On January 31, 2011, 31-year old Jade Beall set out into the Sonoran desert with two other Samaritan volunteers. They were trying to locate a migrant boy whose group had left him behind when he broke his foot during the gruelling walk over the U.S./Mexico border.
The boy had last been seen near the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation, about 50 miles outside of Tucson, Arizona. The Samaritans didn’t locate the boy, but they did find a group of 9 starving men who had been lost for 16 days in the desert.
“Their sneakers were torn to bits, blisters so large they could hardly stand,” Jade describes the scene in an interview with PV Pulse. “They were drinking the green slime water meant for cattle. [It’s] poisonous for humans. They hadn’t eaten in over a week.”
The men, who were from Veracruz and Mexico City, had been abandoned by their coyote – the man they paid to smuggle them across the border. Of the group, the oldest was in his mid-60s; the youngest was a teenager.
The issue of ‘illegal migration’ is a thorny one, a tangled knot of history and politics. “Indigenous people have been migrating from South America to North America for thousands of years,” Jade points out. “That’s all they’re doing – they just want to migrate to better work and then migrate back home.”
But of course it’s not that simple. While on the one hand Mexican workers offer a supply of cheap labour to American homes and companies, on the other hand, the workers themselves are seen by some to be “stealing” jobs that could be held by Americans. Additionally, the towns that dot the U.S./Mexican border are already notorious for drug cartel violence, and all Mexicans crossing the border are sized up as possible drug smugglers. Finally, there’s the assumption that Mexican migrants are trying to illegally immigrate – to cross the border and remain in the U.S.
Mistrust and increasingly stringent immigration policies had already created a situation whereby legal migration was extremely difficult and unavailable to many Mexicans. Then, after 9/11, things got even worse. The United States erected walls at the Tijuana and Nogales crossings. “They put in lights, flew planes overhead,” Jade explains. “The U.S. government thought the desert would be a natural ally but even more people have been crossing. Over 5,000 bodies have been found in the last 10 years. They essentially funnelled [migrants] into this deathtrap. It’s a four-day walk through the desert, and that’s at a high speed.”
The hostilities toward Mexican migrants were expressed in law in early 2010 when Arizona passed the controversial bill SB 1070. Proponents of the bill defended its means by highlighting its end. In the words of SB 1070’s author State Senator Russell Pearce, it “simply takes the handcuffs off of law enforcement and lets them do their job.”
Challengers said that SB 1070 entrenched a racist system. “It’s beyond the pale,” said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, in the L.A. Times. “It appears to mandate racial profiling.”
The L.A. Times’ Nicholas Riccardi offered this analysis: “The bill … makes it a misdemeanor to lack proper immigration paperwork in Arizona. It also requires police officers, if they form a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that someone is an illegal immigrant, to determine the person’s immigration status. Currently, officers can inquire about someone’s immigration status only if the person is a suspect in another crime. The bill allows officers to avoid the immigration issue if it would be impractical or hinder another investigation. “
In the same article Riccardi suggests that SB 1070 is simply another in a series of laws that make Arizona’s position on Mexican immigrants clear: “In 2006 the state passed a law that would dissolve companies with a pattern of hiring illegal immigrants. Last year it made it a crime for a government worker to give improper benefits to an illegal immigrant.”
Despite the divisive context in which her work takes place, for Jade, politics are beside the point. “There’s no political charge [in this work] for me. Yes, there’re borders to respect, but there’s so much abundance. We just have to believe in it.”
So why would anyone risk their savings to pay a coyote – who could abandon them – so that they might survive a life-threatening passage through the desert and into a country that doesn’t want them there?
Jade recalls the nine men she found last week. “The boy told me ‘Veracruz està muy bonito pero muy pobre ‘. Veracruz is very pretty but very poor. That’s why he had decided to come north.”
It’s a sentiment she’s heard again and again. “’My home is beautiful but it’s poor.’ That’s everyone’s answer when you ask them in the desert. I’ve had farmers tell me they can’t even afford to buy their own tortillas.”
Jade is an American whose family moved to Yelapa, Mexico when she was two years old. The town is a tiny mixed community of Mexicans, Americans and Canadians. Though technically not an island, Yelapa’s only reachable by water taxi and this relative remoteness – along with a laid-back, hippie vibe – makes it a perennial favourite of off-the-beaten path tourists. It’s a living example of a place where (indigenous) Mexicans harmoniously and equitably share the land and the community with (immigrant) Americans and Canadians.
When Jade returned to the States, she was struck by the stories of migrants lost in the desert – and by just how lucky she is. “Moving to Tuscon and reading in the papers about all these deaths happening only 25 miles from my cozy home… “ Jade’s voice trails off as she reaches for a way to express herself. This contrast, along with the familiarity she feels with the Mexican community, prompted her to find a way to help.
She found three organizations dedicated to helping migrants: Derechos Humanos, No More Deaths, and Tucson Samaritans. It was the latter that she approached, partly because it was the first she found, and partly because the Samaritans accommodate shorter volunteer time commitments. “I can sign up for a day at a time,” Jade notes.
And what a difference a day makes. On January 30, nine men had been lost and starving in the Sonoran desert for fifteen days. The next day, Jade and her Samaritan partners found them and delivered assistance in the form of their usual kit: pre-made food packets of non-perishable goods, water, socks, and medical supplies.
“There are thousands of migrant trails,” Jade explains, “and we just begin walking them.” The search is not as haphazard as it sounds. The Samaritans use tracking techniques, scanning the ground for footprints and cast-off litter. “We pick up the trash as part of the job too,” Jade says. “When the migrants are about to be picked up by their ‘ride’, they discard everything… You wouldn’t believe some of the things we find. Bibles, backpacks, kids’ toys, everything. Sometimes you find women’s bras.”
Migrant workers used to be almost exclusively men, but Jade says she’s seeing more and more women and children showing up in the desert. “It’s gotten so much harder for the men to come home, so women are trying to join them there,” Jade explains. As treacherous as the trek is for men, it’s even more so for women. “Yes, sexual assault is very common. It’s not the migrants – the drug smugglers prey on migrants in the desert,” Jade clarifies.
Once the Samaritans locate the migrants, they are bound to adhere to strict rules limiting their aid. “We give them the food and clean water, and tend to their blisters. We ask them whether they want to go back to Mexico. If they don’t, we let them go on, but we can’t take them in our car or let them use our phones. If they say they do, we call Border Patrol.”
Given the political and social context in which these rescues take place, it’s easy to imagine Border Patrol as authoritarian villains, but Jade says this just isn’t so. “We’re not at war with [migrant workers]. The BP has to deal with drug smugglers, too, and there’s just no way to know. The Border Patrol is pretty humane overall.”
In a strange contradiction of policy, there’s a substantial budget allocated to helping with the rescues. Helicopters are dispatched to administer first aid and take the migrants back to a detention center where they’ll be fingerprinted and held. Jade says that first offenders are almost always released but that people who try to cross a second or third time might be incarcerated.
“These people are economic refugees,” Jade says. “They’re treated as if they’re smuggling cocaine, but they’re just frail men who are hoping to make a better life. They’re people who have the faith that there’s something there – and they’re going to walk to it. It’s awesome.”
Ed. Note: This article first appeared on PV Pulse, on February 9, 2011.