To get to it, I and seven students from the University of Southern California trekked from a dirt road through a mile and a half of rough country. Every one of us was scraped by spines of cacti or spikes of mesquite branches. We slipped on stones, slid on sand. All of us sipped regularly from our water bottles as the mid-day sun and the arid air wicked our bodies dry.
The cross marked the spot where bones of a human being were found by a member of the Green Valley Samaritans, a group of volunteers who put gallon jugs of water on trails where migrants cross into the United States from Mexico. The volunteer called the county coroner to retrieve the remains, which so far have not been identified.
DESCONOCIDO. Unknown. Around us were scraps of evidence about the story of the human being who died there. Nearby were torn backpacks and shredded clothes and desiccated shoes and other belongings abandoned by migrants. To the east, just a mile and a half away, could be seen the rooftops of houses in the retirement community of Green Valley, Arizona. Did this person die of thirst within a short walk of water? Did he or she become dehydrated, which causes confusion and disorientation, and wander off the main migrant trail into the rough, failing to see that help was so close? Did he or she lose consciousness while still believing it was possible to make it to Tucson, thirty miles to the north, without being detected by “la migra”, the US Border Patrol?
169 people were found dead last year on the US side of the Arizona/Mexico border, mostly from exposure to the elements. Our group, calling itself “CONOCIMIENTO” – “awareness” – was a week-long “alternative spring break” experience for USC students. Most of us were part of the USC student Interfaith Council. We explored the ways that faith-based groups - Green Valley Samaritans, No More Deaths, Humane Borders - prevent migrant deaths by putting water on the trails and by sending out teams to offer emergency assistance to migrants. They do not transport migrants or advocate for illegal entry into the US. They work to save lives and to inform the wider public about the humanitarian crisis that continues along the border.
Water supply placed in the desert - our group visited the site with Peter Dean, volunteer with the Green Valley Samaritans
In the Christian Bible, in the book of Acts, Saint Paul visited Athens and saw the statues of the Greek gods. One statue platform was empty, and was inscribed with a dedication “to an unknown god”. So there Paul gave a sermon in which he identified this “unknown God” as the one he worshiped. “He made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” (Acts 17: 26-28)
I have often mused that Christianity, and indeed all other religions, would best serve and be served if we focused more on the “unknown God” rather than on our beliefs about who God is and what God wants. What is unknown about God inspires us to ask more questions and keep our hearts open to further revelation. What is unknown about God – and maybe that is everything – inspires us to use our imaginations, consider possibilities, stay humble, and seek ever more knowledge and wisdom.
DESCONOCIDO. Unknown. As we stood before that little cross, we imagined the holes that this person’s absence left in the hearts of his or her relatives and friends, perhaps on both sides of the border. Our tears and theirs were mystically transsubstantiated into one. What dashed hopes, what frustrated ambitions swirled in the air around that spot? What desperation drove this person to take such a terrible risk? The “coyotes”, or smugglers of migrants, are now mostly controlled by violent drug gangs, we learned. Valarie James, an artist living near the border, collected belongings of migrants left in the desert and created next to her house a “santuario” displaying them. In it we saw containers of birth control pills that had been left on the trails. Women take the pills before making the border crossing because they assume they will be raped along the way by the gangster coyotes. It’s very dangerous to get anywhere close to the US border on the Mexican side in the wilderness, because those areas are controlled by the drug mafias. Then there is the danger of the US side, where the landscape and climate wear down even the hardiest young migrants in a matter of two or three days. Many a migrant gives up and goes to a road in hopes that la migra will pick them up and save them from dying of thirst or heat or cold. But sometimes the road is only occasionally used, because there are so many of them maintained by the Border Patrol. So by the time la migra arrives, all that might be left are a few bones and scraps of clothing. The zopilotes – buzzards – peck them clean of flesh. The pack rats decorate the inside of their nests with bits of bone and scraps of possessions. Coyotes – the animal kind – drag away pieces of the remains. Range cattle chew the bones for their calcium content. The desert makes short work of a dead human body. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. No wonder that it is assumed that for every body found, there is at least one other migrant who dies without leaving a trace. DESCONOCIDO. Unknown.
At the end of our week, we went to Tucson to the federal courthouse to witness Operation Streamline. Fifty migrants, mostly young Mexican men, sat in the stand, with chains shackling their hands and feet. Just looking at them brought tears to our eyes. Frustration at losing the money they spent on getting to the border and that they paid to the coyotes, memory of the danger they stared down on both sides of the border, the indignity they suffered when captured, were evidenced on their faces as they sat in the huge courtroom. Groups of them were led to the stand to answer the judge. “Culpable. Culpable. Culpable.” Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. There was no other plea to make: otherwise they’d be in jail and court proceedings for even longer. Chains rattled as each was led away to be sent back over the border with a criminal record so that if they returned and were caught again, they’d spend a long time in jail. As if a warm bed and three square meals a day behind bars were a fate worse than what they’d already risked to trim trees and dig ditches and weed rows of lettuce in America.
The last group of migrant defendants came forward. “How do you spell your name, sir?” the judge politely asked when confounded by what she read on the list. “Your honor,” the man’s public defender lawyer said, “my client has no more than a first grade education. He can’t spell his last name. ” DESCONOCIDO. Unknown.
America has deployed an army to protect our country from dishwashers. We have invested tens of millions of dollars alone in the judicial process of criminalizing people whose only intent was to mow our lawns so they could feed their families back home. This policy isn’t working. While undocumented immigration has declined tremendously, mostly because of the economic downturn in America, the people who do come across illegally are more desperate than ever, and the number of migrant deaths remains high. They are escaping misery or mortal danger, or cannot stand to be separated from their family members in America any longer. This much we know. And we know there are at least some solutions. We can pass the 2007 bipartisan immigration reform plan that would give a pathway to legal status for the over ten million undocumented people whose lives are centered in America and whose labor is needed here.
But what we don’t know stirs the moral imagination. It lets us hear something like the sobs of mothers separated for decades or forever from their sons. It lets us taste the terror in the hearts of young girls who get into the trucks of the coyotes and cast their fates over the border fences. Our unknowing urges our hearts to beat with the fear of undocumented people driving well below the speed limit in unregistered and uninsured cars that might get pulled over by Arizona police who will ask for proof that they are in the US legally.
What is “desconocido” – unknown - might be the cross that saves us, if it opens our hearts to feel, our minds to ask questions, and our feet to cross the border between how things are and how things could be.
Baboquivari, the sacred mountain of the Tohono O'odham nation, used as a landmark by migrants heading north
(To take action for border justice: http://www.faithandimmigration.org/ . To see Valarie James' work: http://www.valariejames.com/commissions.html . To see my journal of last year's CONOCIMIENTO trip, with references to the organizations we visited this year as well: http://tcpc.blogs.com/musings/2011/03/sun-water-a-border-journal.html .)