Life and Death on the Border

By Hunter Jackson

Paulino was from Puebla but had lived in the U.S. for seven years. After his mother died, he returned to Mexico for her funeral and then had to figure out how to get back to his life north of the border. He decided to bring with him his two youngest daughters, Arleta (age 9) and Jacquelin (age 14), who had been living with their grandmother. They began their walk through the brutal Sonoran Desert a few days before Jacquelin's quinceañera (fifteenth birthday party), a major milestone in the life of many Mexican girls. Their pollero (guide) assured Paulino the trip would be quick and the girls would safely be with their mother in L.A. in time for the party.

As is often the case, the trip took much longer than expected. Days of walking up and down rocky trails in the extreme heat wore them all down, especially Jacquelin. She became sick and unable to keep up with the rest of the group. The pollero left the three of them behind. The next day, Paulino tried unsuccessfully to flag down a passing Border Patrol helicopter. He was considering starting a brush fire to get some attention when we ran into him.

They were miles from any road, in the middle of the desert, and Jacquelin was not doing well. She had turned 15 the day before, but their circumstances diminished the significance of the event. That July afternoon it was 110 degrees in the shade. Unfortunately, there is very little shade in the desert.

It was my first day volunteering with No More Deaths, an organization based in Tucson that provides direct humanitarian aid to people crossing the border in southern Arizona. We had set out early that morning, the dangerous sun still low in the sky, to patrol the remote trails that crisscross the desert and lead literally thousands of people into the United States every day.

Each group of volunteers has at least one Spanish speaker and someone with medical training. Our medic tried to cool down Jacquelin's overheated body and gave her water. Luckily, Jacquelin was in good shape - in Puebla she had been a soccer star. It did not take much to restore her strength and energy. Armed with several gallons of water, food and packets of electrolytes, the three set off to continue their journey north as the sun started to set behind the stark stone mountains to the west.

During the time I have spent volunteering with No More Deaths over the last two years, I have met many other people on the trails. Everyone has had a different story, a different reason they were risking their lives to cross the desert on foot. Many (like Paulino and his daughters) have families already in the U.S. that they are trying to join. Others leave their homes to come work for a few years, save some money and then go back. Some came to the U.S. when they were small children, lived here their whole lives and were deported. They may not speak Spanish or know anyone in the country that the U.S. government sends them back to. They are seen as "illegal" in the place they call home.

For the last five summers, No More Deaths has operated a remote camp about 12 miles north of the official border, near the town of Arivaca, Ariz. Hundreds of people from all over the country have volunteered over the years to help run the camp, some for a week, others for months. Each morning and afternoon small groups hike some of the most trafficked trails that funnel people north toward Tucson. Volunteers carry gallons of water, first-aid kits, clean socks and food packs. Some days we encounter groups of up to 30 people who take our water and socks and keep going. We also see smaller groups or lone walkers who have been separated from their groups, which can be extremely treacherous for someone unfamiliar with the desert. Sometimes they want to keep going, sometimes they want to go back to Mexico so they can go home or try again later. Occasionally, we find sick or injured people in serious danger who need to be evacuated by ambulance or helicopter. Usually, however, we see more signs of people than the people themselves. Fresh footprints, empty water bottles, food wrappers, apple cores still yellow. Backpacks, hats, shirts, shoes. Toothbrushes, underwear, lipstick, children's toys. The trails are littered with thousands of pieces of thousands of lives, scattered across the ground in the most inexplicable ways. We can sometimes sense their presence, but if they don't want to be found, we won't find them. It's better that way - it means they don't need help.

The border passes through one of the most brutal landscapes on the continent: thousands of square miles of harsh, dry, rocky desert inhabited by rattlesnakes, scorpions, vultures, coyotes, tarantulas and innumerable spiky, spiny plants that slice through any exposed skin. Armed bandits roam the desert trails, preying on migrants. Sometimes they work in collusion with the polleros, who lead groups straight into ambushes where everyone is robbed of all the money they are carrying to pay for their journey. Women are routinely raped, their bras and underwear left dangling from tree branches like trophies. Border Patrol abuse is all too common.

The border makes people invisible. By pushing migrants away from populated areas and out into remote desert, the border prevents most of us from witnessing and understanding the violence and brutality inherent in the U.S. immigration system - and in borders in general. People walk under cover of darkness, far from roads and houses, sometimes for five or six or more nights. When they encounter bandits or Border Patrol, there are no witnesses. When people (or a father and his two daughters) are left behind - or when they die - no one knows where to look. Most bodies are never recovered, making the official count (183 in Arizona last year) a gross underestimate. And when they reach their destinations in the U.S., migrants are often expected to remain in the shadows, on the margins.

No More Deaths helps make the border real to those of us who have never had to cross it. It ceases to be a line on a map or a wall that people have to devise a way around and becomes a place, a region, a system. It transcends politics and books, theories and debates. It's about life and death, humanity and dignity. It is about people who have been made invisible, each with their own vibrant stories and histories and dreams, walking for days through that unforgiving, inhospitable landscape. Spending time out in the desert helps make them visible to us.

The work of No More Deaths does not end when we leave camp - the border exists and expresses itself in other ways farther north. It divides cities, neighborhoods and neighbors. It is the hazardous working conditions, minimum-wage violations and the extreme lack of security that comes from the jobs so many immigrants find when they arrive in the U.S. It is the fear to report police abuse, go to the hospital or fight an eviction. It is the stereotyping and discrimination still faced by brown people who have been in this country for generations. All systems of oppression rely on the dichotomies that are created by borders - queer/straight, man/woman, legal/illegal, us/them. The border is everywhere, but most people think they have never seen it.

In order to seriously fight the wall that supposedly separates the U.S. from Mexico, we must also fight these other borders. The most obvious inland manifestations of the border are the ICE raids on homes and workplaces that terrorize immigrant communities and destroy families. Across the country, groups have been forming and organizing to fight the raids. Many cities now have hotlines that people can call for emergency advice if they think ICE is in the area. In other places - like San Francisco, Rhode Island and Watsonville, Calif. - people have created rapid response networks, phone trees used to mobilize people who are able to challenge, disrupt or publicize immigration raids. Other similar projects are in the works elsewhere.

Borders are integral to the functioning of capitalism, a system based on division and exploitation. Every day we have the opportunity to confront the oppressive, violent, hateful reality that results, be it by making the desert safer for people on their way to the U.S. or by challenging the power dynamics in our interpersonal relationships. No More Deaths is just one avenue through which we can take action to help bring about a borderless world; others are created daily. All are essential.

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