Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Representing Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Life and death along the U.S.-Mexico border

Crosses on border fence

Darrin Mortenson, migration fellow for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, attended the Border Encuentro organized by SOA Watch in Tucson, Arizona, in November. From there, he visited a migrant shelter on the Mexico-side of the border and volunteered with a group maintaining water stations along migrant trails on the U.S.-side of the border. The following article was published in the January-February 2018 issue of NewsNotes.

ELOY, ARIZONA – People gather slowly around a makeshift truck-bed stage as the sinking sun paints the sky in swishes of purple and pink behind the distant ranges that ring the scene. By nightfall they are a mass. After shouting their outrage and singing of solidarity, the 500-strong crowd assembled for the School of the Americas Watch “Border Encuentro” turns to face the behemoth behind, the Eloy Detention Center, a private prison where the Immigration and Customs Enforcement army sends undocumented migrants for months or years. 

They chant, timid at first, but roaring by the time they reach the phalanx of armed ICE agents at the barbed-wire fence. “No estan solos! No estan solos!” You are not alone. You are not alone, they shout together, candles and light sticks glowing, hands high, outstretched or in pounding fists. They could be mistaken for a dangerous angry mob if it weren’t for their smiles and for the number of clergy, aged, and youth among them. 

The wall of sound crashes right through the police and penetrates the fence rolls and across the long, floodlit prison yard, shaking the four-story cellblock with “No estan solos! No estan solos! 

Slowly, by ones and twos, lonely-looking silhouettes appear in the lit cell windows, dark figures who press hands on the glass above their heads or mimic those across the yard chanting for their freedom, raising their arms and shaking their fists and waving their outstretched hands. They may be prisoners of place, silenced by walls of concrete and glass – and of hatred and fear – but they must know they are not forgotten or alone. The echo lifts their voices higher than any one of them could dream. But who, besides these strangers standing in the border’s mirror, will hear them?

NOGALES, SONORA, MEXICO – Vilcia peers across tables full of tired-looking men and teens hunched over plates full of eggs and beans to smile shyly at a volunteer. She and three companions have just made the perilous journey north from Honduras aboard “La Bestia,” hanging onto life and each other atop the notorious freight train through Mexico. 

A half-dozen Samaritans from Green Valley, Arizona, about a forty minute drive north in that other, distant world for which these migrants yearn, have formed a fire-bucket line that stretches from a tiny kitchen to the head of each table to hand out breakfast to men, women and children whom they’ve never met before and will likely never see again. They say their weekly trip into Nogales to serve food and donate clothes to strangers at the Jesuit-run soup-kitchen and aid station, El Comedor, has become the high of their week, for some, the center of their lives. Most of the volunteers don’t speak Spanish, but communicate their welcome with their eyes, a smile, a hand placed softly on a shoulder or back. 

On the sidewalk outside, along a busy street, Vilcia explains how she’s desperate to rejoin her 10-year old son, who is still in Phoenix living with a friend while she struggles to return. He wants to be a soldier in the U.S. Army when he grows up, she says. Tears fill her eyes as she tries to explain her purgatory tangle of asylum claims, immigration attorneys, deportation, and a family in Honduras who rejects her because she fled north. She shows me the scars on her arms and legs from burns and broken bones that tore through her skin – the final straw, a last brutal beating with a board by her husband, a ranking gang member, the reason she says they had to flee for their lives. 

As she speaks, her teenaged male companions stand behind a truck parked in front of the Comedor, continuously peeing over the shoulders to a spot up the hill across the street where several dark figures stand halfway behind a mesquite tree. “Sicarios” – killers – I am told, young men hired by cartels to enforce a border-crossing tax on migrants, force them to carry drugs in lieu of payment, or snatch them up and extort a ransom from their loved ones back home. 

The sicarios, the boys say, watch over the Comedor like hawks, preying on the migrants who leave in search of place to sleep, often the sprawling cemetery a few dusty blocks away. They say they’re not sure where they’ll go tonight. Nowhere is safe. Not the home they fled. Not here in sight of the U.S.-Mexico border. Not even ‘over there,’ in the promised land of the United States, where most have loved ones awaiting their arrival or jobs or even just a little hope. No, even there, they are hunted, preyed upon and on the run, looking for home. 

BUENOS AIRES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, ARIZONA – Stephen, retired attorney and graduate of Harvard, pries back the branches of a creosote bush with a dusty boot to show me the bones. “There’s more over there,” he says, conceding that the scattered white shards are most likely the remains of deer, but how he can’t stop thinking about how this one in particular looks like the upper arm bone of a child. He’s done this too long not to wonder, he says. 

‘This,’ for Stephen and the others volunteering with Humane Borders, means hauling a 300-gallon-tank-load of water to some 60 water barrels strategically placed throughout the desert for migrants to find. They, the migrants, are nowhere in sight, and never are, Stephen says. But the travelers’ signs are everywhere: discarded water bottles and clothes, foot trails that follow washes and ridges and down toward the highway and valley below. The only proof he says he needs to see, though, is how much water has disappeared from the barrels since the week before. “I don’t have know who it is,” he says. 

I agree with Stephen and his companion Frank that the bones are probably deer, but while we’re here and while Frank refills the barrel, let’s have a look around. He cautions me about vigilantes who sabotage the barrels and their trucks and to be careful as set out through the desert scrub. Agreeing to keep within sight of the 20-foot flag that marks the barrel, we set out in different directions through the desert around.

Dipping into a wash and weaving up through scrub and sage, I’m only about 150 meters away when I find yellow tape marked “crime scene” flapping from a tree. I walk further I find another tree with more tape. Then more. I finally stop at a tree almost completely encircled with tape and spot there below two soiled latex gloves, black and dried. “Crime scene.” Someone’s story of migration ended right here. 

I walk back to the truck, with the Tohono O’odham native Americans’ sacred peak Baboquivara lined up with the water-station flag in the distance, remembering what an old ‘Odham woman had told us in Tucson: “In my time this has become normalized,” she said. “But it’s not a normal thing to find dead people on your land.” 

Days later I hear from Stephen. A migrant’s body was recovered from the site the previous summer. I’m haunted by how close he or she was to the flag, to the water, to the road, to sanctuary. So close yet so far. Always so far, though, from safety, from family, from home. Stephen invites me back on another water run. “Anytime,” he says. “We’ll be here.”

Photo: Crosses on border fence in Arizona.