National borders are a strange phenomenon within the fabric of human life. They can be crossed with a single step, often effortlessly or even inadvertently, yet they often separate entirely different worlds.
A little over a year ago now, I found myself sitting in a small, dry arroyo, one of the many flash flood canyons in the desert of Arizona, just a few yards below the desert floor. The moon was out, I was alone with the dog of my companion who had gone down the little ravine to look for the trail we had lost. Our moon shadows beside us, the dog and I waited. Just beyond the canyon’s edge was an immaculately painted cement block wall and beyond it, a swimming pool shimmering in the lovely light of a few lamps, and a house. Silence. I imagined myself as one of the migrants from Mexico or Central America who, night after night, journey in small groups through these immense deserts on a secret march to a "better" civilization with hopes for a better future, and money. In my mind I became one of those who had lost their way and had fallen exhausted and dehydrated, while their coyote (guide), having promised to find water and bring it back, abandoned the group to die. Hundreds perish every year on these treks. It was easy to imagine, sitting there in the perfect stillness, how, as such a migrant, I could die in this night only yards from comfortable citizens safely settled in their homes and without their knowledge, simply because there was a boundary. A wall. National borders, for countless people the world over and all throughout human history, have often been, and are, the boundary between life and death.
It was through my companion of the arroyo, a young Quaker who, with his wife, housed me during a two-month visit with my son’s family in Phoenix, that I awoke to the concern of the U.S.-Mexico border. Active in the matter of "illegal immigration" and its humanitarian aspects, Jason had served for several summers in an organization called No More Deaths whose volunteers, from a base camp in the desert, search the land on foot for migrants in distress and place barrels of water along the trails. Only in cases of emergency may they bring suffering persons to a hospital. Twice Jason’s group had come upon corpses, once of a 16-year-old girl. Jason also devotes himself to the problem of spontaneous deportations the local sheriff conducts in the city of Phoenix.
My central experience in this cause came when Jason took me for a visit to the border town of Nogales. There I saw the wall that for some years now has been separating Nogales, U.S., from Nogales, Sonora (Mexico), extended so far to about 700 miles in sections throughout the three border states, replacing the wire fence that was much easier to cross. The wall, so far erected primarily in border towns, where the bulk of the migrants used to enter, forces them to go around it and cross in remote places without roads or water, then hike for several days, often through rugged mountains and canyons where they are less visible to the Border Patrol, to reach a U.S. town. This has greatly increased the number of people dying in the crossing. There seems much agreement that the wall does little to diminish the stream of entrants. The poverty in the South is stronger.
In the quiet of that little arroyo I was brought to reflect that the borders inside ourselves, the fences and walls we erect in our hearts against others, have the same effect. They become a border between life and death. How such a line can be crossed, and how the wall between me and my neighbor falls, I experienced on this visit to Nogales, and it’s of this I wish to tell, using the journal account I wrote the next day.
We are in a van driven by a non-English-speaking Mexican man between Phoenix and the border. Desert; desert; desert—a vast, flat plane, formerly an ocean floor, flanked on either side in the distance by a seemingly endless succession of mountain ranges in breathtaking shapes and constantly changing colors, and moving cloud shadows on their sides like dark blue patches of new denim on worn jeans. Some peaks are covered with snow. I try to imagine the migrants walking through these landscapes this very moment, tiny figures lost in the gigantic space.
After about three hours, we suddenly are in Nogales: piles of cars; crowds of people milling hectically. A fast current of walkers with large shopping bags picks us up and channels us toward a turnstile flashing in the sun, and we are on the other side. No one has checked our papers. "Nobody cares who goes into Mexico," my companion murmurs at my side. "It’s the other way they give you trouble."
All at once, we are in a radically different world. A small paved road takes us directly along the Wall, lined densely on the other side by tiny hotels and shops, many of them farmacias where medications are sold at a fraction of the U.S. cost. I’m surprised at the wall’s shabby look: old, fatigue-colored strips of metal tightly joined together—in their second use, Jason explains, having served already in Vietnam to help war planes land on the soft floor of burnt-down forests. A reminder of the border’s growing militarization.
Gripping images and symbols of the desert deaths, painted on the wall in a long row, accompany us. The sun’s rays are represented as daggers. A warning to migrants? Expression of protest? The Berlin Wall comes to my mind.
Lots of men stand around idly, children run and play, dogs are straying.
Jason’s long legs reach out: he’s anxious to get to the place where No More Deaths has installed a primitive aid station, primarily to receive deportees from the United States. Despite the guards, flood lights, and sensors on the U.S. side of the wall, many turn around without delay for another possible death march, or, often, to be caught on their way by the Border Patrol and returned. Many have several such treks to look back on. Some, Jason says, even risk climbing the 14-foot wall, its top portion bent toward Mexico.
I don’t want to go so fast. Assaulted and overwhelmed by a wave of disturbing impressions, I need to stand and wait to find some ground in myself. The poverty presenting itself is beyond anything I have seen. Jason is surprised by my reaction. "That’s rich!" he exclaims. "Nogales is rich! Don’t you see? These houses are painted!" Some day, he says, he wants to show me the colonias, slums built of cardboard and corrugated metal, grown up in the last 30 years when Nogales, Sonora, became the site of large U.S. factories—the so-called maquiladoras—taking advantage of the cheap labor provided by the stream of young people flooding up from the South.
Every now and then I notice a flat iron grate built into the road. It’s hollow underneath. "That’s where the tunnel kids live," Jason explains. "Whole communities of them, orphans often; they have their own world down there. Living on crime. We know some of them by name, they come to our place for handouts."
I feel something hard forming in me. "What are the tunnels for?" I ask, with unmoved voice, leaving the children aside.
"Flash floods. To keep the city from being flooded in hard rains." The more Jason explains, the less I want to understand. I glare at a mountain of garbage blocking one of the tunnel entries.
Finally, we arrive at No More Deaths —on a small, flat plot of hard dirt near the wall. I notice a group of white people from the United States with travel bags, led by a white-haired woman—a volunteer, it turns out, of the organization Borderlinks, which seeks to bring U.S. citizens to the border to see for themselves. They are high school teachers from North Carolina who wish to inform themselves firsthand about the circumstances of the many Latino children in their school. They are here for a week. They will stay with Mexican families tonight. I’m impressed.
I notice the face of the Borderlinks guide: an open friendliness coming toward us, a warmth, light and tender. The constraint around my heart relaxes a little: I feel again the way that is open. No wall between this woman and us, no wall between her and the people the group has come to see.
Only then do I notice the men who singly stand around on the little lot, of dark skin and small size, clearly formed by a hard, rural life in poverty. Some are wrapped in blankets; the air in early February is ice cold. On the far side of the lot, on top of a rough clay wall, more men, similar to the ones below, are standing between parked old cars. "Who are these?"
"These are the coyotes," Jason explains. "We get along with them fine. Most are nice guys." However, he warns me not to go there. "They don’t like it. We keep apart. They have their place, we have ours."
When Jason hears that the drinking water on the site has run out, he storms off and after a long time returns with his arms full of heavy bottles. While I wait for him, freezing in my winter coat, I secretly accuse him for not having made me bring warmer clothes. I refuse to let the situation touch me, clinging to my needs and "rights."
We enter the large trailer marked "No More Deaths," staffed by a Mexican volunteer who, Jason later informs me, came to California at age 13 and, about a year ago, was separated from his wife and children by deportation. I notice the open expression of his dark, deeply sad face. Jason gives him the red meat he has bought along the way in one of the tiny shops, because, he said, the man has been very sick and needs better food. We hear that through some local political change the aid station has fallen under the authority of men who are in cooperation with the smuggling cartel controlling the area; the donations for the needy, blankets, shoes, water, food are now being taken away—stolen, Jason says. He and his friend fear that the station is in jeopardy. Perhaps it can be transferred to a group of sympathizing, feisty nuns nearby. Jason (who currently is in nursing school to be more effective on the border) makes arrangements for medical help for the volunteer. Then we enter a large, open tent next to the trailer where some men are boiling coffee on a primitive gas burner and passing it out to others standing around.
Here is where I have my conversion.
On a chair sits a young man, a kid almost, with close-cropped, deep black hair and narrow brown eyes. His upper body is wrapped in a blanket; he is shivering with the cold. As we stand before him, Jason reaches, almost inadvertently, for an old crumpled jacket lying in a corner and drops it discreetly over the refugee’s knees. We ask for his story. He has lived in Phoenix for the past five years with his family; today he was picked up at his place of work, without warning, and deported as he was in a van with others.
I suddenly realize I have not believed Jason’s stories of the sheriff’s crackdown in that city—not viscerally.
"What’s next?" I ask the young man, in alarm. It is no longer an interviewer’s question, or that of an interested tourist. The "wall" is suddenly gone. This is my concern, as if he were my child.
He says he has relatives in Nogales and is waiting to be picked up. I’m relieved. "What about the others who came with you?" "They went back." Gone with one or two of the coyotes across the divide, on another long, dangerous trek, in the freezing night.
The absurdity of it all is too much. But there is a humanity in it. Human life that is constantly pushing, pushing to seek its way. To live. "Keep on, Jason," something whispers in me. "Don’t be deflected." He has often told me about feelings of discouragement in his work.
We greet several other men in the tent. Humble handshakes, rough peasant hands. One man, somewhat older, with a very dark, grieved face, tells me he was deported over a year ago from the States after many years there and cannot visit his children. Later Jason tells me this man, washed up in Nogales, joined No More Deaths, working faithfully in this purpose, but eventually he crossed over to the coyotes. "To do what?" I ask.
"I don’t know. We don’t ask questions like that." Jason smiles. "It’s considered bad form in the world of organized crime to ask questions." He says the man now lives with another woman and her children; he got a house. He needed money. "Who can blame him? He’s a nice guy."
On our way back to the turnstile Jason greets and hugs several other dark, small men emerging singly from the night. One, a young kid, shows us where his money was taken from under the sleeve of his sweatshirt and the waistband of his battered pants held together by string—in the desert, by bandits. His shoes, too, he says, were stolen, but he was given new ones here that are better. Jason gives him his contact address for when he gets into Phoenix, and finds a few more crumpled bills for him in his pocket. The young man smiles and chuckles with pleasure, even happiness, in the sudden presence of Jason’s friendship; for the moment all his burdens seem fallen away. I see no guile in his eyes.
Our recrossing of the border turns out to be quick and easy. The woman who checks our papers smiles at me very sweetly, as if to congratulate me for my good fortune of possessing a U.S. passport.
Are borders necessary? Border controls? Border-crossing regulations?
Is cruelty necessary?
The collapse of my inward defense in the Nogales tent came when I looked into the young man’s eyes and, for a fraction of a second, recognized in him my son. Clear eyes, still vivid before me. This encounter, eye to eye, soul to soul, is very different from the understanding and sympathy we may gain through hearing or reading about the suffering of others. It occurs on a different plane within us.
On our drive back, when Jason and I talked some more about the threat of discouragement in the activist’s work and his growing feeling that the good in humans that he sees and believes in may not be enough to turn around the course of events, I opened to him my experience in the tent. A story of Aldo Leopold, the U.S. conservationist and ecologist, who in the first half of the last century conceived of a communal relationship between people and land, came to my mind. As a young man Leopold participated in a government-sponsored effort to exterminate the wolf as the enemy of man and beast. One day he bent over one of these animals he had shot that was still alive and met its eyes. It changed everything for him. He suddenly knew that a wolf is not what it was made out to be, an enemy out to diminish the life of man. He saw the life that was made to live, as his own life was made to live. He saw—I venture this term—the "brother." He never shot another wolf.
Since the encounter in the tent the concern of the U.S. border has not left me alone. After my return to Massachusetts, I came upon books on this subject in our meeting library, including two written by the daughter of one of our meeting members. That is how close to my fingertips this concern was, in which I am now immersing myself further through this literature, with a wounded heart without which the concern would have left me cold.
I’m currently returning to the area. Without knowing what I am to do there—I didn’t know it this previous time, either—I hope to let myself be seized by the river of love that flows there, which has touched me through the engagement of this committed young Friend.
A reading suggestion: Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story. A fascinating, detailed, carefully researched report about the tragic death of 14 migrants (part of a larger group) in the Arizona desert in 2001, including all aspects of the case, from the background and identity of the victims, the smuggling operations, and the multifaceted work of the Border Patrol, to the tortuous process of dying by dehydration and overheating, how the law dealt with the young coyote as scapegoat, and how the dead are processed.