Tucson to Nogales

By Jacob Wilson

The highway from Tucson to Nogales is one of the most dangerous highways in the country. On the ranking of “America’s 100 Deadliest Highways”, I-19 comes out as 38th with 57 fatalities from 2004 to 2008.

Yet it is not even close to being the most deadly aspect of that stretch of desert. In 2008 alone, in the Tucson Sector desert that surrounds this highway, 171 people trying to cross the border were found dead, caught up in the Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) attempt to prevent border crossings through “deterrence”. This project of deterrence, building more and more walls, putting more Border Patrol agents on foot, and installing more detection technology in the border region, forces migrants to choose more and more hazardous means of crossing through the border.

It is down this highway and its surrounding desert that we drove on February 12th, 2016, the first day of our first overnight excursion on the Border Studies Program, on the way to visit the Nogales Customs and Border Protection Station.

Looking out the window of our van, I am briefly reminded of the highways infamous reputation. I can see that there is only a small shoulder, at the end of which is a steady slope of about five feet, fanning out into the sandy, brush ridden desert floor below. I briefly consider just how easily a driver could lazily meander out of their lane and dig their front wheels into the sand.

All the while,  the beauty of the desert around us streaks by. In the distance are the perpetual mountains that pervade every horizon in Tucson’s surrounding desert, their many peaks shining under the desert sun. The highway is unique in that distances are posted in kilometers, while speed is posted in miles per hour. It is one of many marks of being near the border, a place where many such contradictions exist.


It is at the end of this specific stretch of history, beauty and mortality that the Nogales Border Patrol Station resides, one of many such stations along the US-Mexico border. It marks the most recent advent in this aforementioned history, bringing with it increased security and surveillance, increased militarization, and  increased policing. As we near Nogales, the vast expanses of valley floor and distant mountains give away to the tell-tale rolling hills that signify we are getting close to Nogales. Sweeping and turning through the bases of these hills and their rolling golden grasses, we approach the station.

We pull up to the gates at the end of a side road lined with large storage yards of construction equipment and warehouses. The border wall is visible not too far off in the distance, its 20 foot tall rusted metal beams snaking through the desert hills and out onto the horizon.

We are met in the parking lot by men in olive green fatigues, the Border Patrol badge on their lapel and the Customs and Border Protection patch on their sleeves.  The parking lot is filled with various CBP vehicles and pickup trucks, many with metal holding-cells installed in their bed for detaining newly found border crossers in the desert. The Border Patrol agents are tall and confident, greeting us professionally but also with an air of nonchalance.

They lead us inside into a room full of CBP posters and the faces of powerful officials: the Chief and Deputy Chief of the Border Patrol, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and The President of the United States. Almost every wall has a morale boosting poster, exemplifying the important work of the CBP with images of armored Border Patrol agents standing in front of American flags. For us students, the posters are a glaring contradiction to the reality that we had just passed through on our drive down here. What we recognize as so much pain and suffering being distorted into an oorah-style propaganda piece.

CBP presentation

Our tour follows with similarly blatant ignorances. First we are shown a presentation delineating how the Border Patrol protects the US from terrorism (even though no “terrorist” has ever been apprehended by the Border Patrol). Next we are brought to the equipment room of the station where our tour guide offers us the opportunity to handle the same assault rifles, ‘less-than-lethal’ pepper guns and body armor that the Border Patrol uses to enforce their domain (who wouldn’t be excited to handle the same weapons that kill people and enforce fear all throughout the border region?). To cap it off, we are brought to the holding cells. There, we are shown the holding cells themselves and the people detained within them, just brought in from the desert and awaiting to see what their legal fate will be. It was possibly the most palpable example of the disconnect between the agents and the people they were affecting. The people in detention weren’t even told who we were, let alone given a say in whether or not their detention could be made public for a tour group.

Exiting the doors of the station after our two hour tour, I feel that my understanding of the Border Patrol has been greatly intricated, although probably not in the same way that our tour guides had intended. To see first-hand the extent to which people were able to disconnect their actions from the pain of others, to even see it as righteous, was sobering.

We say our goodbyes to the tour guide, thanking them for their time, and get back onto the road to continue the rest of our trip.

When contrasted to the surrounding desert and the history that the desert represents, it seems as if the Border Patrol station exists within an alternate reality. And in many ways it does when one considers all the different realities that exist in the desert. There are many parts of the desert that you can choose to see and alternatively choose not to, a quality that the Border Patrol uses to its advantage when trying to advance its own narratives. I certainly share that privilege of choice, the privilege to enter Arizona not as the subject of these systems but as an outside actor who can choose what aspects I want to see and what parts I don’t. I don’t have to see the death if I do not want to. Even the cops and border patrol agents who patrol all over Tucson can be ignored, especially if you are among the lucky few who they do not routinely target.

Yet for many people these realities are not things that they engage with voluntarily. For many people, the prospect of death, detainment and precarity are as much a part of life as is security and stability for others.

Throughout the rest of our time in the borderlands, we are continually reminded of these paradigms. I am thankful to see this desert, to hear the perspectives of so many wonderful people in the community and to be able to use those narratives and experiences to powerfully define the wide variety of realities that takes place here.

Clark Merrefield and Lauren Strieb, “America’s 100 Deadliest Highways,” The Daily Beast, 5/31/10, accessed 5/1/2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/05/31/deadliest-highways-ranking-the-100-interstates-most-likely-to-cause-a-fatal-crash.html

Maria Jimenenz, “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the US-Mexico Border,” ACLU, 1-/1/2009, accessed 5/1/2016, https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/humanitarian-crisis-migrant-deaths-us-mexico-border?redirect=immigrants-rights/humanitarian-crisis-migrant-deaths-us-mexico-border

US Border Patrol, “Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond,” Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 7/1/1994, accessed 5/1/2016 http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415996945/gov-docs/1994.pdf

Richard D. Vogel, “Reclaiming Their Stolen Birthright- Mexicans in the American Southwest”, From the Left- A US Forum on Combating Neoliberal Globalization, 1/1/2012, accessed 5/1/2016, http://combatingglobalization.com/articles/Reclaiming_Their_Stolen_Birthright.html

A Moment in Chiapas

By Lena Novak and Somer O’Neil

During our time in Chiapas, we visited two migrant shelters, one of which was in Arriaga. Arriaga is a common crossing place for Central American migrants because it’s really far south in Mexico and it has La Bestia (The Beast), which is the train that migrants use to get from southern Mexico to northern Mexico. It’s a really dangerous mode of transportation with exploitation from cartels and possible injuries on the train, but it’s fast.

We got into Arriaga and it was a dusty little town bustling with people, especially near the railroad tracks. The shelter was unlike others we’d seen because we had to ring a bell and wait for someone to come get the door. When we walked into the room where we would be hearing a short talk, there were men lounging on the edges of the room or in chairs. When we came in, there was an awkward silence and then awkward hello’s were exchanged. Other migrants began coming in with folding chairs to make a huge circle around the room. Once we were all seated around the room, our group and the migrants alike, a man came in and briefly told us about the shelter – migrants could only stay for three days and then get moving – while another man filmed him and took pictures of our group in the circle. After about five minutes of this, he asked us to go around and say our names and where we were from.



After we finished introducing ourselves in a circle, there was an awkward silence. We were all seated in this circular format conducive for group talking. This circle was huge however and filled with so many people, so many voices, so many perspectives. So in reality individual side conversations were better for this particular environment. Sarah, one of our teachers was sitting on my left side, to my right was a group of migrant women. There was a nine year-old girl, her mother, her mother’s sister and a nineteen year-old girl they befriended at the migrant shelter. Sarah and I started asking these women the basic questions: what is your name again, where are you going, where are you from. The mother told us a story about how the nineteen year-old girl’s sibling fell off a train and was in the hospital. I asked if he is ok; she said he was. Sarah was then able to make a connection with the two sisters. They were planning on migrating to Texas. Sarah worked at a migrant shelter in Texas and thus had lots of information on the subject. All I had to say to the nineteen year-old girl was I like your shirt and the conversation slowly faded. I no longer knew what to say or how to interact. If I could identify with anyone in a migrant shelter I thought it would be a little girl and another girl around the same age as myself. I love children and can generally get along well with girls my own age. There were still many barriers that blocked me from being able to continue a conversation with these girls. For one language barriers, my Spanish did not compare to their understanding and speaking abilities. We had grown up in different countries and lived completely different lives. We were women but due to social circumstances, that may be all we had in common at this particular moment in time.

I could no longer think of questions or things to say. I knew they would respond if I kept up the conversation but it just didn’t feel natural. It felt a little forced. I thus sat in silence for a couple of minutes looking around the room at my peers.  The chair to my left side was no longer filled, Sarah had moved her location to be closer to the mother and her sister. In the chair next to the vacant seat, a man sat quietly. The man seemed to be in his forties. I thought okay, here goes nothing and said, “hola”, directly at him. I received no response. It was obvious the man was in his own world and had not been listening but for a second I thought it was a sign that we were not meant to exchange voices and opinions. I decided to say hola a second time. The man immediately turned to look at me responding with a smile and the words hola.

This man’s name was Pablo and my conversation with him was so genuine and so pure. It is insane to think myself and a Salvadoran man in his forties are thinking about the same things. He was describing why individuals choose to become part of a group and what it means once they are a part of a group. He also views his country through two different perspectives, as a place of life and as one of violence. He wanted to debate with me about whether learning Spanish or English was easier. Through all of these small conversations I was able to see Pablo as a person situated in a difficult circumstance at that particular moment, not as a poor migrant. He was thinking and questioning the world around him, just as I was thinking and questioning the world. Although we are different in so many ways we were able to interact and form a meaningful connection with each other.

From this experience I learned the importance of speaking and forming connections with others. Although I was not able to upkeep a conversation with the individuals (I at face value) felt the most connected to, I tried again and was able to learn about the life and experiences of a man in his forties. Human connection happens on a much deeper level than the physical appearance of an individual. Physical appearances include: race, age, sex or other defining characteristics/social constructs. By talking with Pablo I learned about him as a human being in the world. He spoke about who he was as a person and shared his wisdom with me. His perceptions about the world continue to dwell in my thoughts to this day.


I tried to minimize the awkward moment after introductions by immediately talking to someone. It was the most freedom we’d had a shelter to just talk to migrants the whole time, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. The man next to me was Adelmo and the man next to him was Pablo. Pablo looked interested in talking but it was difficult to talk to both men at the same time. I asked Adelmo about why he was migrating and he told me about his son being threatened and beat up by gangs to make him join. I suddenly realized he was crying and began searching my Spanish knowledge for ways to respond. I finally said, “Lo siento.” which is similar to “I’m sorry” and “I feel for you” at the same time.

Then Pablo stood and came to sit on the other side of me. He began to talk to me about the rules of the shelter – how you had to leave after 3 days, even if you were sick or injured, and how they confiscated your phone for security reasons. I became very aware of my phone in my pocket and began to consider how strange it was that my privilege extended even here. The migrants were not Mexican citizens, but neither was I. Yet I could just enter this shelter with whatever I had in my pockets and take time out of migrants’ relaxation before they continued on their journeys. I didn’t know what to say and I wanted to include both men in the conversation so I tried to ask questions they could both answer, mostly about how they were migrating and whether they were concerned about the danger. I quickly found that I wanted to be able to follow up with both of them on their answers, which was difficult. Finally, Lena began talking to Pablo and I turned my attention back to Adelmo.

But we didn’t just talk about his migration story. Adelmo asked me what I was studying and what brought me to the border. He seemed pleased when I said I was studying literature and that I was on the program because I feel it’s important to learn about experiences that are not my own from people as well as books. He nodded and said more people needed to understand the migrant experience. This made me really hopeful because I imagine my contribution to the migrant and Latino communities is sharing stories and raising awareness through my writing.

I asked him about his job and his eyes lit up as he told me about carpentry and building houses. I told him he must like hard work and he told me that building houses was hard work but that carpentry was just enjoyable. His passion for carpentry was so obvious. He went on to tell me that he didn’t have a wife and that his son was staying with his aunt while he migrated. He wanted to make money and then return to his home. There weren’t many jobs in El Salvador. So we began talking about what he did on days when he didn’t have jobs. He asked me what my favorite movie was and told me his was “Señor de los Anillos.” I was confused until he pointed to his fingers. His favorite movie was Lord of the Rings! We bonded over that and talked about music as well. I told him I liked folk music and he told me he liked romantic music.

Adelmo was the most surprising person I have ever met and I hadn’t felt that connected to anyone on the trip before that moment. We had spoken in Spanish for more than an hour about his migration, our lives, our families, and our plans. Not only did he give me hope for my idea about using my writing to contribute to causes, he also gave me that experience to hold onto. I thought of him when we marched for migrant rights in Phoenix, hoping that he would successfully migrate and benefit from the rights people have been fighting for for decades. He continues to be inspiration for me as I wrap up the semester with final projects and think about my motivation for this work.

When a Human Body Is “Illegal” Within Itself

By Maya Street-Sachs

“When undocumented migrants are criminalized under the sign of the “illegal alien”. Theirs is an “illegality” that does not involve a crime against anyone; rather, migrant “illegality” stands only for a transgression against the sovereign authority of the nation-state” (De Genova 175).

What Nicholas De Genova is stating above is that those who our society labels as “illegal aliens” or “criminal aliens” have not actually performed a crime against someone or something (i.e. murder or theft) however they have simply moved within the randomly, arbitrarily, created borders of our world. I think that upon moving to the borderlands, even for just a short time, this fact is all too clear in not only the legal proceedings that mix our criminal justice systems and immigration systems into one sweaty, packed, and fast paced court room, but also in the every day lives of people that have chosen/been forced to move to the United States, seeking work or simply a place to live in which they feel safe from prosecution and violence from the drug gangs.

To cross the US/Mexico border from Mexico for the first time is not a crime, but a violation of our country’s immigration policies.

To cross the US/Mexico border from Mexico for a second time is a criminal act followed by a court proceedings and time in detention, county jail, or prison, followed by deportation.

These might sound simple and objective but these policies function in exactly the opposite manner— they are confusing, arbitrary, and unjust when actually implemented into real life settings and with real life people.  Through the militarization of the border, and permeation of these policies into the everyday lives of immigrants in the United States, non-citizen individuals are no longer treated like humans first above all else, but instead as “illegals”.   There are many steps along the journey and policies that migrants jump through in order to reach the United States in which I feel that individuals are treated as “illegal” before they are treated as humans — from the moment they begin their journey, to arrest, to detention, to deportation.  Our country has policies that govern each of these steps of this inevitable process that strip migrants of their rights to “life, liberty and security of person” as stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This 1948 document also states in Article 6 “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”.  Our immigrations system has completely disregarded these rights.  Below I will describe two out of many “spaces” within the migrant journey in which migrants’ “illegality” immediately strips them of their “human rights” in the eyes of United States immigration policy.

The Desert

Border Patrol agents act under the Department of Homeland Security and within that, the US Customs and Border Protection — employing more than 21,000 officers today.  As a federal law enforcement agency, Border Patrol agents actually do most of their work in an arguably law-less land (the desert) and concerning individuals who are deemed “illegal” in the eyes of the United States government, making it so that their policies and actions lack even less morality and accountability than actual police officers who at least, especially today, have more eyes from the public watching their day to day moves.

Above, we can see the guidelines that Border Patrol agents are trained to use psychologically and practically when it comes to their use of force out in the field — usually the desert.   Even though the Border Patrol agent that we spoke with at the Tucson Sector Border Patrol office — a man named Ricky Ortega — was well prepared and well versed on how to speak to a liberal and critical group of visitors, it was clear that Ortega has no moral qualms with acting within this top portion of the diagram — using deadly force towards individuals with substantially less power and force than the agents.  While meeting with agent Ricky Ortega I was struck by a number of sound bites that he threw at us.

Use of Force

Here are just a couple from our visit on Friday, February 12, 2016:

“…Let’s say we [Border Patrol Agents] were being assaulted…” / “…We don’t know what we don’t know…” / “…We aren’t trying to kill people…”  / “…10-20% [of people crossing the border] have some sort of criminal history. The vast majority of people crossing are good people… however we are always on a high threat level — everyone is that 20%…” / “…We can shoot into Mexico…”  / “…We are responsible for our bullets…”  / “… If we shoot, we don’t investigate…” / “…Officers are always innocent before proven guilty…” / “…Releasing names makes it seem like an [agent] is guilty…”  / “…We hope we don’t have to use firearms…” / “…All threats agency…” / “…you can exceed level of force…” / “…You can go beyond their [migrants] level of force…” / “…You never know what happens here…”/ “…Based on an officer’s perception…” / “…We are so used to people using force against us…”/ “…We don’t shoot to kill, we shoot to stop the threat…”

For me, I think what the above unorganized amalgamation of words that came out of Ricky Ortega’s mouth prove is how the desert becomes a kind-of anything goes land in the eyes of law enforcement. As Border Patrol agents physically and technologically stalk and detect “illegals” they then apprehend them in more or less any fashion that they deem necessary in the moment — verbally, physically, or both.  The power dynamic in these situations could not be more unequal.  Agents often speak very little or poor Spanish, they are in government-issued uniforms, half the time they are white, are mostly male, and most importantly perhaps, they are citizens and they love their country.  The migrants, on the other hand, often do not speak a word of English (or sometimes even Spanish for that matter), are in dirty, tattered, clothing that they have been wearing for days, they are non-white, sometimes they are women and children, they have no access to a weapon besides a rock, and most importantly perhaps, they are non-citizens, or “illegals”, “bodies”, and “aliens” as agents so love to call them.  They are “illegally” trying to enter the United States because life where they are coming from just doesn’t seem possible anymore.  What all of this comes down to is that agents do not need to have much, if any, moral, political, or social justification for anything that they do out in the desert, for in their eyes they are protecting our country from those that do not belong within our borders.  In this way, migrants lose all of their rights as people and humans within this initial step of their journey as they are solely and immediately labeled as “illegals” before they can even open their mouth to tell their story, not that anyone would listen.

The combination of agents’ and many government officials’ notion that migrants are dangerous and/or terrorists and need to be stopped at all costs in order to perform one’s job correctly, and our legal and immigration systems’ ability in general to organize policies and tactics in such a way that individual agents have the jurisdiction to decide in the moment what is best in that situation makes it so that the model above doesn’t really mean all that much.  What we can learn from the mindset of Ricky Ortega, the very existence of such a militarized, active, and large, Border Patrol faction, and the extreme lack of legal accountability for agents who have murdered someone in the desert or by the border wall, is that no matter what the situation might be, migrants traveling in the desert find themselves in this in between, law-less space where they are not looked at as humans who deserve protection under even universal human rights laws.  As Border Patrol agents are trained to view the status of these men, women, and children as first and for most “illegal”, they are stripped of any other identity such as refugee, migrant, farmer, father, or musician, and thus find themselves without any legal protection and in this face of imminent deadly force use against them.