Immigration in the Southwest
by Jen Rock
In the early 1990’s, close to the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. immigration policy heightened security along the US/ Mexico border. Instead of preventing entrance without legal documentation, “Operation Gatekeeper” in San Diego and “Operation Hold-the-Line” in El Paso have merely served as a “funnel”- pushing 52% of migration traffic through the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona (Fernandez, 2007). The route through the desert, used by thousands of migrants every day, is at best a 3 days journey. Most migrants are ill prepared for the terrain and climate. Without appropriate shoes or clothes, food, or water to drink, the journey is extremely dangerous.
Founded in 2004, No More Deaths, a faith-based humanitarian aid organization, works with migrants passing through the southern Arizona desert. Providing fundamental supplies such as food, water, and first aid to migrants can mean the difference between life and death.
Over the course of six days in Arivaca, a small section of the Sonoran desert, our group of seven No More Deaths volunteers saw over 100 migrants. On separate occasions we saw groups of people ranging in size from thirty to one. It is virtually impossible to count the number of tracks we found in the sand, or the number of migrants who left no traces as all. Two patrols happen most days volunteers are at Arivaca, one in the early morning and one in the evening. As we patrol the desert we announce, “Hello, we’re volunteers with the church. We have water and food and medical help. Don’t be scared. We’re not the border patrol.”
The migrants we encountered needed services ranging from food and water to one medical evaluation. The question that haunts the work we do: if we were not out here, who would offer this assistance? One migrant was so relieved to see compassionate help, knowing it was unlikely border patrol would find them in such a remote part of the desert.
In 2005 the U.S. government estimated 473 migrants died in their attempt to enter the U.S. (Fernandez, 2007). These deaths are a direct result of poor policy. The current U.S. / Mexico immigration policy reduces an incredibly complex situation into a simple problem that is solved with heightened surveillance and a fence. It neglects the historical context that migration has on this continent as well as the integral role that undocumented labor serves in our economy. According to the Urban Institute 9.3- 12 million people live and work in the U.S. without legal permission. These same people comprise 58% of the agricultural labor force (Fernandez, 2007). The greatest challenge I found volunteering in the desert, with the limits of the humanitarian aid we are providing, is that we are only one small group in one small area. Right here, in this desert, I can stand in front of this very literal wall. The border is overt and explicit. The majority of the migrants who survive this treacherous journey, upon entry, will surely encounter an entirely different host of far more covert borders.