On a crisp, cold November night, under a blanket of stars, we huddle by a fire. The steel border wall glows in the moonlight. Coyotes howl, bark and yip. Some students don’t sleep that night. They lie awake, their nerves on edge. Before coming on this fieldtrip, we had read voluminously about the border. Now, camping within sight of the wall, many feel anxious in this unfamiliar environment.
We’re here as part of a class I teach at Northern Arizona University. Our plan is to explore, from a multitude of angles and perspectives, the 2,000-mile border that divides Mexico and the U.S. Having read about the border, watched films, and discussed and analyzed immigration policy in terms of cost and effectiveness, we’re on a five-day fieldtrip to explore both sides of the divide.
The next morning we walk across the border to Nogales, Sonora. No official asks to see our passports. We realize we have entered Mexico from the sign—Welcome to Mexico—and then visit an aid station for recently deported people. I approach a group standing in the shade and ask if they will share their experiences with us. An indigenous woman, her face scratched, her clothes dirty and torn, declines to speak. Fighting back tears, she gestures that, emotionally, she is not capable of talking. I invite a man in the group to speak. He says that he wants to ask us a favor. “If any of you become Border Patrol agents, please don’t abuse migrants. We’re not criminals, we just want to work and support our families.” On hearing this, Ruth*, the woman who couldn’t speak before, interjects that she does want to say something.
She had been apprehended after four terrifying days in the desert. There was a sign in the cell: “If you are thirsty or hungry, or in need of medical assistance, notify a Border Patrol agent and you will receive assistance.” She states that she did not receive help, only a cup of juice and two packages of peanut butter crackers. Her feet were so blistered that she was unable to walk until yesterday. Ruth has four children that she had left with a neighbor in an impoverished village in Oaxaca, nearly 1,500 miles to the south. She has no idea how, or if, she will get home. Ruth’s children don’t know where she is or what has happened—she doesn’t want them to worry. I look up at my students and see tears streaming down their faces. In the spring, Ruth will try to cross the border again to cut lettuce in California. She says she has no choice. She has no money, nothing.
A student calls me over to talk. He almost didn’t come on the trip because he didn’t have the money to apply for a passport. A big guy, normally laughing and kidding, Corey feels he has been called to this place. “My mother gave me $100, I have it in my pocket. I don’t need this money. I want to give it to this woman so that she can return to her kids in Oaxaca.”
We meet other recently deported people at Grupos Beta, an aid station run by the Mexican government. One man tells us that he has been vomiting for four days, he cannot keep down any food or water. He doesn’t know what to do. A couple tells us, in perfect English, that they had lived in New York for 15 years. They had returned to Mexico to see a dying grandmother, and hired a coyote (guide) to get back into the U.S., who told them that they would have to walk for only one hour. Border Patrol apprehended them on their fourth day in the desert. They were deported to separate cities, the wife to Nogales and the husband to Matamoros. To disorient migrants, and break their connections with smugglers, Border Patrol divides groups (though supposedly not families) and deports them to a different city than where they crossed. This couple, with children, had only recently found one another.
Some tell us that Border Patrol treated them well, though accounts of abuse are rampant. Another man told me that he saw a traveling companion get tased while hiding in a ditch. In a 2011 report, “Culture of Cruelty,” the humanitarian group No More Deaths documents more than 30,000 incidents of abuse and mistreatment endured by individuals while in the custody of U.S. Immigration authorities. As we leave the aid station one of my students looks at me with tears in her eyes. “You didn’t prepare us for this emotionally,” she says. In spite of all that we had read, nothing can prepare you for an encounter with raw, wounded humanity.
The Roots of the Humanitarian Crisis
Back on the Arizona side of the wall we meet “sound sculptor” Glenn Weyant. Glenn attaches microphones to the steel wall and plays it as a musical instrument. Recording the sound, he later mixes it on a laptop and then uploads the music to his website, sonicanta.com. Unlike a traditional musical instrument, Weyant explains, there is no correct or wrong technique—everyone can play a wall!
Glenn invites two students to choose implements (spoons, whisks, chopsticks, a cello bow) and asks them to play the wall. They can play what they want, however they want, but he encourages them to listen and to interact with each other musically. He then adds more students, two by two, until we are all playing. Two trucks idle on the dirt road behind us, we have an audience of Border Patrol. On the hill above, a contingent of National Guardsmen dressed in full combat gear, carrying M-16s, stands beneath a camouflaged tent and observe our concert. One waves at me. The music starts chaotically and as we continue to play we begin to communicate. We start to play rhythmic clusters, calling and responding to each other’s phrases. We hit a samba-like groove. “I was beating my frustrations out,” one student tells me. “Everything I had seen today, all of that sadness, I took it out on the wall.” We drive away listening to a recording of Margaret Randall’s poem, “Offended Turf,” blended with Weyant’s wall music on Border Songs, an album of immigration songs and poetry with proceeds going to No More Deaths: “We are taking a chance our vibrations will change these molecules of hate,” intones Randall. The wall growls and grinds and groans—the sound perfectly matches the complex emotions we feel: frustration, anger, and profound sadness.
One cannot see this hard steel barrier without asking how we have gotten to the point of walling people in and out of the country. The so-called “invasion” of undocumented people began in 1994 after the U.S. and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Subsequently, the U.S. flooded the Mexican economy with cheap, government-subsidized corn. It became impossible for small and mid-sized corn producers to make a profit and some 6 million people lost their livelihood. Suspecting that legions of immigrant families would seek work in the U.S., the government started building walls and implement border militarization to seal off the easy-to-cross urban centers of El Paso, San Diego, and Nogales. Recently, increased numbers of Central American people, especially Hondurans, are attempting to cross the border to flee abject poverty and violence.
Efforts to secure the border have increased over time. Between 2007 and 2011 alone, the U.S. spent over $4.7 billion on the border wall and the now abandoned “Virtual Fence.” The Border Patrol, now the largest law enforcement agency in the country, has doubled in size in the last five years. The walls, and related strategies of “deterrence,” intentionally funnel border crossers into remote and dangerous desert. According to Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS), they “thought the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle.” Wrong. People are biologically driven to feed their children and care for loved ones. They will risk everything.
Since 1994, according to Kat Rodriguez, the director of the group Coalición de Derechos Humanos (the Human Rights Coalition), over 7,000 deceased human remains have been found in the borderlands. The number of total deaths is, in fact, almost certainly much higher since many migrants who die in the desert are never found. Many of those who die, furthermore, are never identified. The morgue in Tucson currently houses nearly 800 unidentified dead migrants.
Recently, due to the decline in the U.S. economy, migration has dropped precipitously, though impoverished Mexicans and Central Americans continue to die in the borderlands. Border militarization—walls, helicopters, drones, high-tech monitoring devices, and Border Patrol agents—continue to push migrants into the desert. Last year alone, 179 migrants were found dead in the Arizona desert. Comprehensive immigration reform is a step in the right direction, but if it includes further border militarization, and virtually all of the current proposals do, it will also result in more death and suffering on the border.
We camp at the No More Deaths base near the small town of Arivaca. Early the next morning we hike through the desert, sidestepping cacti, chatting, laughing. Some of these kids have never hiked before. I am enjoying the crunch of gravel beneath my boots. Blue sky seems to bounce off of desert rocks. We curve around a bend in the trail and suddenly encounter a shrine with a white cross. Steve, a No More Deaths volunteer, points out the precise spot where a 14-year old girl from El Salvador died. Josseline Hernández Quinteros was attempting to join her mother in Los Angeles when she became ill after drinking stock pond water. Steve shows us how her legs were positioned, her feet had been soaking in a pothole of standing water.
This splendid desert wash suddenly takes on new meaning. We stand in silence, staring at the shrine and contemplate the place where she died. It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of this tragedy. Students cry. Many hug. Some pray. Standing in this paradoxically beautiful place, listening to silence cut only by the occasional hum of insects, we mourn Josseline’s death. In class, before this trip, we had read The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands by Margaret Regan. It feels as if we knew Josseline. The students express dismay that Josseline’s mother could not attend her daughter’s funeral mass for fear of deportation. Several gather wildflowers and place them on her shrine. Corey hangs a rosary on the shrine. A student leaves a ring that she had worn for years. “I just felt like I had to offer something,” she tells me, “If Josseline had lived she would have been our age.” We hike away from this spot and accompany NMD while they cache water on migrant trails in the desert. Students write messages of encouragement on the jugs. They feel empowered. Then, later that day, we discover slashed water bottles scattered in the desert. Clearly, some people do not agree with No More Death’s mission.
The next day, we are finishing breakfast and a group of four migrants—wet and cold, dressed in black, their shoes shredded—walks into camp. They have been out for ten days, have not eaten in three. They had been drinking stock water until the day before when they encountered jugs of clean water left by NMD. A rail thin 22-year-old migrant has a swollen knee that can barely bend. No More Deaths volunteers assess their physical condition and then cook and serve them breakfast. The guy with the injured knee, Israel, vomits after eating; the sudden ingestion proves too much of a shock to his system. A NMD medic administers small sips of electrolytes. Two students—Sol and Julie—agree to spend the day helping NMD volunteers at camp. Everyone has been jolted back to reality. After dinner we sit around a campfire. We play guitar and sing and look up at the stars and shiver. “There are no Mexican stars or American stars,” says Charles Bowden on the Border Songs CD, “it’s like a great biological unity with a meat cleaver of law cutting it in half.” We imagine what it must be like for migrants who cross the desert with only the clothes on their back. Many of the students say that they almost dropped the class when they heard about the trip, now they thank me. One student, Rebecca, admits that before the trip she “hated immigrants because they cross our borders. But I don’t think people should be dying out here,” she adds. The group stares across the fire at her, trying to figure out if she really said what we think she said.
“Is everyone in here an American citizen?” asks an agent, while another commands a German shepherd to sniff our van. We are driving through a Border Patrol checkpoint. Two students, Ángel and Reyna, are permanent residents. The officer matches their Green Cards to their faces. We idle, and my Anglo students feel embarrassed by the scrutiny applied to two of their peers. Meanwhile, to the side of our van, a group of children and adults stand corralled under a brightly lit tent. It’s the kind of tent you might rent for shade at an outdoor wedding. These people have been pulled from a vehicle—they are in the process of being detained.
In Tucson we meet with an off-duty Border Patrol agent. He speaks to us as an individual, clarifying that he is not authorized to speak for the agency. “Did you meet people who said that they were abused by Border Patrol?” asks the agent whom I’ll call Wilson, “Well, I got to tell you, illegals lie a lot.” He talks about drug runners and how he is trying to keep dope off of the streets. He feels sorry for migrants, but he simply focuses on his job. One student asks him, accusingly, why they don’t feed people in detention. “Of course we feed them,” Wilson, insists. “We give each adult two packages of crackers and a cup of juice every eight hours.” Remembering Ruth’s story, the students’ faces contort with rage.
Another student remarks that people in Nogales complained of being roughed up by Border Patrol. “At times we have to be a little rough, it’s called ‘officer presence,’” says Wilson. “Since there are often more of them than there are of us, sometimes we have to throw some to the ground and handcuff them to make sure that the others don’t try to run away.” “How often do you work?” asks a student. “I’m a junior agent, so I don’t get to go out to play as much. That’s what we call going out on patrol,” explains Wilson. We flash back to the stories deported people told us in Mexico. We think about the migrants we met in the desert. These people are not playing.
The Cost of the Humanitarian Crisis
That afternoon, we enter the Tucson Federal Courthouse to attend an Operation Streamline hearing. In the Tucson sector the federal government prosecutes 70 detained people per day in a group hearing. Detainees sit, in the ornate wood-paneled courtroom, restrained with chains linking their ankle shackles, waists, and handcuffs. A line of 12 detained women sit in the middle of the room, in front of the observation gallery. A group of men fill the area to the left of the judge, and another group fills the entire left rear, an area designed for observers. The judge calls up five detainees at a time—they stand uncomfortably at microphones, each shadowed by a lawyer who waits just behind. A student whispers to me that she must leave. She fears that she will be sick.
The judge asks each accused person to confirm his name, country of citizenship and then reads a script including the details of where and when they were detained after entering the United States illegally. Most listen through headphones while a simultaneous interpreter translates to Spanish. Many look confused as if they don’t really understand the rapid-fire legalese. The judge asks each detainee if he knows that he has the right to a trial. “Sí.” She asks them how they plead. Each person pleads culpable (guilty). The judge then reads a sentence, assigning a period of incarceration. A few receive time served, others 20 days, 30 days, 90 days, up to six months. This was all determined, and agreed upon, during a 15-30 minute meeting with a court-appointed lawyer the same morning.
Once convicted, they shuffle, their chains and shackles jangling, towards a door. The lawyers follow, occasionally placing a hand on their shoulder, sometimes hastily slipping a business card in the convicted person’s handcuffed hand. A glove-wearing Border Patrol agent leads them out of the room and turns them over to guards for transport to prison. They shuffle right in front of us. One fellow lifts his handcuffed hands and manages a partial wave and smile as he passes by on his way to detention. We wonder why he waved. Perhaps he was hungry for human contact. Perhaps he felt it the polite thing to do.
Attorneys request special consideration for three cases. One detainee’s wife had recently lost a baby. She was again pregnant and called him at work because she was bleeding. “He now knows,” explains his lawyer, “that he should have called an ambulance, but he drove his wife to the hospital himself.” The judge sentences him to 30 days. The last defendant of the day also asks for special dispensation. He has five children and a diabetic father that depend on him. Could the judge shorten his six-month sentence, so that he can care for his family? The judge answers that she cannot. If he would like to change his plea to innocent, she will allow him to do so. “You would not have to prove your innocence, the burden is on the government to prove your guilt. But you should be aware that if you go to trial and are convicted, you could spend 2-3 years in a federal penitentiary. Do you want to change your plea?” He declines and shuffles out of court. We leave the courthouse feeling stunned. It is mind-numbing to watch 70 people plead guilty in less than two hours.
Since 2005, the federal government has spent an estimated $5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system for illegal entry and re-entry. In Tucson alone, incarcerations, defense lawyers, and interpreters for Operation Streamline cost nearly $96 million per year. Private for-profit prison corporations such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) reap enormous profits from this system that criminalizes what was formerly a civil offense. The criminalization of undocumented immigration, then, provides economic incentives to some, at a great cost to taxpayers.
Back in Flagstaff, I am dropping off the students. I catch Rebecca’s eye and mention the cold weather. “At least you have a jacket” she responds. I ask her what happened to her coat. “I gave it to a migrant,” she says with a smile.
The next week we debrief in class and students confide that they are worried about the friends that they made, and left, in the medical tent at the No More Deaths camp in the desert. They shake their heads and talk of living in different worlds. More than one student cries while reflecting on what we experienced. “We come home to warm showers and beds and we have no idea if these guys will make it, or die, or get caught by Border Patrol and end up in chains in Operation Streamline,” says Sol. Before the trip Sol was planning on becoming a Border Patrol agent.
Students tell me, again and again, that before this trip, before they looked through and beyond the wall, that they had no idea the extent to which people are suffering on the border. It’s as if we had been living behind a barrier that was blocking our view of a humanitarian crisis in our own backyard. “Now that we know,” they tell me, “we must act.” They have formed a student club on campus and are planning Immigration Awareness Week—a series of speakers, films, and art about the border and undocumented immigration. They want to share what they learned with their fellow students.
* Some names in this article have been changed to protect anonymity. All other details are accurate.
Robert Neustadt is Professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American Studies at Northern Arizona University. He co-produced, and performs on Border Songs, a 31-track double album, that features music and spoken word in English and Spanish about the border and immigration. All proceeds go to No More Deaths (No Más Muertes), a group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants and recently deported people.