Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Day on the Border

As a place to begin, this is a reflection I wrote after volunteering along the border in Arizona last summer. I worked with an organization that gives out food, water, and medical help to migrants in an effort to keep them from dying in the desert.
I changed some of the names of people. I'm not sure I had to do that but it was fun. Be assured though, these people are real and this day actually happened.
Please respond to what you read. I would like to hear what you think.

A Day on the Border
I heard the crackling of eggs as the sun rose over the neighboring bluff. Mrs. Breen is making us breakfast before we take off for the border. Her and her husband George, a pastor at one of the local churches, have been hosting Ali and I for three days now. The stucco is barely dry on their new house in the hills and the view out the picture window across the room is strait out of a John Wayne film.

As we slide through our morning routine Ali tells the Breens a little about what we expect to see today.

“Yesterday we ended up sitting around for five hours and no one came. Then when we went to get lunch, they said two busloads came and they couldn’t keep up with everyone. You never really know when Wackenhut will show up.”

Ali is from Seattle and is working on her nursing degree. I met her four days ago in Tucson where we discovered we would be spending the next week and a half together. She came to the border to help and to learn, the same as all of us. The Organization gave us a car to get down here. Pretty generous I thought, considering they didn’t know us a week ago. No More Deaths is like that though they figure if you are willing to come here to spend time in the desert, you are trustworthy. So far it seems to have worked.

At the border we park the car and hoof it across the line. A mustached man in cowboy boots glances from his paper as we step into his country. He is the only witness to our migration. In a traffic island covered with flies we see the tent that has become our office these last few days. Gilbert is already busy preparing the morning meal and wetting down the dirt floor with a sanitizing layer of bleach.

Several others mill around this morning as well. There are the usual venders who stop in for a cup of coffee before selling papers and cheap mandolins to impatient motorists heading to the U.S. At the edge of a bench I see a woman with three little children. She is so small I would have guessed she was a child herself if her age hardened face didn’t give her away. She wasn’t there last night. Where did they come from? A few minutes later Jason, our veteran volunteer and local info-source showed up. He explained that that this woman and her children showed up last night after we left. The shelters were closed so they spent the night at the aid station (where the most comfortable furniture is a wooden bench). Yesterday they had been picked up by Boarder Patrol a few miles in and were promptly given to Wackenhut who bussed them back to this side of the line.

Based on the shopping bags their belongings were in, it was hard to imagine this family was ready to hike the desert. The mother, her name was Dora, did not have any socks and already you could see the blisters beginning to form on her heel. The children seemed healthy but were certainly not old enough to attempt the crossing. The oldest boy was Carlos, he was 7. The younger two were Nadia and Isis. I’m not sure they could walk across a mall parking lot let alone the three day desert journey to Tucson and still, here they were.

We discovered Dora’s husband lives in North Carolina. Her oldest daughter had already made the journey and was living with him. Their plan was to meet him up in the States but unfortunately, there was a line in the way. With the tightening of border security more and more former seasonal workers are staying in the U.S. rather than risk the journey every year. Because of this, families like Dora’s are put at odds and are faced with many difficult decisions. If Dora’s husband were to move back to Mexico, he would forgo the economic opportunities provided in the U.S. If he stays, he is separated indefinitely from his family.

These are tough decisions. I cannot fault Dora for wanting to reunite her family. It is what any mother would want. But now they face a dangerous situation in a foreign place with no one they can trust. As aid workers positioned here to keep people from dying in the desert, we are compelled to help in any way we can but unfortunately our options are limited. Bringing them across the border ourselves is out of the question. It is illegal and could jeopardize all the work the organization is doing.

Jason considers talking to some Coyotes he thinks are trustworthy. Coyotes, also known as Polleros (chicken herders) have a notoriously bad reputation. They are the guides that bring people across the line and if you go with a bad one, you may be better off on your own. At this point maybe talking to one that Jason believes is trustworthy might be the best option but that poses its own problems.

The Coyotes in Nogales are controlled by the mafia who conveniently control turf right across the street from our aid station. Each day we see deals going down as migrants eager to make another attempt, are solicited as soon as they cross the line. We were told on our first day that the presence of the aid station was ‘tolerated’ and any bad encounters with the guys across the street could mean finding a new place to set up camp. People seemed to make a point of getting along regardless of what side of the law they were on but it was still nothing to mess with.

Jason finally decided that ‘asking’ for help in Dora’s case might mean ‘owing’ a favor later on. This is a precarious position that the organization could not risk. So the idea was dropped.

As we began tending to our morning duties we started talking about what could happen. As people who are not accounted for before the law, migrants are in a vulnerable position. Stories of rape are relatively common and selling children, particularly young girls, can happen as well. As we continued to talk I found myself discussing things that would have been absurd where I am from. The only problem is, this is where I am from. All these things taking place, where do they happen? Where are children sold and mothers raped? right in the United States. Did Dora know about this when she left her home?

This realization hit like a brick. No longer were human rights abuses reserved for news clips from foreign continents. This was not a story of an African village conveniently confined the pages of a National Geographic. It was here. Right here before my very eyes. This woman, these children were the ones risking themselves to reunite their family in my country.

As morning turned to afternoon Dora was able to call her husband. She got the name of the Coyote who helped their daughter. As they were talking I showed the children my sketchbook. Nadia was particularly fond of the picture of my house in Grand Rapids and on my request, she drew hers as well. I gave them my backpack and a pair of sunglasses. At least that way they could use one less shopping bag. We found a clean pair of socks for Dora and late that afternoon they took off. The Coyote they were to meet was supposed to be good. They were told they would be picked up seven miles past the border by a car and would not have to walk three days to Tucson. In my mind they made it. In my mind they are safe and will soon see their father and husband in North Carolina. But I don’t know.

As the sun begins to set I see a few more buses approaching the line. Today has been slow, we have only seen about 100 people. As people get their food and water I am given the chance for the first time to help patch a blister. Thanks to the patience of the man I am helping I finally get him on his feet after three failed attempts at cutting the right size moleskin patch. My mind is somewhere else.

That night we go back to the Breen‘s house. Stakes are just coming off the grill and the wine is properly chilled. As I savor a mouthful of buttery green beans I think of the hotdog soup we served at the aid station today. Then I think of Dora and her children. Where are they tonight? Did they cross the line? Are they safe? I think about how easy it was for us to cross. A Michigan driver’s license was all it took. One time they didn’t even stop me.

Who is it we are trying to keep out of our country anyway? Is it Dora and her three children? Is it her husband who wants to provide for his family? I know there are people in the world who seek to do our country harm. I know it is important for a country to maintain the safety of its inhabitants but when is the cost too much?

No comments: