U.S. militarization of the Mexico border has claimed 5,000 lives since the late 1990s. The U.S. government spent more than $18 billion last year on predator drones, bombardier aircraft, black hawk helicopters, sophisticated surveillance systems, 22,000 armed border guards and 651 miles of steel wall at the border. This has pushed migrants – often fleeing the dire consequences of US economic policy – to take the only remaining passage north: the deadly Sonora desert.
- The desert has claimed most of the 5,000 migrants killed entering the United States. Dehydration, dysentery, heatstroke, hypothermia, and sheer exhaustion are often lethal.
- The Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill that the Senate will debate this week only exacerbates this deadly situation, mandating billions of dollars to exponentially increase border militarization before putting anyone on the path to citizenship.
I read the statistics before joining 16 School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) activists on our first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border–before I followed Steve into the Sonora desert to drop off water jugs on migrant trails, before I watched Olga call her coyote to make sure he’d delivered her son safely, before I conversed with Pedro and tried not to stare at his missing leg – severed by The Beast, the deadly train that migrants hop to travel through Mexico. Before I stood at the wall with Jose Antonio’s mother and wondered why the Border Patrol pumped so many bullets into his young body as he walked along a street in his own city, on the Mexican side.
After this experience, I came to see the urgency of engaging the SOA Watch movement to resist the militarization of our border and its deadly consequences. The story of Maria and Jose and others presented below are a compelling call to action. There are many things we can do to make a difference—whether it’s taking one minute to email your senator to say no to more border militarization, or reaching out to immigrants in your own community, or joining us at the Stewart Immigration Detention Center during the SOAW vigil weekend in November.
What we cannot do, is to allow this to continue.
Maria’s roommates from the shelter in Nogales, Mexico, carried her gently into the room where members of our SOAW Border delegation had gathered to talk to some of the migrants recently deported to Mexico. After five days traversing Arizona’s Sonora desert, her frail and swollen legs had given out, and she was unable to walk. Next to her sat Sofia, able to walk -barely -but with large black and purple bruises on her arms from six days of IV fluids. She was flown out of the desert by a rescue helicopter, unconscious.
Both women smiled shyly, in seeming contrast to their battered bodies and they horrors they had just lived through. Or maybe not.–maybe their smiles revealed an awareness of the sheer miracle of still being alive.
The desert had taken the power out of Maria’s legs, but it did not claim her spirit. Maria told us that once the swelling goes down and her knees are able to again carry her 100-lb body, she’ll head out to try to cross the desert once more.
I was astonished, having just walked a small piece of that same desert two days earlier. We had gone to do a water drop on a migrant trail with the expert guidance of No More Death’s volunteer, Steve. This group, along with the Samaritans, makes daily treks into the desert to leave water for migrants. The fact that we picked up more empty jars than we left was testimony that it was fulfilling its purpose: saving lives.
Although I drank water like a camel and knew that an air conditioned van was awaiting me, I was utterly depleted after only after three hours in the desert, one of the most brutal in the world. The desert is scattered with small shrines that mark where dead bodies have been retrieved: 5,000 of them in the past 15 years, plus an untold nuimber more whose named and remains the desert will never reveal. Still reeling from my own mini journey, I asked Maria why take this risk again? Her answer was one I immediately understood: her children were on the other side.
State-of-the-art military technology doesn’t stop moms like Maria, even as the industrial military complex falls over itself to gain bids for the extra $6.8 billion dollars the Senate wants to spend for more border militarization. They are willing to risk everything to be united with their children, to put food on their tables. What this militarization does is to push migrants to the deadliest route. Even as overall immigration is waning in recent years, border deaths remain constant.
A hundred years ago, if Maria’s name were Laura Ingalls, her story of braving treacherous lands to forge a new life or reunite with family would have been part of the mythical fabric of our nation. Children in elementary schools would be required to read her tale. One difference: Laura was stepping into lands never owned by her ancestors , while Maria was heading to land that had long been part of her native Mexico.
But instead of being a heroine, Maria is a criminal. Today, while Washington debates the decriminalization of some immigrants (after all, our society would fall apart without immigrant workers), quietly, our tax dollars are going to criminalize and imprison tens of thousands of immigrants in our own communities.
Tax Dollars to Streamline Injustice
We witnessed this public policy schizophrenia in the Federal courthouse in Tucson where 60 immigrants – shackled with chains on their hands and feet, looking exhausted after days in the desert – were paraded in groups of five before a judge, and sentenced to an average of four month in jail. Their crime was entry without inspection. The whole process, called Operation Streamline, took only two hours and cost tax payers a million dollars. And that price tag is just for one session in one courthouse on one day. The same thing happens in six border city courthouses each week day. And the new Senate bill hopes to triple that.
Immediately after Streamline, the immigrants are escorted to prison, mostly private ones. Schools in the US may be closing, but private prisons, such as those run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are being opened and expanded at an astonishing rate. This is mostly due to the new trend of massively incarcerating immigrants for the crime of having entered our country through the back door. Fully 60% of Tucson’s federal court time is spent with deportation cases, leaving them unable to adequately deal with serious crimes.
President Obama is currently on track to deport more immigrants during his 6 years – more than 2 million – than the sum of all immigrants deported in the 100 years from 1892-1997. More than 200,000 families have already been separated by such deportations in the past two years alone. For those processed through Operation Streamline, first comes prison, then detention center, then deportation.
Maria was lucky to “just” go straight to ICE detention. After walking for five miserable days through the blistering heat of the day and the brutal cold of the night, her coyote’s pick-up never arrived and she ended up in a Border Patrol van. They shackled her swollen feet and hands and delivered her prostrate to the detention center. Because she was so thin, her wrists kept slipping out of the handcuffs. She explained she had to continually shove them back into the handcuffs to avoid being scolded trying to get away by the Border Patrol.
Tragically, the Border Patrol sometimes goes beyond scolding. In October 2012 16 year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was brutally murdered by a US Border Patrol agent, riddled by 13 bullets to the head and back. He was on the Mexican side of the border wall, when he was shot, allegedly for throwing rocks toward the fence. As we gathered with Fr. Roy Bourgeois to give Jose’s family a photo of the cross bearing Jose’s name that Roy carried at last year’s vigil, we realized how impossible it would have been for rocks to even reach over the top of the 30-foot wall perched on top of a 30-foot hill.
In fairness, several of the migrants reported that the Border Patrol had rescued them from sure death. Tanya told us that the Border Patrol searched all night for her after her husband was able to contact them after she passed out in the desert. Once found, she was airlifted to a hospital in Phoenix. What is clear is that the blame for the rise in deaths in the desert does not lie on the shoulders of the Border Patrol, but on the policy that has shaped it.
So, why do they come at all? We asked the staff of the Kino Border Initiative, whose services include serving hundreds of meals a day to migrants recently deported to Mexico, and running a shelter for women deported. Kino Education Director West Cosgrove replied that during his 17 years at border cities he has heard multiple versions that boil down to this brief explanation: We are here because you were there. This was affirmed when Sister Engracia told us that the biggest increase in recent migrants are those from Honduras. They come fleeing the violence unleashed by the 2009 coup carried out by SOA graduates and continued under a regime supported by US military aid.
The biggest way that “we were there” in Mexico is of course NAFTA, the free trade agreement that promised to bolster Mexico’s economy, but destroyed the livelihood of millions of small farmers who couldn’t possibly complete with subsidized giant US agro business. It is no wonder that the wall started to be built in 1994,the year that NAFTA was approved. Maquiladoras from the U.S. moved in, paying wages so low that a community at the Nogales, Mexico trash dump that we visited included former maquila workers who made more picking trash than working at the factory.
A group of workers from the closed Legacy printer ink factory met with us under a tent they had installed outside the abandoned factory, demanding the assets in lieu of the unpaid wages and severance pay owed by the owner, who closed the factory and hightailed it back to the U.S. and his numerous other businesses.
The School of the Americas has also contributed to the dangers faced by migrants, through their training of elite Mexican Special Forces known as the GAFES. Some of those soldiers deserted the army to become leading members of the Zetas–the hired assassins of a Mexican drug cartel: The Zetas later split off to form their owsn cartel. Migrants passing through the desert must pay cartels to enter and leave the border towns, and pay cartel-affiliated coyotes to lead them through the desert. Minimum price for these services: $4,000, per migrant, not including frequent rapes, torture and sometimes death at the hands of the coyotes. Migrants get a $500 discount if they agree to carry a 50-pound sack of marijuana. U.S. border security has been a boom for human smugglers.
The environment is also suffering irreversible damage because of border militarization policies, affecting pristine wild lands, national forests, and refugees for wildlife such as pygmy owls and desert bighorn sheep, contributing also to severe flooding. In a bizarre twist, Sierra Club activist Dan Millis was charged with littering when distributing water jugs on migrant trails, even though he and other No More Deaths volunteers were simultaneously picking up boxes of trash in the desert. Dan refused to pay the ticket, and was later convicted in federal court. Several months earlier, Dan had discovered the remains of 14-year old Josseline Hernandez who was left to die in the desert while journeying to reunite with her mother in California.
As the Senate brings to its chambers the debate on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform, it is clear to many at the border that this bill is not comprehensive. The bill does not address the root causes of migration. Nor does it assure respect for the human rights of migrants and families. Before anyone can even qualify for the complex steps to a legal status, “border security triggers” will mandate an additional $6.8 for more border militarization, assuring more deaths in the desert.
At the border of my own country– the United States–I heard some of the most horrific tales of human rights violations that I have ever heard in my years of traveling throughout the Americas. But, I also witnessed some of the most moving expressions of solidarity, such as dropping water on a migrant trail in the desert.
Not all of us live in the desert. But we all live in communities that depend on immigrants. As Isabel Garcia of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos based in Tucson told us, “the border is everywhere”. As migrants die in the desert, more and more local groups are emerging to help save lives and change death-dealing policies. This is a critical time to write Congress, join actions for immigrant rights and justice and speak out for and with the immigrant members of our communities. We can be the water in the desert.