Hello from the desert. I am spending a week with other Unitarian Universalist ministers, seminarians and religious educators learning about immigration across the Mexican border. On Wednesday we spent much of our time in Arivaca, Arizona, a small but well-organized community with one food store (larger than a 7-Eleven, but hardly a supermarket,) two places to eat (one also the town bar,) and a public library which has the only public toilets in town.
Arivaca also has a huge area of mostly empty desert extending south to the Mexican border. In days gone by, all would be quiet, and the nearby interstate would be the route for migration north and south, as Mexican workers came to seasonal jobs or to visit family living in Arizona or beyond. Folks from Tucson and Arivaca would drive south for the day to visit Nogales, Sonora for shopping or dinner.
Now the desert is the only way to migrate, and border crossing is nearly impossible for Mexicans. The tourist strip once filled with restaurants and gift shops … not unlike Virginia Beach’s strip, is almost completely abandoned. The desert has its own rest stops — small shrines placed by humanitarian organizations along migration trails– with a few gallon plastic water bottles and a few cans of food. We visited one of these, about an hour walk from the end of the road east of Arivaca, placing water bottles with encouraging words in Spanish, and also feminine hygiene products and cans of beans in the bend of a fallen tree trunk.
We took away emptied plastic bottles and empty cans. We will never know who came through, and if they made it to civilization or not. Back in Arivaca, we spent time at a small office of “People Helping People” — a group of locals dedicated to helping the community respond to the migration, with medical kits, food packs and even a telephone for calls to Red Cross International (for “I am alive” messages.) The group also helps with Spanish interpretation. www.phparivaca.org
While there we met two members of Samaritans, a group which also distributes water, but also is involved in documenting recovered human remains which they find along the migration routes. The Arizona border area has had over three thousand sets of remains recovered, which is probably a small fraction of those who have died in the deserts of Arizona since 1999. Over 10,000 sets have been recovered along the entire border.
The reality of life in southern Arizona has changed. At times those we interviewed would mention the wonderful weather or the beauty of the land. They would talk about the joy of neighbors helping neighbors. And then they would mention that, to go to a supermarket they would have to stop and be questioned at a Border Patrol checkpoint, “temporarily” placed on the road between Arivaca and the interstate to Tucson, and how the entire area has been essentially under US Government control for several years. They gave us maps created by the ACLU:
They also gave us a lot to think about.
This week Rev. David Morris will be filling in for me, but I hope to see you soon.