SOA Watch: Oficina América Latina / Calle 34 No. 18-70 - Apartado Postal 437 - Barquisimeto, Lara, VENEZUELA - Teléfono: 58-416-607-0972


SOA WATCH Border Delegation Report Back

Maria's roommates from the shelter in Nogales, Mexico, carried her gently into the room where members of our SOAW Border delegation had gathered to share with some of the migrants recently deported to Mexico. After five days traversing Arizona's Sonora desert, her frail and swollen legs had given out, and she was unable to walk. Next to her sat Sofia, able to walk -barely -but with large black and purple bruises on her arms from six days of iv fluids. She had been helicoptered out of the desert in an unconscious state. Both wore shy smiles that seemed to contrast the reality they had just lived. Or maybe not. Maybe they revealed an awareness of the sheer miracle of just being alive. 

The desert had taken the power out of Maria's legs, but it did not claim her spirit. Nor did the 651-mile steel Border wall,  nor the 18 billion dollars spent yearly by the US government  to militarize the border.  Maria informed us that once the swelling goes down and her knees are able to again carry her 100-lb body, she would be trying to cross the desert once more.    

I was astonished, having just walked a small piece of that same desert two days earlier. We had gone to do a water drop on a migrant trail with the expert guidance of No More Death's volunteer, Steve.  This group, along with the Samaritans, makes daily treks it the desert to leave water for migrants. The fact that we picked up more empty jars than we left was testimony that it was doing its purpose: saving lives.

Although I drank water like a camel and knew that an air conditioned van was awaiting me,   I was  utterly depleted after only after three hours in the desert, one of the most brutal in the world.  The desert is scattered with shrines and marked by where dead bodies had been retrieved: 5,000 of them in the past 15 years, perhaps more that the desert will never reveal. Still reeling from my own mini journey, I asked Maria why take this risk  again? Her answer was one I immediately understood: her children were on the other side.

State-of-the-art military technology doesn't stop  moms like Maria, even as the industrial military complex falls over each other inthe void of wars, to gain bids for the extra $6.8 billon  the Senate wants to spend for more border militarization. They are willing to risk everything to be united with their children, to put food on their tables. What this militarization does is to push migrants to the deadliest route. Even as overall immigration is waning in recent years, border deaths remain constant. 

A hundred years ago, if Maria's name were Laura Ingalls, her story of braving treacherous lands to forge a new life or reunite with family would have been part of the mythical fabric of our nation. Children in elementary schools would be required to read her tale. One  difference: Laura was stepping into lands never owned by her ancestors , while Maria was heading to land that had long been part of her native Mexico.  

But instead of being a heroine,  Maria is a criminal. Today, while Washington debates the decriminalization of some immigrants (after all, our society would fall apart without them), quietly, our tax dollars are going  to criminalize and  imprison tens of thousands of immigrants in our own communities.     

We witnessed this public policy schizophrenia in the Federal  courthouse in Tucson where 60 immigrants - shackled with chains on their hands and feet, looking exhausted after days in the desert - were paraded in groups of five before a judge, and sentenced to an average of four month in jail. Their crime was entry without inspection.  The whole process, called Operation Streamline, took only two hours andcost tax payers a million dollars. And that price tag is just for one session in one courthouse on one day. The same thing happens in six border city courthouses each week day. And the new Senate bill hopes to triple that.  

Immediately after Streamline, the immigrants are escorted to prison, mostly private ones. Schools in the US may be closing, but private prisons, such as those run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are being opened and expanded at an astonishing rate. This is mostly due to the new trend of massively incarcerating immigrants for the crime of having entered our country through the back door. Fully 60% of Tucson's federal court time is spent with deportation cases, leaving them unable to adequately deal with truly serious crime. 

President Obama is currently on track to deport more immigrants during his 6 years - more than 2 million -  than the sum of all immigrants deported by in the 100 years from 1892-1997. Most worrisome is that over 200,000 families have already been separated by such deportations in the past two years alone.  For those processed through Operation Streamline, first comes prison, then detention center, then deportation.  


Maria was lucky to "just" go straight to ICE detention. After traversing 5 miserable days through the blistering heat of the day and the brutal cold of the night, her coyote's pick up never arrived and she ended up in a vehicle of the Border Patrol. They promptly shackled her feet and hands and delivered her prostrate to the detention center. Because she was so thin, her wrists kept slipping out of the handcuffs, and she so, she explained, she would continually shove them back into the handcuffs herself to avoid being  reprimand by the Border Patrol.   


Tragically, the Border Patrol sometimes goes beyond reprimanding. Such was the case of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez who was actually on the Mexican side of the border wall, when he was brutally murdered by a US Border Patrol agent last October, riddled by 13 bullets to the head and backThat was the punishment for a volley of rocks that he supposedly lobbed over the fence. As we gathered with Fr. Roy Bourgeois to give Jose's family a photo of the cross that Roy had carried at last year's vigil, bearing Jose's name, we realized how impossible it would have been for rocks to even reach over the top of a 30 foot wall perched on top of a 30 foot hill.    

In fairness, several of the migrants reported that the Border Patrol had rescued them from sure death.  That was Tanya's case, when the Border Patrol searched all night for her, after her husband was able to contact them after she passed out in the desert. Once found, she was airlifted to a hospital in Phoenix. What is clear is that the blame for the rise in deaths in the desert does not lie on the shoulders of the Border Patrol, but on the policy that has shaped it.  

So, why do they come at all? We asked the staff of the Kino Border Initiative, whose services include serving hundreds of meals a day to deported migrants on the Mexican side, and running a shelter for recently deported women. Kino Education Director West Cosgrove replied that during his 17 years at border cities he has heard multiple versions that boil down to this brief explanation:  We are here because you were there. This was affirmed when Sister Engracia told us that the biggest increase in recent migrants are those from Honduras. They come fleeing the violence unleashed by the  2009 coup carried out by SOA graduates and continued under a regime supported by US military aid.  

The biggest way that "we were there" in Mexico is of course via NAFTA, the free trade agreement that promised to bolster Mexico's economy, but destroyed the livelihood of millions of small farmers who couldn't possibly complete with subsidized giant US agro business. It is no wonder that the wall started to be built in 1994,the year that NAFTA was approved. Maquiladoras from the U.S. moved in, paying wages so low that a community at the Nogales, MX trash dump that we visited included former maquila workers who made more in the dump than the factory.


A group of workers from the closed Legacy printer ink factory met with us under a tent they had installed outside the abandoned factory, demanding the assets in lieu of the unpaid wages owed by the owner, who closed the factory and hightailed it back to the U.S. and his numerous other businesses.


The School of the Americas has also contributed to the dangersfaced by migrants, through their training of elite Mexican soldiers, many ofwhom deserted the army to became Zetas, the hired assassins of a Mexican drugcartel. Migrants passing through the desert must pay cartels to enter and leave the border towns,  then to their cartel coyotes to lead them through the desert. Minimum price for these services: $4,000, per migrant, not including frequent rapes, torture and sometimes death at the hands of the coyotes. Migrants get a $500 discount if they agree to carry a 50-pound sack of marijuana.  

The environment is also suffering irreversible damage because of border militarization policies, affecting pristine wild lands, national forests, and refugees for wildlife such as pygmy owls and desert bighorn sheep, contributing also to severe flooding.  In a bizarre twist, Sierra Club activist Dan Millis was charged with littering when distributing water jugs on migrant trails, even though he and other No More Deaths volunteers were simultaneously picking up boxes of trash in the desert. Dan refused to pay the ticket, and was later convicted in federal court. Several months earlier, Dan had discovered the remains of 14-year old Josseline Hernandez who was left to die in the desert while journeying to reunite with her mother in California.

As the Senate brings to its chambers the debate on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform, it is clear to those at the border that this bill is neither comprehensive, as it does not address the root causes of migration. Nor does it give priority to the human rights of migrants and families. Before anyone can even qualify for the complex steps to a legal status, “border security triggers" will require an additional $6.8 for more border militarization, assuring more deaths in the desert.

At the border I heard some of the most horrific tales of my recent journeys through throughout the Americas, right in my own country. But, I also witnessed some of the most concrete expressions of solidarity, such as dropping water on a migrant trail in the desert. Not all of us live in the desert. But we all lived in communities that depend on immigrants. Isabel Garcia of Coalicion de Derechos Humanos told us, the border is everywhere.  I invite you to drop water in the desert of our treatment of immigrants, whether that is by emailing your Senator to demand a stop to border militarization, joining me at the Stewart  Detention Center at the SOAWatch vigil, or speaking out for immigrant rights in your own community.