A Trail of Thorns

They walk north. We walked south.

Each spring break, I lead a group of University of Southern California students down to “baja Arizona” for a week to experience the humanitarian realities along the US side of the border with Mexico. We meet with progressive Christian activists – many of whom have been working for decades to prevent migrant deaths, assist migrants with practical help and legal representation, and advocate for legislative and administrative reform of our broken US immigration system.

This past week, eleven of us stayed at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, AZ – a local hub of border justice and humanitarian activism. On Tuesday, we went with the Tucson Samaritan Patrol on a hike up Wilbur Canyon near Arivaca, AZ, to place jugs of water on a migrant trail. For many years, this group and a similar one sponsored by Good Shepherd Church have been doing “water drops” on the trails in order to prevent migrants from dying of thirst. The number of people crossing has dropped dramatically in recent years, and especially since the presidential election. But we found evidence of very recent migrant crossings: clean-looking backpacks, “carpet slippers” that are tied over shoes in order to hide tracks from “la migra”, freshly-emptied tins of Mexican sardines. By the time they get to where we hiked, twelve miles into the US, migrants become exhausted and endangered. They begin to shed their belongings to lighten their loads as they move farther north. We were only a mile up the trail when one of our students bumped a water jug into a mesquite branch. Like so much of what grows in the Sonoran Desert, mesquite branches are studded with sharp spines. A spine broke off, poking into her jug, and the water began to pour out. Another example of the many dangers that face the migrants as they move north.

At the “water drop” site, my students were very disturbed to discover water jugs, previously placed on the trail by the Samaritans, sliced with knives and emptied. Who did it? We don’t know. While “la migra” – Border Patrol officers – are trained not to do such acts of vandalism, they’ve been known on occasion to destroy the food and water left by the Samaritans. The anti-immigrant volunteer “militias” that faded away several years ago are now resurgent. “Who could do such a thing?” one of the students asked me, incredulous.

“People are afraid,” said John Rueb, member of Good Samaritan Church and an organic garlic farmer in the borderlands. “So they lock their doors and stay vigilant and call the Border Patrol whenever they see folks they think are suspicious. But we never lock our doors. We welcome migrants who pass through our farm. They are always polite and appreciative. We give them water and some sandwiches and wish them well on their way. We aren’t afraid.” John hosted us at his farm for a chat with our group about what life is like for the people who live year-round so close to the Mexican border. It is a militarized zone where officers can enter one’s land without a warrant, where US citizens must stop at a checkpoint and be scrutinized whenever they venture north. “It’s almost like another country down here,” said one of our students.

Nothing better negates the idea of spending tens of billions of dollars on longer border walls and more Border Patrol officers than gazing out to the east from Lochiel, AZ. It’s a cluster of a few houses at the end of a 25-mile-long dirt road. We went there with long-time border justice activist Father Ricardo Elford, one of the early leaders of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s. Not a soul was in sight for twenty miles in the line of sight along the current porous border fence. If you doubled the number of “migra” officers overall, you might see one Border Patrol truck in that vast glorious expanse of golden grass, dark mesquite trees, and rugged mountains. A fence crossing that now would take seconds might take minutes over a big wall. But once over the border line, there is that 25 mile stretch of very rugged desert to cross on foot, just to get to the lonesome little Arizona town of Patagonia, well-patrolled by “la migra”. We already have a wall on the border, and it is called the Sonoran Desert. If it’s just for economic reasons, it is hardly worth one’s life to make a crossing that is more dangerous and daunting than ever. But when your life is your family “en el otro lado” – on the other side of the border – you might well take the chance.

A Tweeter’s Digest of fear drives the dominant discourse about immigration in America. And the cure for this fear propaganda is love. The same divine power that propels people under fences, over walls, and through forbidding deserts can move citizens to press for saner, more humane policies at our border. Progressive Christians are living that love in southern Arizona every day. Let’s take the trail farther north, and spread the love deeper into America.

The US/Mexico border at Lochiel, AZ, looking east

About the Author

Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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