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Home : Special Features : Immigration
8/3/2010 9:30:00 AM
Finding compassion in the Sonoran Desert
Catholic News Service photo
Minutemen Ray Ross and Terry Hartley survey the Sonoran Desert in Arizona for groups of border crossers.
Catholic News Service photo
Minutemen Ray Ross and Terry Hartley survey the Sonoran Desert in Arizona for groups of border crossers.
 Cat Willett photo
One of many shrines to the lost in the Sonoran Desert.
 Cat Willett photo
One of many shrines to the lost in the Sonoran Desert.
From Operation Streamline

One man must have tried to cross a few times before and was sentenced to 150 days in prison. As he sat down, he started to cry. Among the group of women about to be tried sat his wife. He’d been led aside so that they could say goodbye before she was deported and he began serving his five months in jail.

Before his wife was even tried, I’d collapsed into tears over yet another couple split up by this system. Two more hearts broken by trying to provide for each other and create a better life with the only option that seemed available.

When his wife was finally tried and learned she’d be immediately deported, they were seated close to each other, but with a walkway between them. She began to speak to him and I overheard part of her speech — “te amo siempre” “mi amor” — enough to understand that she was counseling him for the time ahead and reminding him of her love and that he needed to be strong.

At one point, she reached over to hold his hands and was immediately chastised by a Border Patrol agent who then separated them and marched him off to jail.

I just witnessed a marriage ending with a 30-second goodbye where neither party could physically touch one other.

I see this couple and their frustrated attempts to hold hands such a basic display of love. It feels like one of the most horrifying and transformative parts of my experience.


— Cat Willett



Cat Willett

TUCSON — No More Deaths is an organization based here whose members work in the Sonoran Desert, where many migrants cross from Mexico to the U.S. Between 300-500 migrants die each year in the desert. Many bodies are never found.

The organization has people walk the desert, providing water, food, and medical assistance. In addition, they work to document abuses of those who have been deported to two border towns, Nogales and Agua Prieta.

I camped out in the Sonoran desert, which is so beautiful during the sunset and so harsh during the day. I made friends with a diverse and wonderful group of strangers. I hiked through this alien landscape of cactuses and snakes and thorns aplenty.

Our No More Deaths training took place in Tucson and was a full day of learning about border history, nonviolent communication, and the foundational principles of No More Death (including civil initiative, which is really appealing to me.) Everything that the organization does is legal and is actually a way of ensuring that the U.S. meets the Geneva Convention principles on providing food and aid to migrants in a foreign land. However, this doesn’t mean the work is universally appreciated or that people aren’t trying to find some way of discrediting the work being done.

After training, we left for the desert. At camp, we were met by Sarah, a registered nurse in Tucson who has been involved with No More Deaths since the beginning, and other volunteers and friends.

The general schedule for camp was to rise at  5a.m. (easy to do when you are sleeping outside and woken by the rhythm of the sun), eat breakfast and head out on morning patrol. Patrols consist of visiting an area of the Sonoran desert that No More Deaths has mapped out. They cover a pretty vast area of desert. There are several “water drops” which are distinct points on migrant trails where we hike in with gallons of water (between 15-40, depending on how well-used the trail is).

After driving to a certain water drop, we will hike the trails carrying food, extra water, and medical supplies. Someone will call out, in Spanish, that there is no need to be afraid, that we’re not the border patrol (la migra) and that we have supplies. Then we wait to see if anyone responds. We did this twice a day, with a siesta in between.

The dangers of the desert are very real. The Border Patrol has been upfront that they are attempting to beef up security in more urban areas so that crossing through the Sonoran Desert becomes the only option for migrants. Their thought is that the dangers of the desert will be an adequate deterrent for migrants. But few things offer a deterrent to those who cannot make a living in their home country and who have been promised a job by American corporations.

The rigorous new Arizona immigration law is borne of frustration over the federal government's inability and reluctance to enforce current immigration laws or pass effective reform.

Kris Kobach, a chief adviser on immigration during the Bush administration, wrote in the New York Times that the new law does not create a police state, but "takes a measured, reasonable step" in a state that is "ground zero of illegal immigration."

Arizona’s police associations favored the bill, along with 70 percent of Arizonans.

But what became clear to me in the desert is that have blamed individuals for their place in an exploitative system, while the corporations that actively recruit their labor go unpunished. The fact that we need low-paid labor in our fields, hotels, nursing homes, and construction sites is a reality that I believe many people ignore. Until this system is reformed and until we look clearly at how intertwined the United States and Mexico are, we will continue to see people cross the Sonoran Desert. Which means we will continue to see people die.

It is impossible for a person to carry enough water to survive. The average crossing time from a Mexican border town through the desert is about five days. That’s if you don’t get injured, lost or left behind.  Some who have been in the desert for a week or more end up drinking algae-laden cow-trough water or going days without food. They travel at night to avoid police but that leaves folks vulnerable to injury on steep trails, as well as bandits who lay in wait in the Sonoran Mountains.

By far the most powerful part of my time in Nogales, and an experience I am still reflecting on in dreams and in prayers, was my time at Grupo Beta, a clinic run by the Mexican government for those who have been deported.

One woman was arrested by Border Patrol close to the desert. The rest of her group fled, leaving her alone. She was handcuffed with hands behind her back and then one agent shoved her to the ground. Unable to catch herself, she fell and hit her chin on the ground. She was forced to wait on the ground, in the hot desert sun, until Border Patrol found the rest of her group. She asked for water and was denied it and told she was “being punished.” However, she did say one agent took off her handcuffs and give her water, but only when no one was looking. She was thrown around by her handcuffs, and her wrists still held the bruising and scratches from that experience.

By the time she reached Nogales, she was so dehydrated that she had to be immediately taken to the hospital – she showed us the rehydration powder she’d been given there. She also said that her possessions were taken and never returned, and that her birth certificate was ripped up in front of her.

We headed back to Tucson for showers and to witness Operation: Streamline, the latest in deterrents by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This experience was, like my time in Nogales, emotionally difficult.

Operation: Streamline is a new way of trying people picked up by Border Patrol. Each day, 70 to 100 people are randomly selected to be part of a mass trial. These people agree to plead guilty and waive their trial in exchange for not having long prison sentences and a felony. It seems like a mockery of our justice system to see 70 people represented by 10 lawyers, who have about 20 minutes to meet with their clients, learn their stories, and walk them through the process.

Of all the things I prepared for during my week in the desert — scorpions, compost toilets, hiking — what I didn’t prepare for was falling in love with this organization, with the desert, with the face of Jesus I saw in the migrants, in the volunteers, and in the many people (including border patrol and local ranchers) who are hurt by the systems in place now. It’s a love that is slowly growing and is an uncomfortable thing in my heart, since I know I can’t fully explain it and will be asked, again and again, to defend it.


The writer, former director of the Archdiocese of Portland Office of Justice and Peace, is now a social work student at Loyola University in Chicago.




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