my day in a truck, out of the harsh sunlight.
Migrants travel without all these perks. It’s nearly impossible to carry enough water for the unpredictably long journey; many migrants start with a one-gallon black jug filled with water or one jug shared among several people. Migrants can end up going days without water, leading to increased exhaustion, dizziness, headaches, constipation, muscle cramps, irritability, confusion, and eventually delirium and unconsciousness, during a journey that’s already physically demanding. Some migrants only find contaminated water sources along the way in cattle tanks and small ponds. Drinking it leads to vomiting and diarrhea, but despite the risks, drinking any water is usually better than none.
Before going on patrol, a group of us choose a route based on how long it’s been since a particular trail has been refilled with supplies. Then we drive and hike to the drop sites with food, water and buckets of snacks, blankets and socks. Once at a site, we document what we see–used gallons of water, empty bean cans, and emptied snack containers as well as slashed water jugs, cans with bullet holes, and supplies damaged by animals.
Water jugs, beans and snacks are left on trails for migrants, Sonoran desert, April 2017.
In my first ten days of patrolling, I’ve seen at least four instances of vandalism–two sites with slashed water jugs, one site with stabbed cans of beans, one with bullet holes in cans of beans, and a couple of instances where it was unclear if damage was done by humans or other animals.
No More Deaths hasevidence of Border Patrol agents damaging humanitarian aid, such as the video above, where a Border Patrol agent destroys water jugs by kicking them, and the video below, where a Border Patrol agent takes a bag of blankets that was intended to be available for migrants to use during the winter. No More Deaths, in collaboration with Derechos Humanos, also has an abuse documentation team that reports on the various tactics that Border Patrol uses to intimidate, injure, disappear and kill migrants. The tactics often violate international guidelines for humanitarian aid and call into question Border Patrol’s recent media push claiming they are out in the desert “to save lives,” among other reasons.
Still, Border Patrol accountability is extremely limited. According to a 2015 report from the American Civil Liberties Union:
“From Fiscal Year 2012 through Fiscal Year 2013, DHS [Department of Homeland Security] oversight agencies reported just three complaints involving alleged fourth amendment violations nationwide. Yet government records produced to the ACLU reveal that at least 81 such complaints originated in Tucson and Yuma Sectors alone during the same period.”
The report also highlights rampant civil rights violations, failure to investigate or disclose abuse complaints, lack of transparency, and flawed training for Border Patrol agents.
Fortunately, avoiding animal damage is easy enough; when we notice damage we can move water into areas that are difficult for cattle and other animals to reach.
My first two weeks of water drops and other activities have flown by! I’m enjoying the bits of time I’m able to spend with migrants on their journey as well as with other volunteers and locals. I’m learning a lot about Arivaca, the long history of locals opening their homes to migrants, the logistics of crossing the border and getting to a final destination, and the awful things that Border Patrol and militia groups do.
I’m making plans over the next few weeks to observe Operation Streamline court proceedings in Tucson and work from No More Death’s camp in Ajo, Arizona. Check back for another post soon! Below are photos of the No More Deaths camp, the U.S.-Mexico border fence and the Arivaca Aid Office.