Still There are Deaths

February 21, 2012

A few months ago I read this as part of Marginalia, an occasional series of readings at Bluestockings.

For each of the last five summers, I’ve spent a couple of weeks volunteering with a project called No More Deaths that’s based in Tucson, Arizona. No More Deaths collaborates with other organizations in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, to run resource centers for deportees, document Border Patrol abuses, and fight racist laws in Arizona. They are best known, however, for providing food, water, and medical aid to migrants along one of the deadliest stretches of the US/Mexico border, which is mostly what I’ve done with them.

After the first two summers, I wrote this zine about what I’d learned from spending six weeks out in the desert. It was mostly edited and rearranged excerpts from journals I’d kept while there, which are kind of like field notes. I’m really glad I wrote it, but if I did it today I think it’d be pretty different. It was a way of dealing with the intensity of some of what I encountered while I was there, and so it has lots of stories of people I met on the trails, people who were in the middle of what I sincerely hope was the worst and hardest parts of their lives. It can be a little dramatic.

I’ve gone back four times since then and kept taking notes on it. As time’s passed I’ve become less interested in focusing on the horror stories, which can easily end up presenting all the individuals walking north through that desert with their own stories and histories as little more than a helpless mass of victims. Certainly they’re compelling, powerful, important stories. But there’s a lot of other things happening out there, far from the eye of the media and most people, at the edges of what a map says in the United States. And I want to read a bit about some of that stuff too. About how the desert along the US/Mexico boundary line isn’t just empty space, isn’t just a zone of transition between two discrete nation-states. Rather it’s are the middle of something else, of a thoroughly mystifying, often horrifying, sometimes totally magical place in its own right. And everything’s always changing out there, which only adds to the confusion.

So this is a mix of that zine and more recent notes and reflections. It’s a collection of vignettes. It might be a little disjointed in parts, but just remember this spans five years. I’ll let you know when I’m switching years. And please excuse the changes from past to present tense throughout.

 

2008

The thermometer said 103° after lunch but it felt cooler than in recent days, when it was 110 in the shade. It’s hard to describe what happens inside you when it’s this hot all the time. How slow everything becomes. How your brain starts skipping steps. How the thirst never goes away yet you want to pour water over your head rather than drink it. Wherever skin touches skin sweat appears (though it’s so dry here you rarely feel it). You don’t want to move, don’t want to think, stop wanting to talk.

Thunder rumbles in the distance—today is the first with clouds in at least a month. The sun sets pink and orange behind distant streaks of falling rain. The monsoons are coming.

Undulating brown hills dotted with surprisingly green mesquite trees extend out to the base of the rocky mountains fading into the darkness. The border is just on the other side.

The desert is beautiful but it is brutal and dangerous. If it’s not the heat and sun it’s the rattlesnakes and scorpions. Or the poisonous frogs and lizards. Or the oversized fire ants and spiders. Every plant is covered in vicious spines. Some grab on to you and won’t let go; others just slice through your clothes and skin. Any uncovered body part is vulnerable.

The wind blows in the desert like nowhere else. You can tell it comes from somewhere far away, just like the people traveling through it.

Otherwise it is still. That first night, the first year, I laid under the silent desert sky and felt alone, a thousand miles from lights and pavement and anyone else. It seemed empty, forgotten. But right then, out there in the expansive darkness, people were walking, moving, hiding. Hundreds of people. In the morning there would be only footprints and bits of trash along the trails.

***

As the name suggests, No More Deaths (NMD) works hard to end the death and suffering that is so prevalent along the border. Since the US began sealing off major urban crossing areas under Clinton in 1994, more than 5000 bodies have been recovered from the desert. In 2010, 252 were found in Arizona alone, the most on record. Only a fraction of those who die are ever found, however—I’ve heard estimates as low as 1 in 10, but there’s no way to know for sure.

Often the best we can do is leave water on heavily trafficked trails and help evacuate people who require immediate medical attention. From May to October, NMD runs a permanent camp in the desert outside of Arivaca, Arizona, about 12 miles from the official boundary. Multiple patrols of volunteers go out twice a day. We encounter hundreds of people on the trails in the course of a summer, and leave thousands of gallons of water that get picked up by thirsty walkers.

Everyday we walk but never far. Up at dawn, bagels and granola bars for breakfast, then off in some overloaded truck to crawl along rugged roads, in and out of sandy washes, through dusty cow fields. Where the most-traveled trails cross the unmaintained roads we park and start walking, each of us carrying a gallon of water and food packs to give away or leave on the trail. Thousands of miles of rough trails run across the border to hidden spots where groups of walking migrants are picked up and shuttled to safe houses in nearby cities.

We see more signs of people than actual people. Fresh footprints, empty water bottles, food wrappers, apple cores still yellow. Backpacks, hats, shirts, shoes. Toothbrushes, underwear, lipstick, children’s toys. We can feel the presence of people, smell the smoke of their cigarettes sometimes, but if they don’t want to be found we won’t find them.

Often it’s better to not find them—it means they’re in pretty good shape. That they don’t need help. That they’re not lost, not sick, not injured. That they still have enough physical and psychological strength to continue walking. At least we hope this is true.

It is eerie to know there are people out there, sometimes close by. It gives the silence a certain weight. If you just drove along the paved roads you would think you were passing through an uninhabited landscape. But when you venture out it comes to life, birds and insects and jackrabbits and chipmunks and white tailed deer bounding over it all, lizards and snakes and spiders and frogs. And there are all the human lives that intersect out there too: migrants and Border Patrol, bandits and drug smugglers, local residents and us.

***

The desert is full of myths and folklore. To the Tohono O’odham, the people indigenous to the deserts of Arizona, it is sacred. Baboquivari Peak, always visible on the western horizon, is the center of their cosmology, the home of their creator.

Migrants and their supporters have their own legends, tales of heroic journeys to save ailing friends and family. Shrines dot the caves and canyons. Some honor the dead, others la Virgen de Guadelupe or Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of drug smugglers.

Stories of Border Patrol abuse abound, stories of cruelty and violence. No one doubts them. The specter of bandits and vigilantes with guns haunts the desert, hiding behind boulders, creeping through the darkness. It is a fearful place.

The desert is a land of mystery. Thousands of pieces of thousands of lives strewn across the ground in the most baffling ways. The dry dusty trails are haunted by brittle jeans hanging in thorny bushes, cracked water bottles gathered where a path crosses a wash, single shoes abandoned along the trails. Like everyone just suddenly disappeared.

The desert takes what it wants and leaves only questions, ghosts, suggestions of what came before. It is inexplicable. It casts a spell on those who pass through it, leaving us confused, unsure of what happened and where. It is a land of bones. There are no witnesses. It swallows everything: people, crimes, secrets.

2009

One night, two guys walked into camp. Two guys in basketball shoes and fitted hats who grew up in the US and spoke English like so many Chicano guys in LA and said they didn’t know a thing about Mexico. They’d been arrested for some bullshit and then deported. They met each other somewhere along the way, after being dumped into Mexico, and ended up traveling back north in the same group. Each had kids in the US, other family too. Neither spoke a word of Spanish. One of them had trouble keeping up with their group so their guide was going to leave him behind. The other decided to stay with him, to risk himself and his waiting family for his new friend. They say we saved their lives with water they found on the trail…

Today we walked to the border, six and a half long miles down magnificent Sycamore Canyon till we came to three strands of barbed wire strung over a wash. I don’t think it’d ever seemed so absurd as when we rounded the corner and I could see two crossed sticks that served as fence posts suspended over the sand—you couldn’t even see the wires from much distance. We ate hard boiled eggs under a tree on the other side. It looked exactly the same.

***

The storm trooper helmets made them look mean but these guys looked even meaner, four of them on ATVs glaring at us as we passed them out by Jalisco Canyon. We assumed they were BP but their shirts said Sherriff, which I’ve never seen out here. Search and rescue, we thought. But when we got to the water drop, nine of the bottles were crushed, the ground around them still wet, ATV tracks all around.

2010

It’s really different out here this year: we’re seeing no one on the trails and, much more significantly, hardly any water’s being taken from any of the drop points, even the mega spots where we were leaving a hundred or more gallons a week last summer. ‘No hay nadie,’ one of the migrants that walked into camp at dawn today told me. It’s like everyone disappeared, again, and in a totally different way. Most people don’t seem to think it’s too strange, but the part of me that wants so much to UNDERSTAND is going crazy trying to figure out how so many thousands of people can so suddenly be gone.

Every time I come here some things make more and more sense while others less and less. In some ways it’s all just as mysterious as that first summer when everything was so new and overwhelming. All the old trails seem dead, still haunted, but no longer by so many unseen people but rather by the memories of so many who came before and are now long gone. Sometimes it’s like walking through a strange museum of migration in which everything’s been preserved, frozen in the distant past: the untouched gallons of water scattered along every trail, the mountain passes littered with so much fading, crumbling trash, the trails slightly overgrown and clear but for the cow tracks. The other day, when everyone was searching for Marta and Amir, we followed footprints until we realized they were from an earlier patrol, previous guests in this border theme park.

The new thing, though, is the strange tendency of people to walk into camp, which has happened for each of the last eight days. We can’t really figure out where they’re coming from, and they don’t usually want to talk about it. They come in groups of between 2 and 6, early in the morning or late in the afternoon. We give them backpacks and shoes and painkillers and packets of electrolytes, gallons of water and all the food we can get together, and five minutes later they’re off. More than once we’ve given them all the food we were about to eat. Last night two guys walked in who said they were with a group of five while we were making quesadillas for dinner. We packed our dinner up for them, they left, and twenty minutes later two more came in, saying they were from a different group of five. We packed them a dinner too and kept making quesadillas, like we were a roadside restaurant now.

***

Early last week I stumbled across the sprawling triple shrine, which I’d heard about but never seen, spread throughout a twisting canyon—one to Santa Muerte, one to San Juan Tadeo (the patron saint of impossible causes), and one to either or both the Virgen of Guadelupe and Jesus, each carefully separated from the others. There were dozens and dozens—probably hundreds—of candles, prayer cards, sea shells, rosaries, and other things people had chosen to carry so far and then leave behind, all neatly grouped and arranged as if everyone knew the rules. I stood there looking at it all and was so taken by the importance of faith in that journey, the degree to which setting foot in that desert requires surrendering so much to circumstance and believing that everything will work out in the end.

But it goes further: it seems like magic is out there too, both a happy magic and a creepy one, one that both makes giant sea shells appear at shrines and people disappear. Maybe the gallons of water we drop on the trails that must seem to come from nowhere are part of it too. Whether it is or not, we’re some of the few people who get to talk around and feel a little of it too.

2011

Yesterday when we got to the east drop at Apache Well I found a bunch of empty bottles on their sides and my heart sort of lifted up a little in that way that it does when it feels like what we’re doing out here is really worthwhile, like we’ve figured out some ways to actually and meaningfully intervene, if even only a little, in the fucked up and tragic brutality of this too-beautiful place. This is a good feeling, a great feeling. An increasingly rare feeling.

I’m not sure what we noticed first, or who noticed it, but I started touching all the bottles, one at a time, and found they were all empty, all 21 of them, and still sealed. We found little inch-long slits near the handle of each, and identical slits in the bottom. Then Chris noticed all the cans of beans had been opened and their contents dumped into a pile. We walked across the wash to the other drop and found the exact same thing.

Forty-two bottles, 42 gallons of water, slashed and dumped into the desert, carefully and methodically. Someone called it a massacre.

***

It’s over and I’m going back east. No more desert sunrises, no more flies crawling all over me, no more shitting in buckets, no more bone-rattling dirt roads, no more hail storms and thunderstorms and raging rivers where an hour before were dusty washes. No more helicopters circling in the distance. No more tarantulas and black widows and centipedes and rattlesnakes, no more BP trucks lurking in the shadows, no more cactus and ocotillo and mesquite and hillsides of wildflowers, no more waving at every truck that passes, no more silence, no more checkpoints, no more 10 pm bedtime, no more beans and rice and pasta for every meal, or granola bars for every snack, no more sitting around and talking about the border with people coming from such different places.

But still there are deaths. Still there are unrecovered bodies and inexplicable murders. Slashed bottles and hostile BP agents with big guns threatening whoever’s in their way. Still there’s the mystery of so many disappeared people, of so much silence punctuated by occasional chaos and tragedy. Still there’s a seemingly endless stream of volunteers willing to trudge through the searing heat carrying gallons of water and cans of beans and blister kits, searching for people that usually don’t want to be found who are crossing in ways and places we no longer understand.

 

Too Perfect to be True

February 9, 2011

Patrol uniforms ‘made in Mexico’
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
Washington Times

New Border Patrol uniforms, ordered in the wake of the agency’s transfer last year to the Department of Homeland Security, arrived this month and some agents are not very happy: The new uniforms were “Made in Mexico.”

“I’m embarrassed, not only as a Border Patrol agent but as an American citizen, that our government has decided to outsource the production of these uniforms with no regard for the safety of the process or the security of our country,” said Joseph N. Dassaro, president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) Local 1613 in San Diego.

“What system is in place to ensure that these uniforms are not stolen en masse or sold outright in Mexico to be used by terrorists, alien smugglers or drug dealers who could cross unimpeded into the United States?” asked Mr. Dassaro, a veteran agent.

More than $30 million in new uniforms have been ordered for the Border Patrol by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a new agency within Homeland Security that now oversees the border force. Homeland Security was created in March 2003 after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.

“It’s certainly not uncommon for cargo to be hijacked in Mexico, particularly in the many staging areas along the border, and the potential theft of these uniforms by the truckloads could become a major problem,” Mr. Dassaro said.

Patricia Todaro, CBP’s director of logistics, said the agency purchases new uniforms, along with jackets, shoes, hats and other equipment, from those suppliers from whom the government can obtain the best possible value for the taxpayer’s dollar.

“Our contracts allow us to seek out the best value for the government and that means we use vendors who might not be located in the United States,” Mrs. Todaro said. “In the end, we end up getting the best price and the best value.”

But T.J. Bonner, president of the NBPC, which represents all 11,000 nonsupervisory Border Patrol agents nationwide, noted that in addition to many unanswered questions concerning security issues regarding the Mexican-produced uniforms, there are concerns by field agents on why the cost of the new uniforms are rising if the government is saving money.

Mr. Bonner, in Washington today to testify before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, noted that a $500-a-year uniform allowance paid to the field agents has not been increased while the cost of their basic gear, including $27 shirts and $32 trousers, has gone up as much as 10 percent.

“They say they’re saving money,” Mr. Bonner said. “If they are, none of those savings are being passed on to us. I think this is just the wrong thing to do; it’s the wrong message to send.”

The new uniforms were supplied through a contract with VF Solutions of Nashville, Tenn., which agreed to produce 30,000 shirts and pants for CBP agents and inspectors for the 2003-04 fiscal year that began Oct. 1. But the contract allows the company to subcontract its work to other facilities in the United States, Mexico, Canada and the Dominican Republic.

Officials at VF Solutions did not return calls yesterday for comment. The firm is a part of VF Corp., the world’s largest apparel company with 60,000 employees in 22 countries.

Mr. Bonner and Mr. Dassaro, based on complaints from field agents, said there also appeared to be quality concerns in the new Mexican-made uniforms, particularly shirts that are less durable and orders that often are undersized and have to be returned.

The Border Patrol, before the merger with Homeland Security, used to get shirts under a Justice Department contract with Fechheimer Bros. Co. in Cincinnati, the largest manufacturer of public- safety uniforms in the United States. The Border Patrol wore the company’s Flying Cross brand deluxe tropical shirts for many years.
Fechheimer still supplies other federal agencies with made-in-the-U.S.A. shirts — some through VF Solutions.

“We could have been supplied with quality shirts and trousers, even through VF,” said Mr. Bonner. “Instead, they sent tax dollars to Mexico in an effort to realize more corporate profits at the expense of the agents.”

The Border Patrol has worn dark-green uniforms since the agency was created in 1924 and vigorously fought with Homeland Security officials to keep them when other uniforms were being suggested.

Factory “Justice”

January 31, 2011

I’m not sure what I expected, but the federal courthouse was just like any other building in downtown Tucson, only a few stories tall and new looking, fronted by a nondescript, empty plaza area with nowhere to sit. It actually appeared to be two desert-beige buildings connected by a curving glass atrium, and I was unsure which one would have the trial in it. After hesitating a few moments I followed a woman in a suit into the one on the left.

The lobby had very high ceilings and was empty except for two bored-seeming security guards. After I emptied my pockets, showed them a US-government-issued ID, and walked through the metal detector, they left me alone, and I still didn’t know where to go. On a wall I found a screen with the day’s schedule on it, a list of room numbers, times, judges, and titles. None said Operation Streamline, so I had to assume the ‘Special Proceedings’ in 2A at 1:30 was where I wanted to go. I stood looking around, trying to find a way upstairs, but the guards still ignored me.

Eventually I found an elevator, which I shared with a Latino janitor. The second floor was empty too and I could make no sense of the room-numbering system. Eventually someone came out of the elevator, her heels echoing in the silent hallway, and she pointed out which room I needed to be in.

The left side of the room was packed with Latino people, as well as the jury box. In the middle set of rows were scattered a few white men, maybe five, in suits. They seemed comfortable and disinterested, so I assumed they were the public defenders. Two well dressed women sat in the first row on the right side, chatting like old friends. Behind them were four younger, more casually dressed women, and behind them was an older woman with gray hair in a t-shirt. I sat behind them all in the second-to-last row, which was empty.

‘Are you here to observe?’ the older woman whispered to me when I sat down. I told her yes, and when I saw her shirt said No More Deaths I told her I was a NMD volunteer too. She introduced herself as Lois and asked if it was my first time at Streamline. When I said it was she invited me to sit next to her and said she could answer any questions I might have. She goes to most of the hearings, which are every weekday.

While we waited for the proceedings to begin, I looked around the room. One of the public defenders had his foot up on his bench, revealing his blue socks with small red diamonds on them. Another read the newspaper. All the Latinos on the other side were wearing casual street clothes: jeans, workpants, tshirts, faded workshirts. Most had on wireless headphones. All were silent. I couldn’t figure out the difference between those in the jury box and the ones in the observation area, or why there were more than twelve in the box.

After the well dressed women stopped talking, one went to sit in the middle section and talk quietly with one of the men. The other turned to look at us, and one of the younger women in front of me—the one with the tattoo across her shoulders—asked her a question I couldn’t hear.

‘I usually get between 20-minutes and a half hour with each one,’ she replied. ‘I think it’s enough time. And I can have more time if I want it.’

She told us that she likes defending people in this hearing because she thinks it’s important to show them some respect, to treat them with dignity. And it’s easier than working as a public defender in the regular courts, where she assured us she’d put in her time.

A few minutes after 1:30 the bailiff ordered us all to rise and the judge entered, a middle-aged white man, and the bailiff announced the first case. The judge talked fast and the volume on his microphone was surprisingly low for such a big room, so it was hard to hear him. From what I could gather, it sounded like the defendant, who was from Guatemala but not in the room, didn’t speak Spanish so he could not be tried in court. His charges were dropped, I think. It was over in a matter of minutes.

Quickly he moved into the Streamline hearing. He began by describing the charges and what was going to happen during the proceedings. It was very important to him, he insisted, that everyone understand what was happening and why they were there: because they were not a citizen and had entered the United States ‘at a time and/or place not designated by the Border Patrol.’ For those who were first offenders, this ‘illegal entry’ is a misdemeanor, and carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison or a $5000 fine. For those who had been previously deported, they were being charged with ‘illegal re-entry,’ a felony. The judge encouraged anyone who did not understand these charges to ask questions. No one did.

And so it began, first with the felonies. A woman with a good Spanish accent called the first eight names and seven men and one woman, who had been in the jury box, stood up and shuffled to the front of the room. A few of the public defenders went too, to stand behind their clients. It was only then that I realized the metal clinking, which sounded almost like rain on a tin roof, which had been going on since I’d walked into the room, was the chains around every brown person in the room’s ankles, waists, and wrists, and that every brown person in the room was a defendant.

The judge read each person’s name again, and their country of citizenship. ‘Jaime Manuel Rubio Rodriguez, a citizen of Mexico, you are charged with illegally re-entering the United States of America on our around July 14, 2010, near Sasabe, Arizona. Jose Angel Garcia Valasquez, a citizen of Honduras, you are charged with illegally re-entering the United States of America on or about July 13, 2010, near Nogales, Arizona. Ailsa Maria Hernandez Hernandez, a citizen of Mexico, you are charged with illegally re-entering the United States of American on or about July 14, 2010, near Sasabe, Arizona.’ And so on.

When he finished with each of the eight people, he asked if they understood the charges against them. After a few seconds’ delay, so his English could be translated into Spanish and transmitted into the headsets they were all wearing, they replied in monotone unison: ‘Si.’ He asked how they plead. Delay. ‘Culpable.’ Were they coerced into entering this plea? Delay. ‘No.’ Again his offer for them to ask questions was met with silence. I’ve heard no one’s ever plead not guilty.

Again he read their names, but this time with their sentence. The felony was dropped for each of them, and they were charged with the misdemeanor. ‘Jaime Manuel Rubio Rodriguez. Forty-five days. Jose Angel Garcia Valasquez. Thirty days. Ailsa Maria Hernandez Hernandez. One-hundred eighty days.’

Lois leaned over to me to say that she’d probably been caught several times if she was receiving the maximum sentence. While she was telling me this, a lawyer stepped up the microphone. ‘Mrs. Hernandez has two small children in Phoenix. The defense requests she be sent a prison as close to there as possible.’ The judge said he would recommend it.

After each was given their sentence, the judge looked up at them. ‘Good luck to you all,’ he said without much feeling. ‘I hope you have no more troubles.’ With that, they all turned to their right to be led back into the holding cell. A door in the wall just in front of where we were sitting opened and an armed officer stepped out, motioning to the prisoners.

The eight walked right toward us, chains rattling loudly, only able to take short steps because of the shackles, and because the laces had been removed from their worn tennis shoes. Most were somewhat disheveled, still wearing the same dirty clothes they had been in when they were picked up in the desert. One wore an orange jumpsuit. Lois said that might mean he’d been found with no clothes.

A few looked up at me as they passed by, not ten feet away, but their eyes communicated nothing I could understand. Most kept their eyes lowered. As soon as the guard closed the door behind them eight more names were called and eight more people made their way slowly to the front.

In the third group, when the judge asked if they understood the charges against them, a lone voice answered in clear English while the question was still being translated into Spanish for the other seven. I heard Lois take in air sharply. ‘He’s probably lived in the US for years if he speaks perfect English,’ she leaned over and told me. ‘He probably had a family here.’ Throughout the rest of the hearing a handful of other people answered the questions in English, and every time Lois shook her head and reacted audibly.

It continued like this for more than an hour. The litany of names droned on, as did the repetitive questions and explanations by the judge, always exactly the same. ‘Si,’ eight voices said at once, over and over again. ‘Culpable.’ ‘No.’ Rattling chains. Thirty days. Sixty days. Forty-five days. Ninety days. Thirty days. One-hundred twenty days. One-hundred eighty days. Rattling chains. ‘Good luck to you all. I hope you have no more troubles.’

When he finished with the felony charges, the judge moved on to the first offenders. Nothing changed in the routine, except that they all received time served and were turned right over to ICE, who still had the right to hold them. I don’t know for how long, and the judge said he could not influence ICE’s decisions.

I tried to keep tallies of the nationality and gender of each defendant, as well as where they crossed the border, but there were too many. Four Hondurans. Eight Guatemalans. Fifty-two Mexicans. I think I missed a few in the numbing repetitiveness of it all. Seven women.

‘Good luck to you all. I hope you have no more troubles. Court adjourned.’ The sound of rattling chains did not stop until the last person walked through the door into the holding cell.

Much has been written about Operation Streamline. This article gives a lot more context.

This is long overdue. I read Leo Banks’ article when I was in Tucson last spring and was beyond outraged at its racism and ignorance. This type of thinking has to be challenged and exposed for what it is and what it is really saying.

In the US/Mexico Borderlands, battles are fought over trash. For years the media and anti-immigrant activists—from the Minutemen to Sheriff Joe Arpaio to Fox News—have used the issue of trash left in the desert by unauthorized migrants as a rallying point to advocate for more vigilant border enforcement. More recently, federal authorities have begun issuing littering citations to humanitarian groups that leave water in the desert for migrants. These commentators and government representatives move easily from this representation of a fragile desert ecosystem under threat of destruction by migrants and their allies to a more general xenophobic representation of a US under threat of invasion by “illegal aliens.” Yet underlying these stories about desert littering—and, by extension, the discourse of an “alien invasion”—are extremely simplistic and problematic conceptions of nature, space, and migration in general. By working together to naturalize borders and a politics of exclusion, these misconceptions have very real material consequences, like the deaths of thousands of migrants in the desert in the last fifteen years.

Such an appeal to pop environmentalism is powerful—it is hard to argue that trash in the desert is not a problem. Leo Bank’s feature article in last spring’s Tucson Weekly is full of photos of piles of discarded backpacks and water bottles meant to inspire action on the part of a previously uninformed populace. “Have you had your holy-smokes moment yet regarding our illegal-immigration crisis?” he asks at the beginning. “If not, travel to Arizona’s border region, and go off-road to the game trails, mountain passes and grassland flats that make this area so magical. In many places, the magic is gone, lost beneath piles of garbage.” He then sets out to dramatically describe the amount of “trash has been dropped since this invasion began.”

There are a number of shortcomings to this logic. Most simply, it is based on a romanticized view of nature as something pristine and external to humans, something outside our cities to be visited, observed, catalogued, and enjoyed. Implicit in this characterization is the absurd assumption that the rest of us—the non-migrants—are not involved in the transformation and degradation of the environment, as if we exist independent of nature. Such naïve thinking is especially ironic in the southwest, where fast growing, sprawling desert cities and their thirsty golf courses are turning rivers into dry streambeds (Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, etc).

Likewise there is the ecological havoc wrought by the increasing militarization of the border to consider. The 2005 Read ID Act exempted construction of the border wall from all federal environmental regulations, from the Clean Air Act to the Endangered Species Act. The wall itself cuts through sensitive, protected habitat on both sides of the boundary, and is lined on the US side by wide dirt access roads for Border Patrol vehicles. Yet Banks’s seems to think that halting migration and picking up the trash will simply return the desert to its “pre-invasion beauty.” If “pre-invasion” is going to be our benchmark standard, it might be more useful to consider other invasions of the southwest, such as the colonization of the Americas by Europe.

Another issue here is the treatment of migration as an isolated incident that begins only when someone crosses the US/Mexico boundary. On the contrary, migration is tied to a complex web of interrelated environmental, social, economic, and political forces acting unevenly over space and time. A long history of US military intervention in the region, free trade agreements like NAFTA, and the mandated imposition of neoliberal policies are just a few of the factors that bear considering. Yet nowhere does Banks ask why so many people are walking through the desert to begin with, or why there are “backpacks, clothing, food cans, toothpaste, toys, water bottles,” as well as bibles, religious statues, birth certificates, and diapers, discarded along the trails. Calling all this trash obscures the reality of what is happening out there: people are traveling great distances and taking great risks, children in tow, hoping to establish a new life for themselves in the United States. But why? Instead of investigating this basic questions, Banks mocks an out-of-town church volunteer who, after picking up trash, said it “tells stories of ‘hardship and hope.’” “She’s delusional,” Banks says. “The hardship is mostly self-imposed, and there is no hope in garbage.”

Conflating concern for the environment with more controls of migration displaces a very political issue onto the environment and works to depoliticize the border and migration. In reality, the border itself was imposed on Mexico when the US won control of what is now Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah in the Mexican-American War in 1848. The border as we now know it has been produced by a series of conflicts, campaigns, and policies that are inextricably tied to economic, political, and social changes on both sides of the border. In the last fifteen years in particular, US border policy has methodically pushed people away from the more traditional urban crossing areas (El Paso, Tijuana, Nogales) and into remote areas where geography itself has been used as a tool of deterrence. In a very specific way, therefore, the presence of so many thousands of people walking through fragile desert has everything to do with the particular ways in which the border has been produced. As the number of Border Patrol agents and fences grow, people are left with few alternatives to walking for days—and so carrying the food and water with them that ends up as trash along the way—through ecologically sensitive areas.

The US government’s attitude toward migration is clearly written onto the landscape of the Borderlands. Crossers are confronted with an array of high-tech security tools, armed guards, and towering walls. When they venture away from urban areas they enter a desert that is endlessly described as harsh, unforgiving, and uninviting, much like the United States in general for unauthorized migrants. As the journey north takes place in more remote areas, the increasing danger and difficulty seem to come from the environment itself rather than from US immigration policy, thus naturalizing both the border and the structural violence that comes with it. Nature and geography, then, become implicated in these social and political struggles, revealing the very blurry boundaries between them. And as a result, the story of political and economic policies that leave many people with few alternatives to risking their lives to leave home in search of more opportunity elsewhere simply becomes the story of irresponsible people behaving badly in a place they shouldn’t be to begin with. Moreover, humanitarian volunteers who leave life-saving bottles of water on heavily trafficked migrant trails become litters with no respect for fragile desert ecosystems and criminalizing aid becomes protecting the environment. In the end the idea that there is a clear difference between “us” over here and “them” en route becomes simplistically external and absolute and a virulent politics of exclusion is projected onto the desert.

It is important to consider the ways in which the border was—and still is—produced; in other words, we need to denaturalize it. At the foundations of these competing discourses about migration are differing ideas about space more generally: on the one had space, like nature, is empty, something through which migrants pass; on the other, the border, and our ideas about its naturalness, is a space that has been produced through practices and policies over the last hundred and fifty years. Control of the border, then, comes to be about the control of space, which also is about the manipulation and use of nature to a political end. When seen in this sense, focusing on the destruction of the desert by migrants becomes rather inane; there are much bigger acts of destruction going on, from livelihoods all over Mexico and Central America to the lives of the hundreds of migrants who die in the desert every year.

It is important to understand how turning to the environment as a proxy for battles over migration misidentifies a very political international issue as very local and apolitical, and how it carries with it much larger ideas about the relationship between the US and Mexico. At their best the arguments of people like Banks are shortsighted or disingenuous; at their worst they are dangerously misleading. And at their root lurks the enduring violence and xenophobia that has plagued the relationship of the US to its southern neighbors for centuries.

Check out the Northeast Anarchist Network’s most recent issue of their print publication, The Nor’easter. It includes this article of mine about the border.

theWall

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 quinceñera (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.

ZineDrawnMap
The final leg of many migrant’ journeys begins in Altar, a dusty desert town about 50 miles south of the border at Sasabe. People travel to Altar from other parts of Mexico and Central America, where they find guides to take them over the border. Most of the people we meet out in the desert came along this route.

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.

Another review of mine (though pretty heavily edited)  is up on Boldtype.

“The border runs down the middle of me,” Luis Alberto Urrea, the son of a Mexican cop and a New York socialite, once claimed. This physical and psychological “border” also divides Urrea’s newest novel, Into the Beautiful North, into two parts — Sur and Norte — turning a whimsical coming-of-age travel story into an exploration of transnational migration.

The story begins as a group of shady bandidos starts harassing people in the tiny Mexican village of Tres Camarones. With all the town’s men off working in the US — including the only cop — 19-year-old Nayeli is forced to come up with her own plan of defense. After seeing The Magnificent Seven at the local theater, she decides to go to the US to recruit seven Mexican men to come back and defend the town. The journey takes Nayeli, her two angsty girlfriends, and her gay boss out of their isolated village and into the swirling chaos of the US/Mexico border, where they encounter many of the characters from Urrea’s award-winning nonfiction — predatory Mexican police, US Border Patrol agents, glue-sniffing street kids, menacing coyotes. But amid these devilish sorts, there is also an element of absurdity, most notably in Atómiko, the staff-wielding, pole-vaulting superhero from the Tijuana trash dumps who joins their bumbling gang.

Despite the misogynistic overtones (i.e., the women in the village need their men to save them), Into the Beautiful North is a valuable addition to the growing body of border literature. Urrea touches on many tensions that affect people on both sides of the fence — from the effects of migration on families to the decidedly un-Hollywood reality of arriving in the US — while imbuing the story with a touch of the fantastical. The result is an exceptional tale that transposes the polarizing discourse of immigration politics with a rambunctious adventure that shows there is still some magic left in our troubled world.

Ya Van Muchos Hermanos Muertos

Before I spent much time on the US/Mexico border, I thought of it as the closest war zone. But war in the military sense, with guns and helicopters and high-tech surveillance, is just one aspect of the conflict. All things political, economic, social, and historical intersect there. They crash into each other, they try to overpower one another. It is where the global economy and everything that supports it is stripped of its rhetoric and shields, of its disguises and glossy advertisements and decontextualized economic statistics. It is a complicated war in which individual people struggle against an entire system that wants to make them disappear. Men, women, and children trying to pay their bills and see their families are left standing alone, burning up in the desert’s harsh heat and light.

Over the last two summers I volunteered with No More Deaths, an organization based in Tucson that runs resource centers for deportees, documents Border Patrol abuses, and advocates for a more just immigration policy. They are best known, however, for providing food, water, and medical aid to migrants along one of the deadliest stretches of the border. The majority of the time I spent volunteering was at the desert camp and going on daily patrols on the migrant trails.

This zine is not meant to be an investigation of the process of migration or the policies that relate to it; rather, it is an evocation of the border as a place, a stretch of rugged desert straddling a line on the map that is populated by Border Patrol agents, migrants, humanitarian aid workers, ranchers, bandits, and drug traffickers. It is a mixture of stories from the desert and of people I met there and reflections on the situation in the Borderlands. Walking those trails out in the desert made the border very real to me; this is my attempt to make it real to others too.

This file is set up to print in a zine format–page two prints on the back of page two, page four on the back of page three, and so on. Click here to dowload a pdf to print.

If you prefer to read it on a computer screen, download this low resolution readable version.