May 14, 2009
by Chandra Russo
It is the threatening hour of the day. At just 10 a.m., we plod on in 100 degree heat under a vicious sun. Even the desert insects have stopped their rattling below the dry burn.
I sip at my water bottle. I find it difficult to quench my thirst without filling my belly to sloshing. My lips are chapped. My joints ache as we continue into our fourth day.
About 50 of us are walking the Migrant Trail, a 75-mile trek over seven days through Arizona's border lands. We follow the general path taken by so many migrants forced into this remote, brutal desert. We begin in Sasabe, Mexico, a mile south of the border, and head toward Tucson, traveling just east of the Baboquivari range and the Tohono O'odham Nation.
Despite the discomfort, I recognize the immense beauty of this place, stark peaks, fierce but glorious cacti flowering everywhere. The land is saturated with the rich history of peoples and fragile ecosystems that have made this place home for centuries.
The Migrant Trail began in 2003 with about 20 members of this border community. After years of setting out water in a helpless attempt to curb migrant deaths, having recovered far too many human remains, these 20 wanted to experience the journey and expose the daily reality out here. They commit to walk yearly until the deaths stop.
In the years since, many have joined them. This year, five students and their professor from Manitoba, Canada, have come to learn more about the other U.S. border. A French sociologist has driven from California, motivated by his own immigration experience and the immigrant students in his classroom. Many are called by their faith to walk — an Argentine missionary living in the Mexican town of Altar, a nun from Chicago, and a Franciscan monk who walks in his robes.
This is my second year on the Migrant Trail. I was invited in 2007 to better understand human rights issues on the border. In returning, I am reminded of the urgency of fixing the nation's broken immigration system.
Our walk comes at a conspicuous political moment. A week ago, 700 people from around the country convened on Washington to meet with Congress, demanding a comprehensive immigration reform package be passed within a year. Yesterday, hundreds packed into a church in Northglenn as Colorado Congressman Jared Polis and Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez heard testimony from families torn apart by our immigration system. And this Wednesday, President Obama will pull both parties together to push this same idea. This reform has the potential to save lives.
Here's the bottom line when it comes to sealing our southern border: It doesn't work.
In the decision to cross to the United States, economic forces and familial ties trump walls, material or virtual. Since the mid-90s when we cut off the urban crossing points of San Diego and El Paso, and began implementing the latest in military technology, the number of undocumented in the country has more than doubled from 5 million to 12 million. While the most aggressive and expensive border enforcement has forced migrants into ever more perilous crossings, thousands of deaths have proven to be no deterrent to those facing dehumanizing poverty at home.
Pointing to a recent decline in immigration to the U.S., we see that the economy, not border policy, is the determining factor. Any measurable drop begins about four years ago, when our economy began to decline. There were no dramatic shifts in border policy at that time, making it obvious that fewer job opportunities are what stemmed the flow.
After being out here myself with all the comforts we are afforded as walkers, what is surprising to me isn't that people have died. It's that anyone makes it at all. I remark at this as we pass abandoned backpacks along Route 86, signs of migrants who likely survived many days in the desert to be picked up by vehicles.
We look back over the terrain we have walked on our final morning. "Our killing fields," offers a nurse who regularly resuscitates migrants near heat stroke in her hospital.
There is a policy fix for this. We can allot a realistic number of immigration visas so that needed workers and families can safely cross between countries. We can rethink the way we police our southern border.
Already this year, 79 of the dead have been recovered. The season of death, deep summer, has not even begun.
Chandra Russo is communications coordinator at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), based in Denver.