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.
The border extends into communities through more subtle means as well, such as through peer policing (snitching) encouraged by tip lines and mandated reporting;broadening duties of police and federal agents to include status-related detainment; and in some communities, increased infrastructure such a surveillance, fencing, checkpoints, and the much-anticipated wall.
In Indiana, groups have responded to current immigration dynamics with strikes, protests, and unity rallies. In Indianapolis and Bloomington, Indiana, some people are demanding an official designation as Sanctuary Cities, and elsewhere, people have enacted direct actions and civil disobedience as well.
One way I'm responding will be to briefly accompany migrants during their journey north. With the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, I'll be driving and hiking with other volunteers to remote areas of the desert with food, water, socks, blankets, and other survival basics to leave for migrants. While hiking, we'll yell out that we have these things and medical care to offer. Perhaps at times, someone will yell back, and we'll talk with them, relay information, make phone calls and/or provide medical care.
Other days, I'll stay back at camp to cook for the day and perhaps to spend time with patients who are recuperating there. I'll likely spend most weekends in Tucson, with some time focused on immigration-related activities, like visiting other No More Deaths projects or observing Operation Streamline proceedings.
I'm intending to write about my some of my experiences on Where the River Frowns and to reflect about how what's happening in southern Arizona might relate to us in Indiana.
I'm drawn to doing something about immigration issues because immigration has been on my mind for the past several years. In various capacities, I've studied U.S. and Mexico migration policy, Mexican immigrant communities in northern Indiana, border dynamics in southern Arizona and migrant farming in Immokalee, Florida.
More recently, some of the people I've lived and worked with have immigrated without authorized entry or a formal residency status. These folks became friends who made me a birthday cake, children I hid Easter eggs for, people I shared meals and life with, and generally individuals I looked forward to coming home to.
One family I lived with in Chicago, Mariana and her daughters Sofi (age 8) and Carla (age 4)*, had family living in Mexico City--Mariana's brother, his wife, and their two children. A couple summers ago, I visited Mexico and brought with me a care package from Mariana, Sofi and Carla to give to their family in Mexico. The part of the family living in Mexico insisted on picking me up from the airport in Mexico City and taking me out to dinner. We later Skyped with their family back in Chicago. I felt touched at the kindness the family extended to me, but the experience was also infuriating and terribly sad. Because of the place I was born and having been raised white and middle class, I could easily travel back and forth between these family members, but they did not share in this ability.
Later in my trip to Mexico, I saw other pieces of the migration story. In Oaxaca, I visited a group of women,Las Patronas, who live near train tracks where many migrants pass on their journey north. For years, the women have been preparing food in their home and packaging it up in bags for migrants. When they hear the train coming in the distance, they run wheelbarrows of food near the tracks and throw the bags of food to migrants aboard the train.
I spent most of my time in Mexico in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest and southern-most state, which borders Guatemala. There, I witnessed extreme poverty--hundreds of children living on the street, thousands of people without enough food, schools without bathroom facilities or drinking water. Throughout San Cristobal de Las Casas, where I lived, and the surrounding communities stood houses under construction that were funded by remittances from people who had once lived in Chiapas but were working in the U.S. Many people who had gone north were sending money home to support family members or to build a house for the future. People who left hoped to return home, but those who remained in Chiapas were skeptical that those who left would make it back.
I also visited a migrant shelter in Arriaga. No trains had left Arriaga for several days when I arrived, so hundreds of people were waiting for the next train. Many of them were lying near the tracks, catching up on rest before continuing their journey. Perhaps sixty were staying at the shelter. I remember a group of women who were traveling together from Honduras. They told stories of la migra (Border Patrol) stopping them, patting them down and touching them unnecessarily, and speaking to them in sexualized and offensive ways. In the morning, they dressed in nice clothes and did their makeup. Their plan was to take a bus close to the U.S.-Mexico border. Since la migra can stop and check buses, they were hoping to pass as Mexicans on vacation rather than Honduran migrants.
Experiences like these have helped to inform my views on immigration. I've come to hate that we live in a world where people have to choose between staying in miserable, often deadly conditions at home, surrounded by family and everything they've known or heading north to cross a fence and attempt survival in the desert with the hope that they might work a low-wage, grueling job and send money home to their family who they might never see again. I'm angry at the U.S. for enacting policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, for training people from Central America in torture tactics and psychological warfare to use against their people, and for continuing to create immigration policies that, as intended, force those who cross to do so in dangerous ways. I want to be able to do something about it.
Southern Arizona and No More Deaths
I'm excited to work with No More Deaths because in a small way, I'll be able to funnel some of my feelings about immigration into action. I'm interested to see another piece of the immigration puzzle, and I'm particularly excited to become immersed in No More Death's community-based civil-initiative approach.
I'll be working primarily near Arivaca, Arizona--14 miles from the border and about a quarter of the way to Highway 10, where many migrants meet their ride to their final destination. Since the 1990s, increased border security through Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Operation Gatekeeper in Southern California, Operation Safeguard in southern Arizona, and Operation Rio Grande in southeast Texas--rather than decrease the flow of immigration--has funneled border crossers into remote places with dangerous terrain, an immigration control strategy the U.S. government calls "prevention through deterrence."
As intended, migration across the border and through mountainous and desert areas has increased in southern Arizona, resulting in thousands of deaths and missing people. In 2016, the bodies or skeletal remains of 170 migrants were recovered from the area, with most of the deaths, when identifiable, attributable to hyperthermia, hypothermia and dehydration. Since 1994, 2,782 migrant deaths have been documented in the area.
The desert aid working group of No More Deaths attempts to lessen the death toll through civil initiative.Jim Corbett, who was heavily involved in the Sanctuary Movement, states in his book Goatwalking:
"Civil initiative must be societal rather than organizational, nonviolent rather than injurious, truthful rather than deceitful, catholic [universal] rather than sectarian, dialogical rather than dogmatic, substantive rather than symbolic, volunteer-based rather than professionalized, and based on community powers rather than governmental powers." (106)
As opposed to symbolic gestures, civil initiative focuses on action, but whereas direct action sometimes targets oppressors or violators of one's value system, civil initiative always responds to the needs of people being oppressed and does so transparently and non-destructively. Unlike professionalized helping like social work, civil initiative is volunteer-based and aims to create a world where basic human rights are upheld so that the outreach effort becomes obsolete.
In the case of No More Deaths, civil initiative includes direct aid to migrants in the Arizona desert, resources for newly deported people in Mexico, searches for missing people in the desert when law enforcement and Border Patrol refuse to respond, and retrieving confiscated belongings from Border Patrol and mailing them home to deportees.
I'll be writing about my experience over the next month or so, and I welcome thoughts, comments and questions from readers about my experience and about how it relates to us in Southern Indiana. Thanks for reading, and check back for more soon!
If you'd like to read more in the meantime about what's happening at the border, I recommend these zines:
*Names changed in this section.