On Valentine’s Day 2014, the Border Studies group embarked to a migrant trail near Arivaca AZ, a small border town about 60 miles south of Tucson. In order to arrive there, we were required to drive through a border checkpoint, although the border patrol agents let us pass through with little harassment or difficulty (this definitely is not the case for all travelers). As we drove through the rolling desert hills, I had little anticipation for the emotional scope of the day ahead of me and I calmly viewed the beauty of the wild desert landscape, dotted with cacti and shrubbery. After arriving into the town of Arivaca, we were joined by Paula and John, two seasoned volunteers with No More Deaths, a desert humanitarian camp that participates in water drops along migrant trails on the border. Both also live and work in Casa Mariposa, a migrant hospitality house in Tucson.
From there we began the 1.5-mile hike through the land, largely overseen by AZ Game & Fish Department, and stopped at a small clearing along the way to give some introductions and prepare for the experience ahead. John told us to “think with our hearts, not our heads” in order to perceive the day ahead with compassion as well as to eradicate the conceptual borders that exist between our ears. Thus, we diverged from the canyon trail by passing through a barbed wire cattle fence, and began to enter a migrant route. Immediately, I noticed signs of life that were absent from the first half of our walk—a flannel shirt hung on a branch, shoes left to decay in the dirt, and empty water jugs. I thought about how each of these remnants carries a story, how each represents the footprints of a person in the midst of the treacherous journey north. As I imagined myriad histories and fates of the individuals who carried each item, I was simultaneously struck by the impossibility of knowing—it was as though I was communicating with ghosts.
I carried this emotional space with me as I continued walking, constantly imagining myself stumbling over this rocky terrain in the unforgiving darkness, branches hitting my face, tripping and falling, getting lost, listening to the ominous drone of military planes overhead… However, at the same time, in the midday sunshine of the warm desert spring, this was merely a leisurely hike for our group. The natural beauty of the canyon and the splendor of the mountains surrounding us betrayed a false sense of peace. I considered how I can access these spaces with so much ease and comfort, while for countless others, the fear of death and danger looms around every corner. The opposition was jarring.
Within about 20 minutes, after climbing over several large boulders, we arrived at a migrant shrine in a small clearing. The shrine was essentially an alcove in a large rock wall, and was filled with rosaries, candles, prayer cards, and photographs. Compared to the ghosts of fear and uncertainty that seemed to haunt the rest of the trail and amidst the hostility of the terrain, the shrine gave me a beautiful sense of hopeful energy. Under the shrine, the canyon wall was lined with water jugs left by humanitarian organizations, each bearing hopeful and heartening messages written by volunteers. I learned later that in addition to providing encouragement to migrants passing through, the purpose of these messages was to affirm that the water was not a trap. Indeed, in an increasingly militarized borderlands and such a hostile and xenophobic country, it would be difficult to know who and what to trust.
In the clearing our group quietly acknowledged the sacred nature of the space, and offered a few reflections on how we positioned ourselves within it. Paula read us an excerpt from the book “Crossing With the Virgin: Stories from the Migrant Trail” about a young woman who was abandoned by her group en route to the US, left in the desert with a twisted ankle and little food or water. As the very environment that the testimony described was all around us, it was impossible to be immune to the emotional weight of the desert. After listening to Paula, we all silently wrote messages on jugs of water and cans of beans that we brought to leave at the shrine, and wordlessly began the hike back to our vans.
From there we headed back to the town of Arivaca and stopped at volunteer-run organization called People Helping People in the Border Zone that focuses on educating the community about humanitarian aid and eliminating the border checkpoint in Arivaca. Although the town of Arivaca is largely white and the population has mixed opinions about immigration issues, the opposition to the checkpoint is broadly based because of concerns of militarization and harassment in the community. In addition to the negative ways that the checkpoint affects the Arizona citizens, it is a direct causation of migrant deaths in the area, because it forces people to travel farther in the wilderness to avoid the checkpoint, which takes over the only road in the community. Therefore, the organization sees the elimination of the checkpoint as a tangible goal that also makes a direct impact on the well being of people crossing through the area.
After previously having only a very faint, abstract concept of what crossing through the desert is like, the trip to the Arivaca borderlands was emotionally powerful. The experience forced me to position myself as a white, English-speaking, documented person in this migrant trail. Simultaneously, taking John’s advice to be guided by my heart, I imagined the hundreds who have traversed the same path with a dramatically different set of thoughts and feelings. Although my conception of crossing the border as an undocumented person is still hopelessly abstract, I still feel the ghosts of all of those who have walked there before and after me.
— contributed by Nikki Johnson
The Border Patrol Station in Nogales, Arizona is flanked by three parking lots of vans, ATVs, and horses purposed for finding and deporting immigrants entering the United States through Mexico. When we drove up to the station, it was clear to me that though we were still on the north side of the wall, we had found the other side of immigration. Border Patrol isn’t necessarily what I had imagined; a room of administrative cubicles greets incomers and a mix of civilian and uniformed agents mill about with coffee and granola bars. A wall of trophies on the back wall marks the national achievements of BP’s youth outreach program and we sit down at a horseshoe-shaped table for a slideshow about Homeland security and border enforcement tactics. The mission of Border Patrol is simple, to quote a Border Patrol agent,“[federal immigration policy] is the law of the land….our job is to do our job.” The winding cement hallways and observation room with dozens of TV screens of the quiet desert don’t leave any room for negotiation.
Before coming to Tucson, immigration was a series of numbers and statistics with occasional clips from a documentary or two floating around my mind. Coming here put a face (or rather, many faces) to immigration, so to speak, and I guess that’s what the trip to Border Patrol could have done. Behind green uniforms and bolted trucks, there are real humans with wives, partners, husbands, golden retrievers, whatever. But walking around Border Patrol’s cool offices was shockingly far from humanizing. The agents that we spoke to operated exclusively under a duty to enforce the laws of the United States; whose laws are those? I certainly didn’t write those laws nor did my host family back in South Tucson; where was the human element in all of this?
The quick drive to Nogales, Sonora and visit to the Kino Border Initiative’s hospitality house for women and children didn’t exactly help me feel closer to immigration as it actually happens. Another PowerPoint presentation and a few more gringos report statistics; we peek inside the women’s sleeping area. I am happy that if immigration is going to be statistics and cold folding chairs, at least this time, people crossing the border get a bed and time with their children as opposed to segregated holding cells.
CCAMYN is a two-hour drive from Nogales and offers free food and housing for individuals coming from and/or going to the border. It is situated in the somewhat odd town of Altar – a place whose economy is largely centered on migration. The shops that line the plaza display camouflaged backpacks and carpet-bottomed shoe covers to hide migrant tracks from the “signcutting” border patrol. Inside this migrant shelter, I feel even further from migration. Though we are surrounded by hopeful crossers, my pale skin and accented Spanish confirms my status as a gringo who will happily coast through the Nogales checkpoint tomorrow sporting a blue passport and North Carolina driver’s license. What am I looking for? I find myself wondering, as I get increasingly frustrated with the awkwardness of this situation. Why do I even keep using these words, “far from migration,” as if it is something you can touch, immerse yourself it, experience in the raw like language immersion programs for highschoolers advertise. My social position necessarily creates a distance between my situation and that of a migrant, and I think that’s okay. But what do I do with that distance?
Immigration is, by nature, always dynamic. The migrant is moving and la migra are changing their tactics, but the students are reading the same stale articles and trying to situate themselves in a way that feels less horrible or somehow demonstrates a somber awareness of a system in which they’re so clearly implicated. For the men that Megan and I are playing Crazy 8’s with, migration is a means of being with their families or supporting themselves economically. It’s not a cultural phenomenon that they’ve cultivated and want to show off or talk about. I find solace in hearing about Alfonso’s Chinese ex-girlfriend in Florida and learning magic tricks from Oscar. Scholastic articles about how I should be behaving clog my brain, but I fall back on making fart jokes about beans and putting entirely too much hot sauce on my eggs in some weird competition with my Honduran neighbor who has completely drowned his. I’m probably behaving inappropriately.
Back in South Tucson, my host mom and I dance to Shakira’s 1998 album and her youngest daughter laughs at us. I call my mom and put Alfonso and Oscar in the back of my mind for now to talk about what my sister’s doing for her birthday. I guess I am just another vacation activist or do-gooder student. It certainly feels nice to be back home. Binders full of statistics, quotes, and half-Spanish notes stay packed away for the night and my confusion and discomfort about this system that I’m studying and my place within it lingers. But I’m glad that if nothing else, tonight I can just be a human. I know that puts me farther from Border Patrol’s locked gates, and tonight I can confidently say that that’s a good place to be.
— submitted by Rebecca Varnell
Today, we met with two community leaders, Rosalva and Maria, to discuss the effects of federal and state anti-immigration laws. Anti immigration law has been proliferating throughout the United States since the early to mid-90s. Starting with prominent pieces of legislation such as Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, anti-immigration laws have been aimed at criminalizing undocumented migrants and cutting them off from social services. Reflective of some of our country’s most perverse, jingoist, and nativist tendencies, many, if not most of these laws operate with the aim of promoting attrition through enforcement (in other words, making it as difficult, dangerous, or miserable as possible to enter and/or live in the United States if you do not have documents). The most notorious of these laws include Arizona’s SB 1070. One of the first of several reactionary state immigration laws passed throughout the country following failures in federal immigration reform, SB 1070 allows police officers to as individuals to present their papers at traffic stops if officers have “reasonable suspicion” that a person is undocumented. Following SB 1070’s passage even stricter immigration bills have passed in states including Alabama and Indiana, with Alabama going as far as to demand that school children present documents when trying the obtain a public education.
To demonstrate the ways through which these brutal policies are enforced Rosalva and Maria dressed up in police and Border Patrol uniforms, respectively, and held their mock traffic stop for the Border Studies students. 5 students, myself included, were lined up in a car-like formation and were walked through the policies of SB1070, policies aimed at causing terror and separation. Once “pulled over” we were spoken to in rapid Spanish–those of us who are less in proficient in Spanish were chosen to participate in the exercise—intended to fluster and confuse, we were not read our mock traffic stop rights, and were told that we did not belong in this country. Soon transferred to a mock Border Patrol station, Maria continued to demonstrate the oppressive practices of Border Patrol as she forced us to sign documents which we could not read, upbraiding us for not speaking the “right” language. With our arms bound by bonds with words such as vergüenza (shame) or dolor (pain) written across them, we were all “deported” without real due-process, rights, or representation. However, unlike the hundreds of people who are effected by these policies and practices the white U.S. citizens were able to leave with the rights granted by citizenship, without fear of detention or deportation imparted upon us because of our skin pigmentation, and without our collective dignity systematically attacked by the (in)human institutions that have passed SB1070.
On a personal level, I must admit that my relationship to this exercise is complex, and that it continues to challenge me, and consider my position within the Borderlands. For one, the project did, indeed, leave me feeling incredibly distraught in the sense that I was given yet another insight into how unequivocally wrong the United State’s crypto-facist anti-immigrant agenda is in all of its forms. I can remember standing in front of the classroom with my hands tied. Having been shuttled through this mock process, which was so corrupt, I was left with a visceral reaction at how utterly unjust the laws and policies that govern immigration in this country are. However, these feelings were complex ones. I struggled to reconcile these feelings with the knowledge of my own position as a white male citizen of the U.S., a position that, indeed, allows me to designate this experience as an “insight”. Unlike the 11 million undocumented (and often documented) migrants people’s that live in the United States, at no point can I ever label the experiences presented by in the mock traffic stop as something I’ve ever lived. The emotions conjured during my own mock deportation were not one’s that came from the lived experience of being an oppressed, criminalized, or marginalized person. I do not truly know “how it feels” and that any attempt to express that would be voyeuristic and abusive. Not only did this exercise provide me with some insight into how perverse U.S. immigration policy, but it forced me, once again, to consider my own position and my own privilege as I continue to understand the Borderlands and how I am implicated in and even perpetuate their current state. Further, the problem encountered here is not one that pertains solely to this experience; I expect to encounter it throughout the rest of my life. However, with this problematic in mind, I continue to seek insight into how to better conduct relationships committed to listening, accountability and human flourishing. We’ll see what possibilities appear before me.
Lastly, this postwould be incomplete if I were not to thank Rosalva and María for sharing their time and personal experiences as they pertain to anti-immigration law. As two women who have experienced the jilting sensation of anti-immigration law in their own lives, I thank Rosalva and María for their courage, as they shared these stories and demonstrated situations such as the mock traffic stop: situations which they have either experienced or been affected by personally. Their stories are gifts, which take time and emotional energy to share. I thank them for sharing that which they are not obligated to share to a group of relative strangers, and for inviting us into relationship by sharing stories informed by lived experience of struggle and oppression. Not only do I thank them for sharing their stories, but I also commend them for and support them in their struggle against these systems of control, degradation, and erasure. Their stories play a crucial role in that struggle and give it strength.
— submitted by Alex Cook