It was the first time I had experienced the overwhelming size of the desert sky. The sunset was magnificent, and the endless stretch of cacti and desert rocks were lit up with the last pink moments of twilight. But the sunset’s beauty was overpowered by what I had seen earlier in the week in Arizona: men and women in shackles (feet chained to waist, waist chained to wrists), a morgue filled twice-over with John & Jane Does, a wall that divides families and ancient lands. From this view, the sunset had a whole different meaning: it marked the beginning of one more cold, waterless night for so many migrants forced to hide in the militarized desert. It is August 2011 and I've just returned from Tucson, where Ishita Srivastava (part of Breakthrough’s media team) and I were part of the National Border Justice and Solidarity Delegation. Made up of a group of organizers from DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), Vamos Unidos, and Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, the delegation spent five days learning about the struggles of migrants and people of color in Arizona, first-hand. Ishita and I filmed the delegation for a documentary to be released on the tenth anniversary of September 11th.
The video camera could hardly capture all that we saw. Arizona is everywhere in the news. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, SB 1070, Secure Communities: up here in New York, these problems loom large, but also appear fuzzy and distant. So our delegation came together in a place where the struggle is immensely urgent- in Tucson, Arizona- to show solidarity, and bring back what we’ve learned to our peers in New York. The delegation spent the first day with Isabel Garcia, (Co-Founder of Coalición de Derechos Humanos) learning of the realities of how NAFTA crushed Mexico’s economy, and forced families to leave their homes for the north in order to survive. We watched an Operation Streamline (PDF download) court proceeding, and witnessed first-hand as 60+ migrants were denied due process, and sentenced to felonies and months in prison. If they come back again (which most do), they will be facing up to 30 years in jail. The men were brought up and sentenced in groups, having no chance to do more than answer “si” or “no” to questions they did not understand. As they were paraded out of the court and into the jails, one man looked as if he was going to pass out. He had been in the desert for days, his lawyer told us, with no food and too little water. “When you get to the facility, tell them you’re sick,” said the judge in an irritated manner. “Be proactive.” Proactive. It was all we could do not to yell out at the irony.
And yell we did, a few hours later, outside Police Chief Villaseñor’s precinct, calling for him to resign for his participation in the racist Secure Communities Taskforce. Our “honk for justice” sign got a heartening amount of love, and that strengthened us enough for facing the desert. The next day, we walked across the border in Nogales, Mexico and drove across in Sasabe, Mexico: these excursions were crucial in understanding how militarization feels. The highway was empty, except for the white border patrol trucks which passed us by every 2-3 minutes. Buses with tinted windows and bars inside lay hidden by the sides of the road, waiting in the brush to be filled with migrants and driven to American prisons. Border Patrol stopped and searched our van three times that day, even once when we were leaving the U.S. and entering Sasabe. That time, four patrols eyed us as one checked our passports and green cards: between them they had eight guns, three semi-automatic. They were not happy to see us, a group of 17 American citizens, each a different color, focused on justice.
Once we crossed into Sasabe, a town which has been taken control of by the cartels, an air of stress lifted from our van- children waved at us, men drank sodas in the shade. The van let out a collective sigh. We weren’t being watched anymore. The Mexican border employees let us into their private building to use their bathrooms. We were greeted with smiles and cheers directed at the football game on the TV, as the US Border Patrol watched from down the street grudgingly. The juxtaposition was stunning. And then we were at the border wall, made of recycled tanks from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, dividing the countryside in two. On one side: flood lights, border patrol, and empty desert. The other: a litter of discarded black water jugs, and empty desert.
The wall now stretches across Arizona in the easiest places to cross, so that migrants are purposefully funneled into the most treacherous conditions. As a result, death counts have risen to record breaking numbers: the human remains of 183 men, women and children were recovered on the Arizona-Sonora border in the fiscal year 2006-2007 alone. And for every body discovered, there are many more not found. The most surprising thing about the wall? How it suddenly ends, leaving a gaping whole- one vast desert land- showing how imagined these “borders” are, and how American policy is literally dividing communities. Arizona is a testing ground for policies that could be enforced across the United States. Racial profiling laws, unjust treatment by the police and court systems, the belief that one human is not equal to another: these are all things for which we must speak out, before these poisonous policies spread.
To learn how you can help the crisis on the border, from anywhere, visit http://www.derechoshumanosaz.net/get-involved/.