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.
For the next five weeks, I'll be distributing food, water, medical supplies, and other necessities to people who are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and walking north through the southern Arizona desert with the hope of a better life in the U.S.
Although the U.S.-Mexico border may seem distant, border dynamics and immigration policy affect those of us in Southern Indiana, too. In Vanderburgh County, 4,800 residents are immigrants. Of those, an estimated 1,522 (31.7%) have no formal residency status, and about half of those without papers have been in the U.S. for thirteen years or more.
For immigrants (as well as their friends, family and community members), the risk for attacks, exploitation, and deportation are increasing along with fear and psychological stress that accompany these realities. In one week in February 2017, for instance, over 100 people in Indiana and Kentucky were arrested in a series of immigration raids. For those deported, getting back to Indiana and Kentucky might come with significant physical risk (including risk of death) and financial burden. Immigrants in Southern Indiana who manage to avoid raids like these might attempt to become more hidden or "well-behaved" and, in turn, more vulnerable to abuse from bosses, landlords and police. Meanwhile, the criminalization of immigration benefits private prisons by filling their cages, which increases the prisons' income from the federal government who pays the prisons to house inmates. These same prisons help to write the immigration legislation that criminalize immigration and keep the prison business lucrative.