Reflections on Walking a Migrant Trail

For this past Thursday’s critical issues class, the original plan was to get a tour of the Florence ICE detention facility and meet with the Florence Project, a non-profit that offers free legal aid to people who are being held in detention in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities in Arizona. Due to the government shutdown, we were unable to make this visit, because ICE did not have enough employees working for someone to be able to give us a tour.

This was the first and only (so far) way that my daily life has been affected by the government shutdown. It is important to remember that many people’s lives are being affected in far more severe ways by the government shutdown. It is important to remember that, like most things our government does, it will be the most marginalized and disenfranchised who will be harmed by this shutdown.

Instead of going to Florence, we drove down to Arivaca, a town of less than 1,000 residents, located 60 miles south of Tucson, and 11 or so miles from the US-Mexico border. Due to its proximity to the border and mountains and trails, it is a prime spot for the work of No More Deaths. Founded in 2004, No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization that has the goal of “ending death and suffering in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.” Its mission statement says, “No More Deaths operates on the premise of civil initiative: the conviction that people of conscience must work openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights.” No More Deaths has many other projects, but our visit on Thursday focused on the group’s desert aid work.

Paula and John, who work with No More Deaths and both live at Casa Mariposa, led us on a walk along a trail used by migrants crossing from Mexico into the U.S. Each of us carried a gallon of water and a can of beans while we walked, either carrying them or stuffing them into our backpacks. This is what I thought, felt, saw, and learned during and after walking the migrant trail:

1.     The tall grass brushes my face, my legs, my knees. I would never have been able to know to go on this trail if it wasn’t for John as our guide. We walk uphill through a forested area, and then downhill on loose rocks that slip even beneath my good hiking boots.

2.     We stop at a little shady area and all plop to the ground to sit in a circle. John tells us that the part of the trail that we had walked on up until then was part of the wildlife refuge and is used for recreation but the next part of the trail is only used for migrants.

3.     John and Paula talk about No More Deaths a little bit, and why they do the work they do. I scribble down some of the things they say:
a.     John says “I walk this trail a lot. And I am always grateful.”
b.     John tells us how this area, southern Arizona and the whole borderlands region, has been a crossroads of humanity for thousands of years, and will continue to be, regardless of any border wall or the desires of the United States and its arms. He acknowledges that we are sitting on occupied land, like all the land in the borderlands.
c.     John says that, today, the lens for him is “pilgrimage.” He reads two Webster’s definitions of pilgrimage:
                        i.     Noun: a journey to a shrine or other sacred place
                        ii.     Noun: a journey or long search made for exalted or sentimental reasons
d.     “The questions for today are why do people make this pilgrimage? And why am I making it today?”

4.     John says, “Today the books are set aside and our instructors are our feet.”

5.     Walking feels hallowed, sacred, as John has told us it would and prepared us for. The walk is relatively challenging – through sandy soil and loose rock that sounds like breaking china or a clanging sack of coins each time my hiking boots hit the earth. Up a number of boulders and ducking under low hanging trees. None of it has been carved out by a park service or government entity – it has been carved out by those who walk it – migrants and those who wish to aid them, and probably the Border Patrol too.

6.     I see rusted lids of cans, an old plastic water bottle, a towel that has washed down stream when monsoon season turns the wash into a river, two used CapriSun juice packs, a crumpled and dirty pair of sweatpants, a sock tangled in rocks. Walking through this trail and seeing these things, just thinking about the people who have walked it before me, the people who will walk it after me, it is impossible to ignore the humanity of migration.

7.     In the small canyon area where the shrine is, there are gallons of water that No More Deaths volunteers have put out a few days ago. A few are empty and one or two are still full. The blue circular tabs that come off the water bottle tops are scattered around, which is a good sign. That means people have drunk the water. We each write something on our gallons in Sharpie. Paula suggests that we write the date and wishes of good luck and maybe “Agua pura.” Sometimes, as a means of keeping control over the group, the coyotes (guides) will tell the migrants not to drink the gallon bottles of water that volunteers leave out. The coyotes say that it is poisonous, or a trap.

8.     We get to the shrine. It is a small shrine, with a few pictures. There is a clump of rosaries, all entwined together by water and elements. There are a few candles, some broken and layered with dirt. There is a picture of a young man, a boy even. Crosses, crucifixes. I sit there under the shade of the mesquite tree, hardly panting, my feet only dully aching. I force my mind to try to imagine what it would actually be like to come upon this small canyon, this small shrine, in the night most likely, after days of walking, fearing the Border Patrol, fearing so many people and things, and yet still walking. What would it be like to actually do this journey? I have no idea. I feel only a deep sadness and remorse for what the fact that U.S. policy has created the deaths in the desert, how policymakers said that the “desert would act as an ally” to U.S. border enforcement.

9.     John tells us that once, a Mexican man said to him, (and I’m approximating the quote here), “We look at that wall and know how you feel about us: that you’re afraid of us. But what does that wall say about you when you look at it?”

10.     What does the wall say about me? What does the wall say about you?

11.     While I was thinking about what to write for this blog, I found a picture of the beach in Tijuana where the wall separates two sides of the beach, extending out a little bit into the water, and then stopping. This got me thinking about the ocean, which may seem off topic, but bear with me for a second. I grew up body surfing and boogie boarding on the Jersey shore. I was tousled and knocked around by the sea; my hair and swimsuit always caked with the sand by the end of the day. At a certain point, every boogie-boarding kid knows, you yield to the sea. You back down to its power. Looking at this picture of the border wall extending feebly out into the first few yards of the ocean and then stopping, makes me think of how we should yield to the ocean more.

The tide of migration will continue to turn, with or without our wall. What would happen if the United States relinquished some of its power to the sea, to the ocean water that mixes and churns with Mexico’s, past that Tijuana beach border wall? Migration will continue to happen. People will continue to move to search for a way to live. The only thing we are doing now with our border enforcement is ensuring that the people who walk these trails will do so with a higher risk of death.

12.     If my feet were my instructors on Thursday, I must first start with my feet – my physical, literal feet. My feet were encased in my hiking boots. I was able to call what we did on Thursday a hike, while others call it necessary, migration, pilgrimage, desperation, hope, life. I could call it a hike and appreciate the trees and the tall grass and the blue sky and the wind because I was not walking for my life and I didn’t have to fear Border Patrol finding me.

13.     As we walk down from the shrine, this is what I’m thinking about. All of this – but mostly, about how I can call this a hike, a form of physical exercise. My whole life I have grown up being told that, “I am lucky to be born in this great country.” But, I am not just lucky. I am an American, which means that I am lucky not out of chance, but because of military and economic systems of power that allow me, with all the privileged facets that go into my American identity, to be lucky. I am only lucky because other people – in other nations (and here in the United States as well) are “unlucky.”<

I believe that too many people I know, and our society in general, has this built in acceptance that there will always be a certain level of inequality and that that’s just “the way it is.” But really, that’s “the way it is” because that is what capitalism requires – that some people own and profit, while others toil for low wages that allow those people to profit.

When I look at the border wall I too see the United States’ fear. The U.S. fears Mexicans – a fear that is inextricably tied to a racist fear of all masses of black and brown people. The U.S. has a fear that spurs it to protect what is “ours,” and underlying that, maybe a fear (which would be validly held fear) that what is “ours” is not really “ours” because it was rightfully someone else’s before. I think the United States is afraid to face the dignity, strength, and agency of those who we have exploited in order to maintain our wealth and power and comfortable lives.

When I look at the border wall, I am afraid of what my country is doing, of how much we have manufactured this fear of other people just because it is politically salient and profitable for an elite class. When I look at the border wall, I fear for the morality of U.S. officials. I look at the wall and wonder how we can live in resistance to this massive physical structure, and to the structures that lie behind it, unseen but always present. I look at the wall and wonder how others look at it.

Isn’t the border wall the face of the United States? At least to its southern neighbors, as it is the first thing they see?

14.  In a way, I enjoyed the walk, not because it was an enjoyable or a happy thing to be doing, but because carrying a jug of water and a can of beans in my backpack and walking this trail is something that I can do. (Yes, partly it is that it makes me feel better to be able to feel like I am doing something productive after all of the frustrating things I have been learning about the border.) Though it is only a band-aid fix, it feels right to do. The border is not simple, the whole issue is not simple, and none of the people who work in the border or cross the border are simple – they are, we are, and all of it is, undeniably complicated, complex, nuanced. But on Thursday, it felt correct and right and just that when people are dying of exposure and dehydration, other people put out water.

– Jenny Ruymann

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