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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 2.3.11

Death in the Desert

Humanitarian aid is never a crime

By Debra E. McGee

"There, human footprints,” said Steve. "Theyre leading up to the Guadalupe Ranch.” He pulled the old truck to a stop, got out and squatted in the dry red roadbed. It was a welcome break from the violent jarring on the "road.” It was only discernable as a "road” because it was cactus and brush free. There were holes 10 inches deep, jolts that threw you into someones lap, and it was so steep all you saw was sky on many of the up-hill runs. So bad even the Border Patrol didnt drive here.

Steve climbed up on the metal gate, "Hola amigos! (continuing in Spanish) Were here to help. We have water and food. We have medical care. We are Americans who are friends. Its safe. Hola amigos.” No response. Steve lost the footprints in the brush, so we headed back to Byrd Camp. When we arrived, the two migrants Antonio and Gilberto were already asleep in the medical tent.

Here in the Sonora desert, volunteering with No More Deaths, we are 16 miles from the Mexican border. Up at 5:30 am and in the pickup trucks by 7 to make "drops.” We leave gallon jugs of water on trails known to be currently "active” by migrants heading norte. I am not here because I think illegal immigration is a "great idea” but rather because I want to help reduce the reality of hundreds of Mexicans and South Americans dying from dehydration every year.

You need four liters of water a day to survive the heat, perhaps more if you are moving fast in the daytime. Temperatures can exceed 107 degrees. Maybe a little less water if you are moving at night. Night travel is safer under the light of the full moon. Its easier to avoid the myriad of vicious vegetation and cliff drop-offs. Every plant that lives in the harshest part of the desert is covered in spikes and spears that when brushed against, leave cuts and broken tips that bury themselves in skin. Some can actually "shoot” their spikes. The "trails” are cut through red shale, layers of desert clay that crumble and roll like little ball bearings, especially on a steep descent. Its easy to fall down and impossible to avoid the cruel needles of the cactus, ocotillo and akaysha. Even in the daytime you get covered with small bloody scratches.

It is no "accident” the migrants are hiking the harshest part of the desert. Its a plan designed by U.S. Border Patrol: the idea being, if only the most treacherous terrain is "open,” the migrants will give up and stop coming. But it is 400 square miles of desert and mountains, too difficult to fence. They dont stop coming. They are just more likely to die in crossing.

Migrants come because is too difficult to stay where they are. They come for opportunity ã because their children are starving and have no future. They come north to labor hard and help their families survive.

NAFTA and other "sweet” trade deals passed through Congress to increase profits for our wealthy corporations have devastated the already desperate in many Third World countries. Like here, their rich get richer. Poor desperate people, without our social supports, who dare for a better life must "trust” the drug cartel guides/"coyotes” and risk their lives crossing the desert. If the "coyotes” (migrants are the "chickens”) dont rape or abandon them and the bandits dont beat and rob them or the drug runners dont murder them, the unrelenting sun may dehydrate them to death.

The other reason they come is for love. Love of family is why 15-year-old Josseline crossed. She and her younger brother had been living with their grandparents in Mexico. Now they were old enough to cross the border and join their parents in California. Instead she died alone in a gully. She was found lying barefoot on the rocks. Had she worn the wrong shoes or not had enough water? Maybe her 90-pound body just couldnt withstand the long and arduous march. Her 13-year-old brother stayed with her as long as he could, but fearing death himself, left to follow the group heading north. What would you or I do? Most people do not easily wish to leave their families and homeland.

Antonio hobbled into the No More Deaths camp with Gilberto. They had seen our Mexican flag volunteers had hung from a tree and before that had received a "sign.” It was the Guadalupe Ranch. (The Virgin of Guadalupe being a sacred symbol of hope in their religion.) First a sign, then a flag "miracle” they declared. The volunteer nurse provided care for Antonios swollen knee. He had been deported after 14 years working and living in Tennessee. In the months of detainment and deportation proceedings, his child had been born. He was trying to get home to meet his baby and provide for his family. If he gets caught a second time he will be guilty of a felony; its a recent law. It will mean jail time and little chance of ever getting legal. Gilberto, also recently deported, has lived and worked in the U.S. for 20 years.

We follow certain rules while providing aid. While we can provide food and medical care, we cannot provide maps or directions. If the Border Patrol comes to the gate and asks, we must tell them we have migrants in camp. The three days they slept and ate with us restored them for the journey. That was the only "miracle” we had to offer.

Will they ever reach their families, I asked myself then and continue to ask myself? Did our act of charity address the massive systemic injustice? You might ask yourself the same.

An opportunity to stand with our local Latino community will be at 6 pm Thursday, Feb. 10 at the First Congregational Church, 1050 E. 23rd. We will have an opportunity to talk with local politicians about legislative action. Currently children of migrants who graduate from our public schools must pay out of state tuition for higher education. Local politicians will listen to concerns about the need to grant drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. This is a chance in our community to speak out against the injustice.

Debra E. McGee is an adjunct instructor at Northwest Christian University in Eugene.