The sun sinks slowly behind the distant horizon, simultaneously setting the Arizona sky ablaze and splashing the Gates Pass mountains with hues of orange and red.
This is the last night of a week-long borderlands tour, and we’ve come to the pass to decompress. I carefully step around saguaro, cholla and other prickly cacti, noting that most desert plants have thorns. I wonder what it would be like to navigate this area in the dark as a migrant might.
Stories from the past week flood my mind. Stories of people fleeing violence in their home communities and coming to the United States border, risking their lives along the way with threats of dehydration or exposure.
As darkness falls, I shiver as I gaze at the stars, remembering my grumbling attitude earlier in the week while spending a cold, rainy morning outdoors. Relatively minor, I realize, compared with spending the night in the desert under a blanket of stars.
I linger in the darkness, overwhelmed at how to process all I’ve seen and done, let alone structure it into a cohesive article about my experiences.
How does one tell a story of determination, loss, hope and resiliency all wrapped up together? The situation on our southern border is incredibly complex.
Even if I’m left wondering how to proceed, now that I’ve gone and seen, I’m sure of one thing—the importance of sharing stories. I appreciate the opportunity our tour provided to listen to a wide variety of voices, from migrants to a Border Patrol agent and so many others.
In sharing about the experience, then, I’ve structured the following article in a way that follows the path of migrants, beginning south of the United States border and crossing into the U.S., including asylum claims and detention. I’ll share what I learned about deterrents and border security, as well as the cost of migration before concluding with an example of someone who is making a difference. Throughout, I’ll share stories from the people and organizations we met along the way.
I invite you to walk with me and take a trip in someone else’s shoes.
After participating in a South Texas border tour with Mennonite Central Committee in January 2019, I was invited to a second borderlands tour to Arizona in January 2020. I agreed to attend as a follow-up to my experience last year. Having prior knowledge helped inform my trip, and I left with anticipation of learning more about what is an incredibly complex topic.
Two Mennonite Central Committee employees led our tour: Katherine Smith, the MCC border and migration outreach coordinator from Tucson, Ariz., and Saulo Padilla, the MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator from Goshen, Indiana. The other six of us were from a variety of places, including Kansas, Virginia and Indiana.
The purpose of our trip was to learn about the dynamics of the border and immigrant experience on both sides of it. An important component was listening to many voices, seeing the humanity on both sides of the border.
South of the United States border
Situated on the U.S./Mexico border, just south of Douglas, Arizona, the Centro de Atención al Migrante “Exodus” (Center of Assistance for Migrants in Exodus, or CAME) offers one of two safe spaces for migrants in the city of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.
We visit this gated community on the evening of our first full day in Mexico.
Upon our arrival, we walk first into an outdoor courtyard, lined with rooms around the edges. A ball bounces through our circle as children play around us. Migrants here are waiting to present themselves at the nearby port of entry.
As we wait for dinner, we hear the story of teenage brothers, ages 17 and 16, from Mexico. They’re on their way to California to join their mother and work to earn money.
The older brother tells how he quit school after middle school in order to work picking tomatoes. He’d work 14-hour days and get paid about $1 for 15 buckets picked.
The brothers have been living alone in an area of unrest. Community groups are trying to take their land and threatening to kill family members, so they’ve chosen to come to the border. One of the brothers says he has previously attempted crossing with a coyote smuggler but was unsuccessful. He says he almost died of the cold, so this time, they will wait and seek asylum.
It’s dinnertime. I sit across the table from a migrant couple, ages 27 and 24. The young mother consoles their 9-month-old son, as their 7-year-old daughter plays tic-tac-toe with another guest.
The man’s name is Jorge*, and he shares his story over our meal of beef, vegetables and rice.
With MCC’s Padilla acting as interpreter, I learn that Jorge’s father was killed two years ago by organized crime in Guerrero, Mexico. But because local governments are corrupt and often work together with organized crime, Jorge hasn’t reported his father’s death. He knows people disappear after reporting a death. This has a silencing effect.
The trouble began, Jorge says, with the purchase of a truck for the family ranching and farming business, whose land and water is the envy of others. The state police began accusing Jorge’s family of working for organized crime, and others began accusing them as well to get their resources.
Jorge twists a napkin between his fingers as he continues.
His grandfather was the first to be killed. Next was his uncle. Then his cousin. Finally, his father.
When organized crime burned Jorge’s house, Jorge knew it was time to leave. His family escaped initially to Morelos—organized crime followed them to make sure they left the state—but with continued threats, Jorge decided to come to the border to seek asylum in the U.S.
With no death certificate for his father, the only thing Jorge possesses as proof for his asylum case are photos of the murders.
He pulls out his phone and begins scrolling, showing first his father, lying facedown on the ground with a gunshot wound to the head. He scrolls to another set of photos—this time his uncle’s gruesome death, which made the news.
Jorge glances at his hands. He’s the only one who can prove his father’s identification, but in order to do that, he’d have to return home to the authorities and risk being killed. So he’s hoping instead to go to Chicago, where his wife has family.
Because of the horrifying nature of the images Jorge shows us, I have trouble falling asleep that night.
*last name withheld
CAME provides food and lodging for asylum-seeking families waiting to present themselves at the port of entry. As many as 69 percent of the people at CAME are Mexican families like Jorge’s from the state of Guerrero.
Organized crime, which seeks to recruit children, is one of the many reasons people leave their homes. Some are fleeing violence. Others are seeking economic opportunities or a place to raise their family.
But if the conditions a migrant leaves are unsafe, the journey, too, is risky.
Cartels control the territory along the border and make people pay to cross their turf. There’s quite a bit of drug traffic in Agua Prieta, and the cartels try to keep migrants away from this city to avoid attention, but it’s getting to a point where they can no longer keep people away.
Migrants experience harassment in Agua Prieta, and CAME director Betto* says he’s received death threats as a result of his work.
Because the U.S. accepts a limited number of asylum seekers at the ports of entry each day, CAME maintains an orderly list of families waiting to present themselves at the border.
The list at CAME was started in March 2019, and currently has 1,800 people on it. In January, typically one family would get through per day, meaning a wait time of four to five months for families. Because it’s not safe to stay in the city, a family will put their name on the list and return to CAME when it’s closer to their turn.
When it’s their turn, a family on the list will wait in a tent at the border to present themselves before a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official. There are generally between six and 20 people in the tent at any given time.
*last name withheld
Migrant Resource Center
While they’re waiting in the tent, migrants eat their meals, take showers and use the restroom at the Migrant Resource Center (MRC) across the street, which is a Catholic/Presbyterian ministry that acts as a daytime shelter for asylum seekers.
Because migrants experience harassment, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) volunteers like Douglas residents Jack and Linda Knox accompany migrants back and forth between the tent and MRC. Organized crime organizations respect U.S. citizens, so CPT accompaniment is important.
During a visit with Perla*, an attorney and the board chair of MRC, we learn that the local public safety officer has threatened to hunt asylum seekers lining up at the border and threatened to deport them, not realizing that 80 percent are from Mexico.
Once an asylum-seeking family presents themselves at a U.S. port of entry and expresses a credible fear claim, they’ll see an asylum officer and be sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for processing.
*last name withheld
During an online presentation with MCC Mexico representatives Giovanny Cruz Galindo and Gyna Paola Romero Camacho, we learn that the Mexican government is attempting to stop migrants from Central America at its southern border, per the U.S. government’s request. The Mexican government is placing migrants in jail and attempting to criminalize the work of organizations that help migrants, like CAME.
MCC supports a network of 27 to 28 shelters in Mexico, including CAME, and provides psychosocial and spiritual support, a listening ear, food, water, shelter, shoes and humanitarian aid.
Named for the sister cities of Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Mexico, DouglaPrieta Trabajan (DPT) is a women’s collective that began in Agua Prieta in 2003 as a grassroots self-help project to assist people—including those from Agua Prieta and migrants—and develop economic self-sufficiency, according to its website.
Its mission is “to reduce the cost of living and at the same time build an ethic of mutual aid among neighbors in order to reduce dependency on weak job markets, government assistance, charity and border crossing.”
Located in a poor neighborhood in Agua Prieta, DPT’s current structure was completed in 2013-14, after the women’s cooperative made 5,000 adobe bricks to build a place of their own.
Four women speak with us, including Roselinda, who is one of DPT’s founders. She has been a volunteer here for 15 years.
DPT offers classes for adults and children including sewing, permaculture, English language and carpentry. There are currently five or six students enrolled.
The women’s cooperative makes a variety of fair-trade products. Projects include dignity bags for deported migrants to use to carry their belongings as well as aprons and dolls. DPT gives environmentally friendly bags to people in exchange for nonperishable food items for the local shelter and rehab center.
The cooperative also partners with a screen-printing business in Tucson to sell bags, shirts and bandanas.
We walk outside to the community demonstration garden, where DPT teaches horticultural skills to encourage sustainable food security, including how to prepare the soil and compost. They plant year-round.
Meanwhile, in the carpentry workshop, migrants learn how to construct furniture using recycled pallet wood to help them find work in their hometowns. The goal is to help migrants find work so they can help themselves by developing marketable skills.
Colorful flags hang above the entrance to Casa Alitas in Tucson. A former juvenile detention center, the facility has been transformed inside with bright colors of paint and hand-drawn pictures on the walls.
Casa Alitas is a Catholic Community Services shelter that receives asylum-seeking families that have been processed by ICE. Families with children won’t be sent to detention, and the purpose of Casa Alitas is to provide care and temporary housing while ultimately connecting people to their sponsors, while they await their court date.
Our co-leader, Katherine Smith, works with volunteer coordination at Casa Alitas, and she leads our tour of the facility, which can accommodate up to 150 people. Casa Alitas has living areas with couches and toys, an outdoor basketball court, bedrooms and clothing. ICE strips migrants of their shoelaces, Smith says, and people may or may not get their belongings back.
In 2014, ICE began dropping people at Casa Alitas, which started in the donated home in which we stayed during our time in Tucson. Families with a sponsor would stay one to three days and receive food and shelter.
According to Smith, the number of people Casa Alitas receives from ICE has fluctuated, a tactic she says is intended to control perceptions and dry up shelter resources. As ICE released more and more people, Casa Alitas began using a Catholic gym, rented hotel rooms to use as a shelter, moved to a monastery and finally, in August 2019, moved into its current space.
Recently, the flow of people has fluctuated, Smith says, and there are fewer than last spring. There were maybe 20 asylum seekers at Casa Alitas on the day of our visit. Currently, Casa Alitas receives three to five people per day.
Fewer asylum seekers are allowed to stay in the U.S. as a result of Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as Remain in Mexico (RIM).
Under MPP, some migrants are being sent to Mexico to await their court date in the U.S. Others are released to shelters like Casa Alitas or sent to detention. It appears to be a random system. At the time of our tour, between 80,000 and 90,000 people with a credible fear of returning to their country have been sent to Mexico under MPP, Smith says, where they are put on a second list for their court hearing. Under MPP, Mexican nationals may be sent to wait in Guatemala.
I, too, saw the effects of the changing policies.
Last year in Texas, the respite center we visited in McAllen was bursting at the seams with asylum seeking families en route to their sponsors. At that time, most people were allowed into the U.S. On the day of our visit, there were 450 asylum seekers receiving care.
This year, however, while Casa Alitas in the U.S. was fairly empty, the CAME shelter in Mexico was fuller as a result of the cap on asylum seekers allowed to present themselves at the port of entry.
Josue: From Honduras to the U.S.
Josue* is farther along in the asylum-seeking process.
Before dinner on a Wednesday night, we gather to hear Josue share, for the very first time, about his family’s five-year journey from Honduras to the U.S. He and his two children have been in Tucson for a year as he continues his asylum case.
Having been recruited to join the army when he was 13 years old, Josue received state orders to participate in a coup to overthrow Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in June 2009. He followed orders, but eventually expressed a desire to get out of the army, only to receive threats. So Josue deserted and fled the country, taking with him 7-year-old Vilma and 2-year-old Carlos. The road was risky, he says—indeed they saw people in hiding, a woman raped and a man killed along the way—but it was too risky to stay.
During the journey, Josue worked to pay for the trip, which was not without hardship. In Guatemala, people tried to take Josue’s children. In Mexico, Josue was thrown off a train, unaware he had to pay $100 to the mafia at each stop. He broke his leg in the fall, and his kids rode on without him to Mexico City—their shoes tied to the train.
While Josue received medical attention—from which he eventually escaped in order to avoid deportation—his children received care from nuns in Mexico City. Hobbling on crutches, Josue reunited with his children, continuing to work along the way until the police would kick him out.
Josue decided to turn himself in at a port of entry, so he paid a coyote smuggler to take his family to the border in Nogales. Even though he had heard there was no family separation, his biggest fear was that his kids would be taken from him.
Although Josue did not know anyone in the U.S., a woman in Nogales, Arizona, chose to sponsor him, opening her home to the family. From there, Josue and his family traveled to Tucson, where they found Casa Alitas.
Living in Tucson with the help of the International Rescue Committee, Josue does occasional yard work as he continues to attend court hearings for his asylum case. His children, meanwhile, have been in school for a year, getting the education Josue never had. It could take between six months and two years for his case to be decided.
*last name withheld
Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project
It can be difficult to win an asylum case, according to Greg Fay, a staff attorney at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP), which provides representation for asylum seekers in court.
To win his or her case, an asylum seeker will have to prove persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Less than 10 percent of asylum seekers win their cases, Fay says.
There are grounds for asylum based on extreme suffering, Fay says, including if an asylum seeker can prove they will be tortured upon their return. But it’s not enough for the government to know about the suffering; the government must consent to the torture. Often, Fay says, a person will be asked to prove the intent or mentality of the person who hurt them.
So, in considering the case of Jorge, whose family members were killed in Guerrero, Fay says Jorge would likely lose before a judge but would have an argument to make an appeal. He will need to prove there’s nowhere he can go in his home country. Fay says it isn’t a particularly strong case.
FIRRP was founded to help people who lack representation in court. According to its website, FIRRP “is the only organization in Arizona that provides free legal and social services to detained men, women and children under threat of deportation.”
With a team of lawyers and social workers, FIRRP provides group orientation at detention centers to tell people their rights, about forms of legal relief and how to fight for a bond. FIRRP also identifies those who are traumatized and unable to represent themselves. FIRRP is both federally funded and receives private donations.
Two recent policies are changing the asylum-seeking process. The Migrant Protection Protocols (or Remain in Mexico) was first implemented in January 2019, but only began in Arizona in January 2020.
Under MPP, fewer asylum seekers are being allowed to stay in the U.S. Instead, they are sent to Mexico to await their court date. Fay says the idea of sending people seeking refuge to a dangerous country doesn’t sit well with his understanding of American asylum law. With people dumped in border towns in Mexico, Fay says he thinks cartels will wage violence against these asylum seekers.
From what we heard, it appears some people still end up in detention and others are sent to Mexico to await their court date. Because it’s so new, the effects of the policy remain to be seen.
A second new policy affecting asylum seekers is the third-country asylum rule. As of July 15, 2019, an asylum seeker will be required to have requested asylum in a third country before seeking asylum status in the U.S. A person may be granted withholding of removal in the U.S., but this does not grant permanent residency and gives no status to a person’s family.
Florence Detention Center
I’m not allowed to bring my notebook into the Florence Detention Center because it has a spiral, so I tear a few pages from it before going through security.
Two fences with wire surround the facility, and we encounter locked doors and security throughout what feels like a prison.
The Florence Detention Center is one of five ICE-owned and operated facilities. Other detention centers are privately owned by contracting firms such as Geo Group Inc. and CoreCivic, Inc. While it costs $150 per day to host a detainee at Florence, other centers in Arizona range from $40 to $300 per day.
Originally a bureau of prisons, the Florence Detention Center facility was bought by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the 1950s.
According to Shane Kitchen, assistant officer in charge at Florence, the No. 1 goal of detention is care so an individual can have his or her case heard by an immigration judge. If people aren’t detained, they become a flight risk, he says, so they are held for administrative proceedings and to uphold the Immigration and Nationality Act.
“We’re not here to punish them,” Kitchen says.
One hundred ICE federal employees work at Florence, in addition to 400 contract staff for security. Kitchen says it can be difficult to work for ICE. People are accused of putting babies in cages, and suicide among ICE employees is on the rise. Employees have access to no-cost counseling services.
The day before our visit, Border Patrol apprehended 170 people, Kitchen says, which is about average in Arizona. The number of apprehensions and detentions are down, Kitchen says, adding that at its peak, daily apprehensions reached between 500 and 600 people. In July 2019, every detention facility was full; currently 1,600 to 1,800 beds in the Phoenix Area of Responsibility (AOR) remain open.
Florence can accommodate 392 long-term detainees, all adult males. Cases here include either a notice to appear before an immigration judge—there are three judges on site at Florence—or expedited removals, for which ICE works with local consulates to send people back to the countries they left. A majority of detainees are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Kitchen says, but there are 38 countries represented at Florence.
A detainee will arrive at Florence following time in the ICE holding facilities and will be taken first to the Florence Staging Facility to be classified based on his or her criminal history. This designation—either low, medium-low, medium-high or high—determines where a person is placed in detention. For example, males with either no or low criminal history are detained at Florence. Other area detention centers are Eloy for those with significant criminal history and La Palma. An individual will undergo a medical screening and chest x-ray before leaving the staging facility and being taken to detention.
If detained at Florence, a person will stay in one of the housing units, which surround a central courtyard. Each unit can accommodate 64 detainees and has three basic areas—a common space with phones, tables, a couple TVs and a vending machine, a sleeping area with bunk beds and lockers, and a bath area.
Detainees are given two hours a day outside—there’s a recreation yard with a soccer field, a covered basketball court and sand volleyball.
There’s also a medical clinic and pharmacy on site, operated by ICE Health Service Corps. A detainee will receive a full physical within seven days of arrival. ICE works with EMS personnel to take detainees to local hospitals, if needed. Negative pressure rooms quarantine people with contagious illnesses—on the day of our visit, we learn that one detainee from Guatemala has a rare, drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. Florence also has a psychologist, psychiatrist, social workers and a chaplain on staff.
Detainees have the option of participating in the volunteer detainee work program, helping with laundry, food preparation and cleaning to earn $1 per day, which has potential to add up as it may take up to four years to decide a case.
We walk through the dining area at lunchtime, where detainees of all ages line the perimeter waiting to receive a tray of fried chicken and various sides from the cafeteria window. Detainees are dressed either in blue or orange based on their criminal history.
Kitchen says he’d rather be detained at Florence than a privately-owned facility. While all detention centers are required to meet the same national detention standards, the ICE-owned facilities go above and beyond, with better food and care and preferred vendors, he says, adding the reality of preferred vendors is frustrating to him as a taxpayer.
We walk between holding cells containing detainees from La Palma waiting for visits with an attorney. There are consulate interview rooms and space for private attorney/client visits and family visits. Florence accepts 45 to 50 visitors a day.
Toward the end of our tour, we speak with Bruce A. Taylor, one of the three immigration judges on site. He says it’s not a fun job because he has to tell people no. He works 12-hour days, with most cases taking two and a half hours. Sometimes he sees as many as 12 cases per morning. Other times, a case may take days. Taylor says the U.S. needs more judges to catch up on the backlog.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), there are more than 1 million immigration cases pending in the U.S. Between the 460 immigration judges in the U.S., that means approximately 2,300 pending cases per judge.
Approximately 80 percent of the people in detention at Florence will be deported, 10 percent will be granted asylum and 10 percent will be bonded out. Average bond is $5,000 to $10,000.
Officer Kitchen says while extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures for many migrants, it’s not his job to fix the world’s problems. He’s just doing his job.
“If I was in some of these people’s shoes,” he says. “I might do the same d— thing.”
Rocio Calderon: Trafficked then detained
Rocio Calderon is co-coordinator of Casa Mariposa, a community visitation program for people in detention. But at one time, she was on the other side, detained in the U.S. for more than two years despite being a victim of labor trafficking.
Mother to three daughters and grandmother to three, Calderon came to the U.S. from Bolivia in 2014, intending to work for six months before returning to Bolivia. Offered a job, a free plane ticket and a tourist visa, Calderon arrived in the U.S., not knowing anyone or speaking English. However, she received minimal wages before her traffickers stopped paying her altogether.
When it came time for Calderon to return to Bolivia, Calderon’s traffickers told her she had no return flight. When she complained to the woman who brought her to the U.S., she was threatened, so Calderon decided to report the woman at a California port of entry. However, the Border Patrol officer didn’t believe Calderon, focusing only on the fact she had worked in the U.S. without a permit.
Calderon was arrested and taken to the ICE holding station, which she says was very cold and contained children and adults. She says it was difficult to understand what was happening, and she wasn’t allowed to make a phone call. Five days later, officials told her she had signed deportation papers without her knowledge.
One official believed her, however, and gave her the option of staying in the U.S. and fighting her case. Calderon agreed, thinking she would be taken to a nicer facility, only to be surprised when she was taken in handcuffs to an immigration detention center by airplane. Calderon says she didn’t consider herself a criminal for having worked in the U.S., and once she realized detention was like a jail, she no longer wanted to stay. Once inside detention, Calderon says she realized she wasn’t with criminals; she was with people like herself from all over the world.
Because she had no sponsor, Calderon had to fight her case in detention, where she heard stories of people risking their lives walking through the desert. Some came from extreme poverty. Others had family members killed.
Calderon received help from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which said she would qualify for a T-Visa for victims of trafficking. She waited six months for her court hearing. During this time, she entertained visits from Casa Mariposa and Tina Schlabach, co-pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, which is a financial sponsor for Casa Mariposa.
After a year, the judge gave Calderon a $20,000 bond, but she had to wait another eight months to confirm her eligibility for it as a result of miscommunication. Eventually through church donations and a generous couple in Tucson, Calderon paid her bond and got out of detention after more than two years.
In time, Calderon won her case and received her bond money back, which she used to help others get released from detention. She received a work permit and a social security number and lived at Casa Mariposa until she found a job. Calderon now works in a restaurant in addition to her work at Casa Mariposa.
While she was in detention, Calderon says she wanted to help people but was unable to do so. Her own visits with Casa Mariposa provided relief and solidarity. Now she has an opportunity to help, and she feels called to this work. In addition to visitation, Casa Mariposa sends money, books and letters to people in detention and supports people once they are released.
“We want to see the system end,” says Shalom co-pastor Tina Schlabach, who suggests there are better ways to make people show up in court than by imprisoning them. These include community programs and setting up sponsors before the need arises. Not having a sponsor is a main reason a person is detained, Schlabach says, adding that for-profit detention is costing taxpayers.
Deterrents and border security
Operation Streamline: Illegal entry
If a person does not present at a port of entry but attempts to cross in between, likely trying to avoid detention in order to work, he or she will end up in federal court as part of Operation Streamline, which was started in 2005 to act as a deterrent.
We sit in a Tucson courtroom on a Friday afternoon and see 27 people—four women and 23 men—stand with no shoelaces in their shoes before a judge. A large chain encircles their waists and wrap around their wrists. All are found guilty of the petty offense of illegal entry, and most had crossed near Sasabe, with others entering near Lukeville, Nogales or Naco. One of the 27 had a prior criminal history in the U.S., which included first-degree robbery, kidnapping, unlawful use of a vehicle and weapon and felon in possession of a firearm.
A person’s first illegal entry offense is a misdemeanor but the second is a felony, unless he or she pleads guilty. The person will spend time in federal prison—perhaps 30 to 105 days based on the number of offenses—then is handed to ICE for removal proceedings. If a person has a credible fear claim, he or she may still end up in detention to wait for a hearing before an immigration judge.
Our leaders explain afterward that most asylum seekers present themselves at a port of entry and will not go through Operation Streamline. If a person fears his or her home country, he or she will not mind being in detention.
Border infrastructure tour: Mark Adams
The section of border wall in Douglas, Arizona, was built in 2012. Standing 18 feet tall, the bollard-style fence cost between $2-5 million per mile to construct.
Secured to the wall are four rows of concertina wire. This newest feature was added in November 2018, and is the only result of the current presidential administration.
We walk along the wall with Mark Adams, the U.S. coordinator of Frontera de Cristo, a bi-national Presbyterian border ministry, for an afternoon border infrastructure tour.
Adams talks about how borders are a reality in every-day life: we have skin, houses, communities and states. Instead of focusing on if borders are good or bad, Adams encourages us to think about how we define the border and what opportunity is provided there.
At various times in our tour, we are on both sides of this particular fence. Adams asks us to describe what we see.
On the U.S. side, we see a multi-million dollar high speed all-purpose road running parallel to the fence. A mesquite forest was bladed in this area, which is largely void of activity, aside from the Border Patrol vehicles patrolling the area.
On the Mexico side, however, a busy highway runs parallel to the wall, and the fence itself is painted with murals showing butterflies, geese and whales—symbols of migration.
As we continue our infrastructure tour, we drive along the wall east of Douglas, where the 18-foot fence becomes a vehicular barrier.
Thankfully the morning rain showers have ceased, and we gather in a circle near the top of a hill overlooking Douglas and Agua Prieta to our west. Adams continues with the following history of border security.
The U.S. border security policy was dreamt up during the Clinton administration and extends beyond party lines. In El Paso in 1993, the U.S. implemented “Operation Blockade,” which was the first strategy for blocking people from entering the country and which later became “Operation Hold-the-Line.”
President Bill Clinton made it institutional along the border, starting in San Diego with “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994.
That same year, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened borders for products but did nothing for labor. I admit I don’t fully understand NAFTA and its effects, but it seems that while the border was becoming more porous for goods, it was becoming less porous for people. When Mexico removed tariffs, competition from big businesses caused a push of coffee, corn and bean farmers off the land. According to Adams, in the mid-late 90s, the U.S. economy was booming, but Mexico’s agriculture economy was going down.
In 1996, Clinton signed a bill to increase border infrastructure, and the Clinton administration put up the first steel barrier between the U.S. and Mexico in 1997. The U.S. has added to it since then.
In the distance, looking east of Douglas, we see construction beginning on a new section of wall. The new, proposed 30-foot wall will cost $20 million per mile.
Author Todd Miller
During a visit with author Todd Miller, we learn about the rising costs of immigration enforcement.
In 1994, the U.S. immigration enforcement budget was $1.5 billion. By the late 1990s, the budget had risen to $4 billion.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S.’s priority mission became counterterrorism, Miller says, leading to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). By the end of the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. immigration enforcement budget had risen to $14 billion.
In 2019, the border budget for CBP and ICE was $24 billion, and for 2020, the budget is $27 billion, a 19 percent increase.
In the 25 years since Operation Gatekeeper, the U.S. has also seen a growth in the number of Border Patrol agents. In 1994, there were 4,000 agents. That number swelled to as many as 21,000 in 2012.
Miller also talks about surveillance—infrared surveillance creating a virtual wall, towers, 12,000 implanted motion centers along the border and drones. The National Guard, checkpoints and roving patrols provide layers of border. Official border jurisdictions go 100 miles deep into the U.S.
Miller also speaks of a connection between climate change and migration. No rain means no food, and no harvest causes migration, he says, adding that there are too many factors to say the direct cause.
According to Miller, Mexico has built up its southern border—there’s no wall there, but there is a checkpoint—and since 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the U.S., he says. People walk 150 miles around these checkpoints or get fake documents to say they’re from Mexico.
Miller asks us to consider who borders are for and who they are not for. He says the border protects the U.S. market, not the U.S. citizen.
Miller has authored three books — Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security” and Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World.
Miller’s wife, Lauren Dasse, is executive director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
Agent Erik Miller is one of 19,000 Border Patrol agents. He tells us while he’s in uniform, he has no political beliefs and may not be able to answer all of our questions.
In the Douglas Station’s area of responsibility (AOR), agents like Miller patrol more than 40 linear miles along the border and more than 1,450 square miles of mountainous terrain from Bisbee to the New Mexico state line and from the border to 20 to 25 miles north.
Miller describes a typical day. Following a pre-shift meeting detailing a breakdown of the number of apprehensions and people in holding units, he heads to his assignment. An assignment might include sitting on what he calls a “hard X,” an area with a high number of crossings that can be dramatically reduced by the presence of an agent, or he may be assigned to patrol an area of border. This involves running fence checks to make sure no one has cut or dug under and doing “drags”—smoothing the dirt near the fence to make tracks easier to spot.
Upon seeing a print, two agents may follow the trail with the help of a canine or call the mobile unit. If a person is apprehended, Miller says he may make an arrest or take the person back to the station for identification. A person will then be transported to Tucson and either sent across the U.S. to detention or deported. Border Patrol does not have the authority to determine asylum, he says, which must be reviewed by an asylum officer.
The U.S. Border Patrol was established in 1924. The U.S. Border Patrol falls under U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Having served as an agent for more than nine years, Miller describes the training process. Border Patrol training academy includes four months of learning immigration law, fourth amendment law, physical fitness and intensive Spanish.
The starting salary for a Border Patrol agent is $38,000 and increases about $10,000 each year. In five years, the average agent makes six figures, Miller says.
Miller explains the border infrastructure, which he says has helped secure the border. There are three main types of fences, including the tall bollard fence, the smaller 6-foot landing mat fence and the Normandy barrier for mountainous areas.
The bollard-style fence has reduced crossings, he says, and while people can still cut through it or climb over, Border Patrol has reactionary time to respond.
The infrastructure around cities funnels people to certain locations where Border Patrol can have more resources to direct it, he says. The idea isn’t to make people cross less hospitable terrain, he says, but to get them to cross where Border Patrol can anticipate it.
“Anytime you can increase infrastructure, it will secure the border that much more,” he says, affirming the fence’s effectiveness.
Miller says historically, the number of crossings is going down, crediting more structure and more agents.
According to U.S. Customs & Border Protection statistics, in fiscal year 2019, there were 63,490 BP apprehensions in the Tucson sector, contrasted to 616,346 in fiscal year 2000. Arrests were up in 2019 from 2018’s 52,172.
The cartel controls what goes across the border, Miller says, adding that some areas are primarily for drugs, and others are for people. Based on his experience, Douglas receives more people than narcotics, about a 70/30 split.
People are smuggling harder drugs like Fentanyl, which comes in smaller portions and can be concealed in cargo carriers going through the ports of entry. Miller says as apprehensions of people go down and with more agents on the ground, more secured borders and better technology, there will be a better handle on drugs.
In his view, Miller says the U.S. is a sovereign nation and has a border, but we need to make it easier for people to come here legally. He’s added his own water to stations in the desert and says he feels bad for migrants—stories he’s heard indicate most are fleeing poverty, gang violence or domestic abuse—but his job doesn’t change.
Miller speaks of the high turnover rate among Border Patrol agents, attributing it to quality of family life, long hours, limited healthcare, location and unforgiving terrain. Miller says the suicide rate has increased among Border Patrol. He’s involved in extra resiliency training to look for signs of those in emotional turmoil.
In his own life, Miller says he doesn’t want people to know what he does. People see him not as an individual but as part of a machine. Personally, he uses his commute to decompress each day. He sheds a tear when he says he fears his career choice could negatively impact his family.
Our trip leaders say later Miller is the most empathetic agent they’ve spoken with.
Counting the cost
Richard Johnson, PhD candidate: Financial debt
Migrants may spend thousands of dollars to make the journey to the U.S., so the financial cost is a hefty one.
University of Arizona doctoral candidate Richard Johnson, known as RJ, suggests that border enforcement perpetuates migration because when people get deported, they are in so much debt, they have no choice but to migrate again.
RJ started his research on cycles of debt-driven migration in Guatemala in 2013, where he found that people often took out loans to fund their journeys, which they were then unable to pay if unable to reach the U.S. This caused them to migrate again.
RJ spent 2018 and 2019 in Guatemala doing field work, where he found that the border is a sorting mechanism. Those who make it to the U.S. invest in their home communities, and those who don’t are even poorer than before, creating deeper social differentiation.
If a person gets deported, the stakes are higher, he says, adding that the power of debt is much stronger than the power of the border.
Cartels charge fees to cross their turf, so migrants pay coyote smugglers to act as guides. When RJ was in Guatemala, he says coyotes offered various packages. The luxurious trip, billed to be the safest, cost 90,000 quetzales, or more than $11,000.
Unable to fund this journey on their own, a migrant may take out a loan up to $10,000. They may mortgage their home. By the time a loan is repaid, it’s essentially double. No tipping point is too expensive when a person’s life is useless to everyone but themselves, RJ says.
The price of the journey may increase because of cartel conflicts, increased border security and payouts to cartels from coyotes to move through their territory.
But RJ says increased prices will not stop people from coming to the U.S. They may stop when everyone gets deported, but as long as people are getting in and conditions in Guatemala remain bad, people will keep trying. The Guatemalan government has no interest in stopping migration, he says.
Asked why a person would choose not to invest that money in Guatemala, RJ says the return on the investment might not happen fast enough. If a season of agriculture is bad, there’s no support. It’s not a good investment, he says.
In the last decade, more than 400,000 Guatemalans have been deported, he says.
As the former asylum seeking process is shut down because of Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), RJ says he thinks people will go back to paying a coyote and not come to ask for asylum.
To read more about RJ’s work, read this article.
Maria Padilla: Risking life and limb
The cost of migration is more than financial. A migrant risks physical injury or death along the way, something Maria Padilla has witnessed firsthand in her 25 years of work at a Tucson trauma center.
The Banner – University Medical Center in Tucson receives migrants from the desert, and Padilla describes some of the conditions she’s seen. Some migrants come to the trauma center with broken bones from falling form the wall or shredded hands from falling into the wire.
Others are dehydrated, having drank their own urine or attempting to drink water from cacti and sustaining lips full of thorns. Others come in with sanitary pads in their shoes to absorb blood.
The wall shifts people west, Padilla says, through what she calls the corridor—a 100-mile stretch from Nogales to the Tohono O’odham reservation land that also includes the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. It’s an area of harsh desert.
Padilla shows us a Humane Borders map showing migrant deaths. She calls the corridor a killing field, where thousands of people will die and never be found.
Some of Padilla’s coworkers will call Border Patrol on migrants, she says, adding that others sharpen sticks for people to impale themselves on in the desert or shoot at water tanks.
In contrast, Padilla says her purpose is to show the humanity of migrants. She asks, are we motivated more by fear or by love?
Colibrí: The missing ones
It’s obvious Perla Torres, Family Network director at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, is passionate about her work. With a joyful spirit, she speaks with a sense of purpose about Colibrí’s mission to “end disappearance and uphold human dignity along the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Colibrí accepts reports of missing persons from families. A missing person may be in the desert, in detention or lost in the system—if they wrote their name incorrectly, for example, or gave a false name. Colibrí is the only organization in Arizona with a database like this.
Since 1998, Colibrí has received reports of more than 4,000 missing persons, including reports of 150 missing persons from October to December 2019 in Arizona.
When a call comes in, Colibrí can respond fairly quickly, requesting desert sweeps from non-governmental organizations who occasionally find people alive.
In other instances, Colibrí works with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office to identify human remains using DNA testing and other methods of identification, including tattoos and dental records. It takes between six months to a year to get DNA results and respond to families.
In two years, Colibrí has provided 27 identifications. It’s a way of providing closure for families, Torres says, adding that more than 1,200 bodies found in Arizona remain unidentified.
Colibrí also hosts gatherings for families who have lost loved ones in the desert and provides online spaces for families to connect. It’s a way to bring people together and uphold human dignity, Torres says.
Douglas, Ariz., Cemetery: Unidentified
Linda Knox leads a group of us to a cemetery near the border in Douglas, Arizona, on a rainy and cold Tuesday morning. The border fence is only a short walk from the house where she and her husband, Jack, reside. A retired pastoral couple, Jack and Linda now help accompany migrants to the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, participate on the board of DouglaPrieta Trabajan and serve as Christian Peacemaker Teams reserves.
We pause at the grave of an unidentified female, stepping under the branches of a tree to shelter us from the rain as we hold a short memorial service. Using song, prayer and Scripture, we remember those who have died in the desert.
We light a candle and place it beside the grave of the unidentified woman, pondering the thought that somewhere, someone is awaiting news of their loved one—a daughter, perhaps a sister, mother, friend. Somewhere there is an empty seat at the table, and they may never know her fate.
Healing Our Borders vigil
Continuing in a spirit of remembrance, we participate in a Healing Our Borders vigil Tuesday night.
Since 2000, there have been 320 migrant deaths in Cochise County. A weekly Healing Our Borders vigil seeks to remember them.
Healing Our Borders is an interfaith group organized in December 2000, as a response to the growing number of migrant deaths in a location that was, at the time, the most popular entry point for migrants along the entire southern border.
Carrying crosses inscribed with names of those who have died in Cochise County, we walk slowly along a major highway leading from Douglas to the border.
One by one, we shout the names on the crosses, followed by “presente.” We hold a cross in the air along the highway then place it at the side of the road and fall into line once again. Some crosses have only “no identificado,” signifying an unidentified person.
The vigil, which has taken place every Tuesday since December 2000, started after six migrants drowned in the drainage ditch running along the border in Douglas.
In addition to the vigil, Healing Our Borders focuses on education, humanitarian aid and advocacy.
Alvaro Enciso: Crosses in the desert
The afternoon sun shines into artist Alvaro Enciso’s Tucson home, where artwork hangs on nearly every wall. It’s a fitting end to our week on the border.
Much of Enciso’s artwork incorporates a red dot, symbolic of what has by the end of the week become a familiar Humane Borders map marking deaths in the desert.
More than 3,000 migrants have died in the Arizona desert since 1999, each death marked by a red dot.
Enciso, who is originally from Colombia and came to the U.S. to attend school, is on a mission to bring the red dots into the desert. As part of his “Where Dreams Die” project, Enciso’s goal is to place a cross at every location where a migrant has died in the Arizona desert.
Although it’s a secular project, Enciso says he chose a cross with a vertical beam symbolizing life and a horizontal beam symbolizing death. At the intersection, he places a red clay dot. The project gives people presence and acknowledges what Enciso calls “the constant presence of absence” for those who are left behind.
Every Tuesday, equipped with maps and a GPS, Enciso and his team—he says there’s a wait list of people who want to join him, and he can take as many as 10 each time—carry four crosses, shovels and cement into the desert. He says he’s hiked five hours to reach some remote places. In six years, Enciso has placed close to 1,000 crosses, but he will never finish the work, he says.
When he’s in the desert, Enciso collects cans left behind by migrants to use in his artwork. It’s an attempt to tell the stories that get left behind, he says. What may be to some an insignificant can of tuna or frijoles contains the DNA of the person who ate from them. It’s this intention that forms his art.
The Tuesday before our Saturday afternoon visit, Enciso says he found a skeleton in the desert. It’s the 10th one he’s stumbled across. While migration is down 80 percent, Enciso says, deaths are increasing as people head deeper into the desert.
For some migrants, coming to the U.S. is a last resort, he says, adding, “There’s nothing illegal about wanting to become somebody.”
For more about Enciso, watch this documentary.
Making a difference
Daniel Cifuentes sifts a handful of unroasted coffee beans through his fingers, the lighter color indicating the beans have yet to be roasted.
Bags of coffee beans from Chiapas in southern Mexico fill the storage area behind him, as Cifuentes lists current prices of coffee beans at 2,900 pesos for 50 kilograms ($152) and 4,000 pesos for 69 kilos ($210).
Co-founder of Café Justo, Cifuentes is originally from Chiapas and currently serves as the roasting plant manager in Agua Prieta.
Café Justo is a coffee co-operative based in southern Mexico formed to address poverty and migration from Mexico to the U.S. Its mission is to reduce the migration of coffee growing families.
Cifuentes dumps a bucket of un-roasted beans into the roaster. The roaster holds 15 pounds of coffee at a time, we learn. It takes 7 to 8 minutes to roast one batch.
The coffee is grown in Chiapas, Mexico, near the Guatemala border, in an area that also produces cocoa, mandarin oranges and plantains.
Café Justo offers a variety of coffee, including Arabica, a stronger Robusta, de-caffeinated and various blends.
The local coffee shop next door, Café Justo y Más, is the largest buyer of Café Justo coffee. The coffee shop not only supports Café Justo, it also supports drug prevention and intervention by allowing people who have undergone rehab at the Center for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation and Recuperation (CRREDA), a residential drug treatment center in Agua Prieta, to volunteer at the coffee shop with the possibility of becoming an employee. Many people at CRREDA have gone to the U.S. and been deported, and then fall into alcoholism. CRREDA helps people rehab instead of migrating again.
Café Justo began in 2002 because of a drop in the price of coffee.
Cifuentes tells us the price of coffee in 1980 was 1,500 pesos for 50 kilos, which allowed farmers to provide for their families. But in 1990, the price of coffee dropped to 350 pesos, and farmers started selling and abandoning their land. Youth dropped out of school and started working. Some families migrated to Agua Prieta, knowing there was work with transnational companies as a result of NAFTA. Others began crossing into the U.S.
Cifuentes says he knew something was needed to help prevent people from migrating. A co-op paying farmers a fair price would eliminate the middle man—someone who is dedicated to buy and sell coffee, typically buying at a low price and selling at a high price—and allow coffee growers to export directly to their clients.
To get the project off the ground, Café Justo received a micro loan from Frontera de Cristo to start the business, allowing them to buy a roaster, grinder and computer.
When the middle man dropped the price of coffee to 350 pesos, Café Justo began buying coffee for 1,300 pesos. Recently, the middle man has increased prices, as much as 2,500 pesos for one sack. So Café Justo pays 2,800 pesos, which has helped to improve the local economy.
The co-op began with 25 families and a goal of selling 10 sacks of coffee in a year. Instead of selling 10, they sold 400, allowing more families to get involved. Now, it’s grown to 40 families and they’ve created a second co-op.
As a result, Café Justo has seen families who were in the U.S. return to their communities to be part of Café Justo, and youth have returned to school.
The sun has set on my time in Arizona and Mexico, but the stories linger. I hope that by hearing them, your view of the situation on our southern border has been expanded.
The situation is complex and so are the solutions. In a way, my mind resembles a tangled mess of wire, and I’m unsure where to go from here.
But I do know that putting myself in another person’s shoes is a great place to start. I hope you will say the same.