by Dr. Janie Leatherman, professor of politics & international studies
The southern border of the United States with Mexico — which Mexicans refer to as the “linea” or line — extends for 1,969 miles. It intersects 20 railroad crossings and 30 paired cities along a number of states on both sides of the line. It is one of the most crossed borders in the world — a vibrant, cosmopolitan space — with roughly 250 million people crossing it every year through official ports of entry.
There are other crossing points, too — shadowy and often dangerous pathways used by undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America coming to this country to work, or to visit family.
Perhaps the most treacherous of these crossing areas is the “Tucson” sector. As a result of the deliberate policies of the United States to make undocumented crossings more difficult in densely populated areas, the “Tucson” sector — a mountainous and extremely dry, hot, and perilous expanse of desert — has become a preferred route.
As many as 251 human remains were recovered in one year in the Tucson sector alone, most of the victims suffering a slow and painful death driven by a violent struggle against the effects of dehydration, hyperthermia, heat stroke, and related ailments.
That’s not all the dangers these people face: The Mexican drug cartels are deeply involved in these border crossings — often forcing migrants to carry drugs, extorting money from their families, or subjecting them to rape and other abuses.
As a political scientist, I’ve become interested in how societies marginalize certain people, excluding them by designating them as “illegal” or pursuing them as “criminals” in the war on terror. This work dovetails with a number of initiatives at Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life (CFPL) under the leadership of its director, Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., that are focused on immigration and migrants.
One contemporary theorist, Giorgio Agamben, suggests that the lives of people such as these marginalized migrants have been turned into non-entities with no legal standing. It is as though they exist in a “state of exception,” where public authorities are able to suspend legal protections while bringing the disciplinary power of the state to bear full force on them.
The average U.S. citizen is not even aware of these migrants, or how they are treated. The implications of their treatment is a tally of deaths — both reported and unaccounted — along the U.S.-Mexican border. In a perverse way, such border policies and methods strengthen the drug cartels, as migrants are increasingly forced to depend on the cartel’s smuggling operations.
I’m also interested in how individuals “resist” this kind of dehumanization, and how it is possible in some circumstances to create a kind of “safe space,” where these persons deemed “illegal” or otherwise lacking in standing, are given a place where their dignity can be restored and protected, and resistance becomes a possibility.
This past January, I spent some time at such a place — the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a binational program with a main office in Nogales, Ariz. On the other side of the “linea” in Nogales, Mexico, KBI offers daily meals to migrants and those recently deported in a comedor — a tin-roofed, half-open soup kitchen framed by colorful murals and lined with picnic tables. KBI also runs Nazareth House for Deported Women, a short-term shelter for at risk migrant women located discretely in an apartment bloc not far from the main shelter.
When undocumented migrants are apprehended at the U.S. border or elsewhere in the United States, they are deported back to their home country. While I was at the KBI, a group of recent deportees to Mexico arrived early in the morning. In spite of the fact that it was bitterly cold, with temperatures hovering around 16 degrees, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents had deported several migrants overnight wearing only t-shirts and jeans. They joined others around a gas heater to warm their hands.
After introductions by Rev. Sean Carroll, S.J., executive director of KBI, some middle-aged migrants approached me to say that they wanted me to tell people in the United States that “we are not criminals: we are not coming to steal from you or take your things away from you. We have come to the United States only to seek work because we have no opportunities for work at home, and we need to care for our children, for our families.”
Another migrant insisted I hear the story of a mother and father from southern Mexico, whose daughter lay comatose with a feeding tube in a California nursing home, kept alive since a car accident 16 months earlier. With tears flowing, the parents told of their failed attempts to secure a visa to visit their stricken daughter and that, if they crossed again undocumented, they risked imprisonment in the U.S.
Family separation is one of the human tragedies of a complex and broken immigration system.
Since the 1990S, the U.S.-Mexican border has figured increasingly in the national imagination as a site of enforcement and deterrence. After 9-11, the border became an even more sensitive area, with the number of border patrol officers doubling from 10,000 in 2005 to 20,500 in 2011. In general, this has forced migrants to take more dangerous pathways to the U.S.
Statistics published by the U.S. Border Patrol trace the impacts of these shifts in policy. Of 12 U.S. sectors along its southwest border, the Tucson sector has had the most apprehensions since 1998, when it overtook the prominent role that San Diego had played as the main crossing point. The total number of apprehensions in the Southwest Border sectors peaked in 2000 at 1,643,679, but dropped steadily to 356,873 by 2012, of which 120,000 came through the Tucson sector. According to the records on border deaths from 1998 to 2012, a total of 5,570 bodies have been found in the Southwest border sectors. Starting in 2000, Tucson recorded the most deaths of all these sectors by substantial margins, hitting a peak of 251 deaths in 2010.
Of course, there are countless numbers of other deaths in the desert region that have not been recorded, in part because of the rapid decomposition of bodies, and also because of the lack of concerted effort on the part of the U.S. authorities to recover corpses of non-U.S. citizens.
Another consequence of funneling border crossings into the Tuscon sector is the emergence of a smuggling economy along the Mexican border. An entire industry has developed, devoted to providing migrants with housing, food, and supplies for the journey, including dark clothing and black water bottles that, unlike clear plastic bottles, will not shine and give away a migrant’s location in the brilliant desert sun.
Poverty is what drives the flow of migrant persons from Mexico and Central America — salaries below subsistence levels, violence from drug wars and gangs and, for women and girls, domestic violence. The migratory routes are particularly risky for women and minors. There are signs of increasing sexual violence against migrant women and girls from drug cartels controlling the migratory routes, sometimes in collusion with public authorities on the Mexican side. There are also soaring numbers of unaccompanied minors, with recorded numbers spiking from 8,041 in 2008 to 24,481 in 2012.
There are rumors of “rape trees” that purportedly mark the territory and conquests of various smugglers, apparently identifiable by the women’s undergarments the rapist leaves hanging on the branches. (Although sexual assaults occur, the existence of rape trees has not been confirmed).
The desert in this remote region is also extremely inhospitable. To avoid detection, the guias, or guides, take migrants along higher, more remote, and more dangerous routes, sometimes as long as 70 miles. Migrants face many risks along the journey. They may be deceived by the guias, robbed, or kidnapped. They may be forced to carry drugs.
Many migrants crossing the border may have already traveled from southern Mexico (some starting from Central America) on freight trains — a dangerous journey in itself — and may have had their money, cell phones, identification, and other resources stolen. They are often unprepared and do not have adequate clothing, footwear, or basic survival gear, including sufficient water. The soaring desert heat, reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more from May to August, presents grave risks. It is practically impossible to carry enough food and water for a journey that could last for days, a week, or longer.
Apprehension by U.S. border authorities also exposes migrants to further danger. Human Rights Watch and others have documented a wide array of abuses of migrants while in U.S. detention, including sensory deprivations, the withholding of medical attention, verbal abuse, withholding of water and food, and sexual abuse.
While the Tucson sector has been one of the heaviest points of border crossing, it also is home to a vibrant community of humanitarian organizations and civil society coalitions, many of which have deep roots in the 1980s and 1990s Sanctuary Movement that organized safe havens for Central American refugees fleeing war.
In these humanitarian spaces, migrants can find sustenance, shelter, medical care, solidarity, and opportunities to recover human dignity.
The Kino Border Initiative, established in 2009, figures prominently among these organizations, working on both sides of the border. KBI’s mission is to support humane and just migration between the United States and Mexico. Working with partner organizations, KBI seeks to promote Mexican border and immigration policies that “affirm the dignity of the human person and a spirit of bi-national solidarity.”
KBI works with Mexican authorities, including the National Institute of Migration, and with Grupos Beta, which transports migrants from the San Juan Bosco Shelter, founded and operated since 1982 by a local Mexican couple, Juan Francisco and Gilda Loureiro, directly to the KBI comedor. Migrants are given meal tickets that also serve as identification to ensure that only migrants enter the comedor, and not other predatory individuals.
DESPITE THE DROP IN NUMBERS OF migrants entering the United States in the last several years, KBI has continued to respond to great needs since it opened. Over a nine-month period in 2012, KBI provided almost 50,000 meals to migrant men, women, and children in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico; sheltered 246 unaccompanied women and children; and offered first aid to more than 2,000 individuals.
Informed by the Jesuit mission and Catholic social teachings, KBI’s soup kitchen and women’s shelter provide a safe environment for migrants traumatized by separation from family members, detention, the deportation process, or suffering from other ordeals experienced along the migratory route.
The KBI comedor and women’s shelter are places where the migrants are no longer identified by such labels as “illegal” or “criminal.” By establishing a safe space and daily routines based on an inclusive moral community, KBI helps undo the humiliation of the deportation regime.
Through facilitated group sharing, the staff of KBI — which includes lay persons, volunteers, priests, and nuns — encourage migrants to reflect on their tribulations, anxieties, insights, and needs. Individuals have the opportunity to tell their stories and receive support from others, validating their suffering and helping them to speak out about abuses they may have experienced — important tools of empowerment and resistance.
Migrants are also asked to fill out a survey that is used to document their experience, further demonstrating that their story matters.
Another way that KBI helps to build solidarity among the migrants, staff, and volunteers is by daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before meals in the soup kitchen. As Fr. Sean led those of us gathered in El Padre Nuestro — the L ord’s Prayer in Spanish — I thought of how this prayer, which is the way Jesus instructed us to pray, had a particular resonance in this situation, especially when we consider the meanings of “trespasses” (“debts” or “offenses” in other versions of the prayer) and how the prayer pivots on this point: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
The Lord’s Prayer asks us to be generous and resist the temptation to condemn others, as we have ourselves fallen short, and have our own debts that need to be forgiven. It is also a prayer for protection, for wisdom in dangerous circumstances, an invocation for safety and liberation from evil, from the perils we encounter along the paths we travel. The Lord’s Prayer provides a moral foundation for community by using solidarity to overcome humiliation, that powerful mechanism of marginalization that works by dividing migrants from other people by singling them out as deviant or abnormal, and putting them on display as bad, dirty, inhuman. By creating a space of inclusive moral community, KBI helps the migrants to resist humiliation, reclaim their humanity, and restore their sense of dignity.
Besides resisting humiliation, the work of KBI has another important function: It exposes the abuses against migrants to others, and in so doing awakens the sense of shame that is an essential part of responding to others’ needs.
The work of KBI, whose staff gives continuously of themselves every day for the migrants, makes it possible for the volunteers who cometo work there from outlying communities in southwest Arizona and the rest of us to bear witness to the human drama of migration, with all the perils and exclusions that come with it. Bearing witness not only reinforces solidarity through the relational ties that are at the core of shame; bearing witness is also essential for empowering others to advocate for justice.
DESPITE THE MILLIONS OF MIGRANTS who live and work in this country, and contribute to our communities, there remains a troubling disconnect between the way our border control policies allow migrants to be treated, and our image of ourselves as a caring society.
Yet, regardless of the dehumanizing machinery of the border, and the way in which it creates an excluded body of persons, there is resistance: It emerges in the migrant him and herself, determined to cross again and again — not as criminals, but as human beings whose circumstances are often so desperate that to turn back affords no hope.
The resistance also resides in the humanitarianism of so many groups and organizations in Southwest Arizona, such as the Kino Border Initiative, that carve out a safe space, a place of respite and discernment, and provide an opportunity for the undocumented to rediscover themselves as they are, not as the label that has been put on them. These humanitarians also offer opportunities for others to rediscover what it means to hold onto the essence of being human and to use that awareness to bear witness and advocate for a more humane world.