Life and Death in La Frontera

Supporting Migrants in the Arizona Borderlands

We went to Arizona to work with people who support migrants on their way over the border. We found Predator drones, racist militias, surveillance towers… and activists who have found a cure for the shock and grief that has immobilised so much of the US left.

Note: I’ve obscured identities and locations in this story, after a marked increase in harassment and violence against anti-racist and anti-fascist activists throughout the States.

After hearing about our mission to understand US activism, my friends Sophie and Vera invited me and Nati to join them in Arizona. We’ve just had an incredible few days out in the borderlands, so I’m eager to share some of what we saw.

We arrived in camp late at night. It took a long time to get here in the 4X4 truck; we’re far away from any paved roads. The desert air is pristine: the Milky Way spills over our heads from horizon to horizon. A quarter-moon throws enough light for us to pitch tents under the mesquite trees. Coyotes howl as we settle in to sleep. We wake every hour or two as helicopters buzz overhead — Border Patrol knows we’re here. We’re careful to not break any laws, but they’re not after us, they’re looking for the people we’ve come to help.

In 2016, the remains of 144 people were found in southern Arizona’s deserts. These were people walking north from Mexico, escaping desperate circumstances back home. Whatever you think of US immigration policy, I hope you can agree that so many people dying in transit is a humanitarian crisis.

No More Deaths is an NGO that was founded in 2004 to stop the death of migrants in the desert. This is their camp.

The camp is set up to provide humanitarian relief: food, water, shade, medical care, or just a change of clothes for the long hike north. What strikes me most is the hospitality: the dining tent glows with colourful christmas lights, there’s a gorgeous little shrine off to one side, and signs are marked with love hearts and “Bienvenidos!”. This place is designed to soothe the terror of hunted people.

We gather for breakfast and make a plan for the day. Somebody needs to stay behind to care for any guests who arrive today. The rest of us will go on a day trip out into the desert. Over the years, folks from No More Deaths have mapped out dozens of migrant trails in the area. Our job today is to refresh a few of the “drops”: cachets of food and water distributed along the trails. Checking through the logs, we agree on a route.

Heading for a mountain pass, we drive as far as the truck will take us, then start the long climb on foot. It is stunningly beautiful out here, and hot. Summer hasn’t even begun and already the thermometer is pushing 40°C/100°F. Walking out here in my good boots and hiking gear, granted safety by the stamp in my passport, empathy hits me in waves. Beyond the physical difficulties of the desert, migrants have to contend with Border Patrol and civilian militias who do everything they can to deter folks from heading north.

We make half a dozen drops along the trail. We leave messages on the water bottles, letting people know they have friends in the desert. One of the volunteers has a logbook to note down observations from each site: this one is untouched, this one has been destroyed by animals, this one has fed and watered at least a few people in recent days. My heart is so full of compassion for those people! I hope the sincerity of our messages is enough to override the suspicion they must feel.

We walk for a few hours, plenty of time to exchange stories. The activists tell me more about the history of the area, their worries about increasing efforts to stop the migration, and share some of their motivations for doing the work. I’ll try to retell some of those stories here, because it’s important context. I’m not a journalist or a historian, so I make no claims for accuracy or objectivity. I’m telling you what the locals told me: this is the history that matters to them.

Colonisation, then and now

Map showing 100 years of US territorial acquisitions

Southern Arizona is part of the Gadsden Purchase, which finalised the borders of the continental USA in 1853. “Purchase” is a friendly word for it; at the time, the Massachusetts legislature referred to it as a “war of conquest” and “a crime”. Many of the settlements within the Gadsden area were Mexican before they were US American. Towns like Nogales, Sasabe and Naco are cut in two by a border wall that imposes an artificial division through what used to be integrated communities.

I had the good fortune of being born to White parents in a Western country, so it was effortless for me to cross the border through the divided town of Nogales. I forgot to bring my visa but the Border Patrol guard waved me through anyway. We found this portrait on the Mexico side of the wall. I learned later this is Jose Antonio: a 16 year old kid who was murdered from across the wall by a US Border Patrol agent in 2012.

Traffic moved back and forth freely across the US-Mexico border until NAFTA was signed in 1994. This so-called “free trade” deal was supposed to be beneficial for all signatory countries. However, the authors must have anticipated that it would decimate subsistence economies in Mexico, because they had the foresight to massively restrict border traffic when the trade deal was passed. If the flow of resources was going to increase in both directions, you have to ask why the South-to-North flow of people had to be so constrained?

So that’s some background on the region, which might help you appreciate why communities here support Latin American migrants. People have been walking these trails for thousands of years. If you consider the food, language, lineage and culture, this place is just as much Latin American as it is US American.

Tightening the Lasso

Efforts to stop the migration keep intensifying, across multiple fronts.

Legislation like SB 1070 further criminalises children of undocumented migrants. Folks that were born North of the border live every day terrified that a parking ticket or random stop-and-frisk will see their whole families deported South.

In cities like Tucson, Border Patrol is an occupying military force. Predator drones circle overhead. Heavily armed agents stop all cars at checkpoints on roads far away from the border. I was under the impression that the US Americans were protected from random stops and searches by the Fourth Amendment, but the American Civil Liberties Union explains that Border Patrol agents are given a 100-mile radius inside the border in which the Constitution doesn’t apply. The “All Seeing Eyes”, tethered surveillance blimps along the border, record video, radar, and cell phone traffic of anyone within range. Out in the desert, surveillance towers imported from the Israeli Defence Force sit unoccupied, but are nonetheless terrifying to migrants.

Clearly there are many reasons to be concerned by the aggressive surveillance tactics employed by government agents. But the people we spoke with were most concerned about paramilitary actors: militias operate in the borderlands with even less judicial oversight than the official law enforcement officers.

As long as there has been colonisation in this land, there have been militias. Their roots extend back into the most violent fronts of white supremacy, from the genocide of Native Americans, to lynching escaped African slaves, and now targeting Latin Americans migrating north. This sick history is whitewashed by clever PR: their websites talk about reconnaissance, transparency, and protecting innocent citizens from drug runners and sex offenders. A quick Google search for “we are not a militia” will turn up a long list of these organisations.

The new political climate in the US creates the perfect recruiting conditions for white nationalists. The border and the rhetoric around it fuel a particular kind of white nationalist: border militias. We sat in on a community meeting of residents of a small town who were concerned about an uptick of armed paramilitary in their community, dealing with very real questions of armament, tactics and safety. As I understand it, this conversation is happening in towns all along the 2,000 mile border. Coming from ultra-peaceful New Zealand, I sat at the back of the meeting mute, stunned — I’ve never seen anything like this. What would you do if highly trained and armed militiamen infiltrated your sleepy town?

We make the path by walking

So with all of these scary forces lined up against them, why would anyone decide to go out into the desert to work with migrants crossing the border illegally? I asked a couple of the No More Deaths activists about their motivations.

Zach is my favourite kind of punk. You meet them all over the world: kinda rough-looking but extraordinarily gentle, humble, and kind. He’s been drifting around the States for years, and decided to try settling in Arizona for a few months. Doing this work out in the desert gave him something more constructive to do with his political views beyond just sitting in endless committee meetings. He told me frankly that one of the things that convinced him to stick around was that the camp looks after his basic needs: friendly company, shared food, meaningful work.

A US citizen from the Midwest, Janis volunteered for No More Deaths because so many of the people she cares about were getting caught up in immigration struggles. She is training to be an Emergency Medical Technician. Deeply critical of institutional health care, she wanted some practical experience of grassroots community health provision.

The activists out here seem to have found a cure for the sense of overwhelm, shock and anxiety that is crippling so many of the white liberals I’ve met on the East and West Coast. Just as I found in Indianapolis, these activists prioritise practical, local, direct action over endless analysis and theorising. Don’t get me wrong, there is a deep thoughtfulness behind the work. The difference here is that the theory is discussed over a shared meal after a long day of practical work, rather than in a rarified committee meeting. The work produces empathy in spades: apathy evaporates when your tent is buzzed by a Border Patrol helicopter.

I left Arizona hugely inspired by No More Deaths crew. You can find out how to support their work on the No More Deaths website here. I hope I can share some of their lessons with other folks we meet on this long winding tour of US activist spaces. Food, action, empathy — it’s a powerful recipe.

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