On one of our first days of the Border Studies Program, we went to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Walking around the museum, that’s really more of a desert botanical garden, I found the looming saguaros, palo verde trees, and animals fascinating and beautiful. It was a much different landscape from my hometown of New York City, and was different still from my provincial Midwest college campus in Ohio. I thought about the inevitability of a consciousness change in a context as stark and different as the desert was. The mystery of a new ecological landscape made me both excited and terrified for the coming semester—exposure is important, I thought, but change is always hard. My thinking at this time placed this experience into the context and terms of my own life. Throughout the past three months being in Tucson on Border Studies, I’ve learned much more about this environment and communities of the Sonoran Desert, and still feel as excited and terrified of this place as I did on that first day, but in ways I wasn’t able to conceptualize during those few hours at the Desert Museum.
What has changed in the feeling of this place has come with a whole lot of listening, learning, and un-learning of all of these romanticized views of the desert and the Southwest.
On Halloween, I walked 8 miles for the Día de los Muertos Pilgrimage, organized by La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, alongside other folks from the Tucson community in order to honor the human remains of those who have perished in the desert during their migration journey north. 137 small white crosses were carried during the pilgrimage painted with the names of migrants who have been connected to the remains, and countless more were labeled with the Spanish word “desconocid@,” unknown. The unidentifiable human remains don’t account for those who have died in the desert and whose remains have not been encountered and likely won’t be. At the end of the walk the crosses were laid in front of the San Xavier Mission. The mission is an important part of the history of this region, and is still an important site of worship for many people. It’s also worth noting that the Mission is on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Reservation and was built by Spanish colonizers as an appendage of Catholic Church that served to change, and effectively eliminate, much of the ceremonies and practices of the first indigenous nations in this region and others in contemporary Mexico and the United States. The use of this site in the pilgrimage has spiritual significance in this contradictory region.
The desert has been constructed to be an additional barrier to entry into the United States alongside the massive border wall that has been built by the US Department of Homeland Security. The ACLU estimates that 6,000 people have died in the desert during their migration journey north into the United States from countless countries south of the US/Mexico border, and beyond. The presence of the wall forces migrants to cross through the treacherous desert on foot. Some have dubbed this process as “death by deterrence,” a play on the official plan by the government “prevention through deterrence“). To start to gain some understanding of what it means to be crossing the desert in the summer, when most people migrate, the temperatures reach up to 120° and the only shade is provided by saguaros and small shrubby plants. When crossing the desert takes around 3 days for migrants, the effects of extreme dehydration and heat are not easily remedied. While people migrating have to navigate the desert they are also in constant fear that they will be apprehended by Border Patrol, and later detained and deported.
The wall not only forces people migrating to cross the treacherous desert, but also creates countless divisions that are having huge impacts in many communities. This includes indigenous people who lived on the land now called Arizona, or Mexico before that, who existed on these lands long before Spanish colonization or the later influx of Anglo people capitalizing off the land by building copper mines and developing cities. The Tohono O’odham, an active indigenous nation in this region, has their nation divided by the border. The land that their ancestors have lived on for time immemorial is now highly policed and freedom of movement within the whole O’odham nation is highly regulated and limited, not to mention the ways it stymies the sharing of language, culture, and history among the O’odham on both sides of the border. There are also countless ways in which the physical US/Mexico border wall is disrupting the ecological landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This includes habitat fragmentation, greater negative effects on threatened/endangered species, and harmful effects of constant artificial night lighting that surveillance technology requires. The roll back of government support for conservation efforts accompanies these very real ecological impacts. Check out this University of Texas analysis on the wall’s ecological impact.
A few weeks ago on our way home from the twin border cities Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, we stopped in Tombstone, AZ. The tiny strip of stores and restaurants looked like something straight out of an old Western movie. And this was exactly the point. People reenacting old gunfights, shops selling fudge and “wild west” garb seemed to be there to memorialize a version of the history of the Southwest that in no way acknowledged the violent appropriation of indigenous land, not to mention the way that violence was romanticized as a fun reality of the “good old days.” The seemingly oblivious consumers of the “old Wild West” certainly didn’t seem to care about confronting the very real, contemporary violence facing people in the highly militarized border region that Tombstone exists in, and it felt like a physical representation of insidious white supremacy implicit in the consumption of some culture and history in Arizona.
Even in Tucson, there is a feeling of being separate from the desert and the border. The 60 miles between Tucson and Mexico are not insignificant, and I have to remember that just because I have been here for 3 months I haven’t even scratched the surface of what being in this place means. I’ve seen the way wealth manifests in the geographic makeup of Tucson, the gentrifying downtown starkly different from the more low-income Latino neighborhood of South Tucson where I lay my head at night. The border region is full of contradictions that I am still reeling over. The desert mirrored by the beautiful mountains. The beauty of the desert with the simultaneous utilization of its danger by the DHS and Border Patrol. The hyper-patriotism and national pride that bolsters anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona and the simultaneous erasure of some of the first nations. I am here observing and looking, but I do not live here, I am not crossing the desert through here. And at the end of the day I get to leave and maybe never think about the border again. But I’ve been captivated, in love with, and disgusted by this region and don’t think I’ll quite be able to get it off my mind anytime soon.
The desert zipped by, a blur of cacti and sand, as J. Cole softly played in the background. The sand gave way to buildings as we entered Nogales, Arizona, and then the buildings in turn were dwarfed by a slatted 21 foot wall. As we drove by the beams, the spaces between them started blurring together, tricking my eyes into seeing only the city beyond. If you’re moving fast enough, it’s like the wall doesn’t exist.
I once heard someone say that Nogales, AZ, USA is essentially the same as Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. “It’s practically one city!” she proclaimed, incorrectly. In fact, I would argue that when you cross into Mexico it’s almost like you’re in another country! The buildings are more colorful, there are dogs in the streets, and you’re on the OTHER side of the border wall. I do agree that the two cities remain somewhat similar and blended- Spanish is heard in the streets, dollars and pesos populate both cities. However, because of the enormous, militarized divider, it’s impossible to confuse the two towns. Perhaps in the past, before the installation of the 21 foot dividing wall, the US and Mexican cities were indistinguishable.
The main streets of Nogales, MX are lined on both sides with shops and booths. Walking down the sidewalk you are offered tacos, flat-brimmed hats, and affordable cell phone service all within the span of a minute. After passing a particularly aggressive flag salesmen, we came upon a man with a donkey and a photo booth, primed to set anyone who wanted to down on the burro and adorn them with a sombrero so that they could know, for a split second, what it feels like to be Mexican. Obviously, this gimmicky photo opportunity was designed specifically for touristy Americans who are either ignorant enough to believe that the majority of Mexicans can be found romantically riding donkeys in sombreros, or just willing to spend ten dollars to immortalize themselves having international fun. The man was half-heartedly calling to all the passers-by, casually requesting business, until I walked by. He looked straight at me and said,
“Oh YOU. Now YOU look like you want a picture with the donkey. Look, these are the hats that you want to be remembered with!!”
Though I am fully aware that people often try a little harder to sell me things because I am blonde and pale and overtly American, I spent the whole day self-conscious that people see me and think that I am yearning to be photographed with a donkey– because I just have that look about me. The border wall and all that comes with it has created such a division between the two countries, and a division among those who receive the privilege to travel in that I can walk forty feet into Mexico and be immediately recognized as a noncitizen who clearly has enough status to be able to act as a tourist. There is no casual ebb and flow between the two Nogales cities.
We were in Nogales to volunteer with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group that works with migrants. No More Deaths was founded in 2004, as a response to a decade of rising death tolls in the deserts between the US and Mexico. Due to US policy shifts and increased militarization since the advent of NAFTA in 1994, and the War on Terror since 2001, undocumented migrants are effectively being funneled to cross into America through the deserts, because it’s become nearly impossibly to cross through cities. The US Border Patrol implemented policies specifically to CREATE this “funnel effect”–which is horrifying but true. Their plan is titled “Prevention by Deterrence”, and hopes to create a substantial enough amount of desert deaths to deter anyone else from trying to cross. The fact that people have not, in fact, been deterred by any of the horrifying policies the government has chosen to implement certainly says something about the crises that are pushing people out of their home countries. The fact that people are willing to risk their lives to make enough money to support their families back home says, to me, that perhaps the government should be addressing the conditions in their homes rather than using the desert as a lethal weapon. It may be a more pragmatic solution? But that is just my opinion, and I am certainly no politician.
No More Deaths started out addressing primarily physical needs in the desert, and has evolved to include documentation of abuse by the Border Patrol against migrants, and involvement in all aspects of the migrant journey–pre and post deportation and crossing the desert. Much of our Saturday work was with those who had been recently deported to Mexico. Specifically, our days consisted of visiting a few different shelters and offering migrants cell phones on which to make free phone calls, and cash in exchange for checks issued by detention centers. These services are unfortunately necessary due to the way the US does deportation.
In case you didn’t know, groups of people are often deported penniless to cities in which they have no ties, at odd times of the day or night. This is a tactic that I believe sits hand-in-hand with the Prevention Through Deterrence strategy. The policies are designed to marginalize undocumented migrants so greatly that they no longer deem it “worth it” to cross into the US without papers. Additionally, detention centers rarely give detainees phone calls while they are detained. This is an unbearably frustrating truth that I have learned through my work at the office of Derechos Humanos, a human rights promoting organization in Tucson. During my time working with Derechos Humanos I made countless phone calls to detention centers on behalf of family members who had no idea where their family members were because detention facilities are NOT allowing the phone calls they claim that they are. On one occasion, a family heard nothing from their son for about a year. They held a funeral service for him. Later, they found out that he had been detained the entire time, and just unable to make contact. It’s very hard to believe that something so simple and theoretically easy to correct is happening on a large scale–but I can tell you that it is in fact a reality.
As a class, the Border Studies students took a tour of a federal detention center which houses migrants. I inquired about the ability of migrants to contact loved ones from inside the prison walls, knowing full well that just the day before I had been on the phone for two hours with a list of 20 detention centers in Arizona attempting to locate a migrant for a family specifically because they were certainly NOT allowed to make their own phone call. The man replied, “Oh that doesn’t happen. Everyone is allowed to make phone calls. Everyone.” Maybe, in his thirty years working for the facility, this man has never witnessed the phenomenon flooding our phone lines with distraught family members. Maybe he personally hands out iPhones to each detainee upon their arrival. Or maybe he was not telling the whole truth.
In any case, there is a reality that post-deportation people need to make phone calls. Money is also kind of a necessity these days, to you know, travel or live. Things like that. So, in a charitable move, the government typically deports people with checks that are impossible for them to cash! They only receive these checks if they have the good fortune of being detained with some cash on them. After the Border Patrol confiscates their possessions, which are rarely returned at all, American money is transferred to the commissary of the migrant so that they may often make ridiculously expensive phone calls, if they have the good fortune of being granted the freedom to do so. Pesos are immediately disposed of, say the migra. The checks they write require documentation to cash, which many migrants do not possess. So, we act as a bank. WE can give people cash for their checks because it is not hard for us to cash them when we return to the US, flashing our passports and driving to the nearest bank. We, the US Citizens, are entitled to so many human rights that we can spare a few.
Another part of volunteering that I thoroughly enjoy is giving people rides to either the bank or the bus station. It gives us a chance to talk. Oftentimes after the first get-to-know-you-questions– name, where you’re coming from, where you’re going, the conversation turns light. Though sometimes there is heavy talk of reality, people oftentimes just want to chat about the mundane. When people find out that you are from America, the first question they often ask these days is, “Ahh, conoce Donald Trump???” Which means, “You know Donald Trump???” This saddens me on a lot of levels, and makes me self-conscious that the face, hair, and voice of America seems to be a racist man with too much money. Do people in Mexico assume that as Americans, we are all in favor of Trump’s ideals? I certainly hope not. However, I could not blame anyone for thinking that way because our national policies certainly reflect a racist, xenophobic attitude.
Spending Saturdays in Nogales, Mexico has been at times heartbreaking, frustrating, hilarious, colorful, delicious, and confusing. I’m left with the horrifying reality of being able to drive away, straight through a wall that is impenetrable enough to have killed thousands–all because I own a piece of paper that says USA right on it.