On the Migrant Trail: Walking With the Living and the Dead

In my previous post, I mentioned I had just returned from The Migrant Trail, a 75-mile walk through the Arizona desert. Although the annual trek crosses many of the paths taken by migrants who come to the United States in search of a better life, it does not mimic their perilous journeys. We walk with a purpose: to remember the more than 7,000 people who have died in the desert over the last twenty years.

The author on the last day of the Migrant Trail, carrying the cross of Lillian Ramirez Garcia. More than 7,000 people have died along the U.S.-Mexico border since the mid-1990s when intensified border enforcement and increased militarization of the border have caused migrants to cross in more remote and dangerous areas of the desert.

Mile after mile, we each carry an 18-inch wooden cross with the name of one of the deceased migrants written along the crossbar or, in some cases, the word “desaparecido/a” if that person’s body could not be identified. As we walk, we take turns shouting out the name written on our cross and the rest of the group responds with an even louder: ¡Presente! (present). It’s a roll call for the dead that signifies that they are with us, that we walk together, and that we will not forget.

I carried the cross of Lillian Ramirez Garcia, 23, who died in eastern Arizona more than ten years ago.

After their escape from Egypt, the Israelites wandered the desert for years in search of the Promised Land. Sometime later, perhaps after memories started to fade, the Lord reminded his people of their past, saying: “So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt,” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

After returning spiritually energized from the Migrant Trail last year, I ventured out with a group of Tucson Samaritans to Ajo, Arizona, in July 2016, to drop off gallon-sized containers of water in areas where migrants are known to cross. It’s an arduous mission, but one that volunteers regularly undertake to save lives. Unlike my experience with the Migrant Trail (where we mostly stayed on government maintained trails and roads, and relied on support vehicles to carry most of our equipment and supplies), these desert angels drive to remote areas then lug 80-plus pounds of water, hiking up and down some very steep terrain. It’s where migrants traverse to avoid being spotted. It’s also the place where migrants die.

Carrying 80 pounds of water or more, volunteers hike through some very rough terrain to drop off gallon-sized containers for migrants that cross these paths. These loving acts are carried out throughout the Southwest by persons who sacrifice much time and effort to save lives.

The volunteers write notes on the water containers they drop off. One reason is to send a message of faith, hope, and love to someone who, after a week or more of walking with little to no water, may be ready to give up. Another reason is to signify that the water is safe to drink, as Eric Boodman reports in an article about another humanitarian group performing similar acts of mercy.

At one point, after taking too long to snap a few too many pictures, I found myself separated from the group. Momentarily lost and a bit afraid, I called out and one of the volunteers came back to get me. Had I been a migrant, crossing at night, with a sprained ankle or dying of thirst, I may not have been so blessed.

By then end of the second day I was beat: hot, tired and thirsty—and glad that my two-day, one-time shift had ended. The Samaritans and their counterparts would return to this and other areas, much as they have done for more than 15 years.

That’s true love.

I brought those thoughts with me on this year’s Migrant Trail.

I never knew Lillian. I don’t know where she once lived, whether she had brothers or sisters, if she liked to dance, or what she dreamed of when she was alone with her thoughts. But she was human, a person who walked this earth, a woman made in the image of God.

For one week, Lillian and I walked together to honor her life. When my feet hurt, I imagined how her feet had hurt. When I grew thirsty or hungry, I imagined how she would have given anything for a drink of water. When I wanted to be anywhere but in the middle of this hot desert, I thought of how she felt when death approached.

Love the resident alien says the Lord. For one week on The Migrant Trail and still today, I carry the memory of a 23-year-old who dreamed of the Promised Land.

Lillian Ramirez Garcia: ¡Presente!