Following Their Footsteps 

Participants in the Migrant Trail Walk spent seven days reflecting on what it means to cross the border

Everyone in our group of 52 people wakes up at 3 a.m. It's Thursday, May 30, and we are at a campsite on the northern edge of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, approximately 25 miles from the international border and 40 miles southwest of Tucson. The group is used to getting up early, but on this day, with 16 miles to cover, we need to beat our normal 5 a.m. start.

We have already been walking for three days, but this is the toughest day of the Migrant Trail Walk—a 75-mile, seven-day hike from the U.S.-Mexico border at Sasabe to Tucson. This is the 10th annual walk, which brings participants from Southern Arizona and around the world to walk in solidarity with the more than 6,000 migrants whose remains have been recovered in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands since the mid-1990s. The desert south of Tucson has been one of the deadliest places for unauthorized border-crossers.

The point of getting up at 3 a.m. is to get an early start, because once the sun rises in Southern Arizona in late May, it doesn't take long for everything to start to bake. The first three days of the walk have been uncharacteristically cool for this time of the year, with temperatures hovering in the lower 90s. That changes today, as a heat wave approaches that will launch the temperature to well above 100 degrees, creating the deadly conditions that have killed so many people.

After we take down our tents and pack the four support vehicles that accompany us, we begin to walk, many with blistered and bandaged feet. It is still dark and the group walks in two files, most carrying a cross with the name of a person who died on the journey north into Arizona. On this first stretch, the walkers proceed in silence and, for some, in mourning. The ground is soft sand at this point and hard to walk on, with ruts and crevices that aren't as visible at night. However, by the time we stop for our first water break, after two miles, the first soft light of morning comes over the mountains. With Baboquivari Peak to the west, there is a sense of beauty and peace in this place.

However, as the group turns onto Highway 286, which connects Sasabe to Three Points, it quickly becomes apparent that this area is not at all at peace. For the next two days we will walk along this two-lane road, and about half the vehicles we will see are green-striped Border Patrol trucks, sometimes carrying ATVs on long trailers, sometimes with mounted surveillance cameras, and often with cages on the backs used to detain captured migrants. Up the road at the Border Patrol checkpoint, the armed agents ask the walkers about their citizenship, as they do to the passengers in every vehicle that comes from the south. The feeling is not of peace, but of war.

Indeed, the very area that the Migrant Trail Walk traverses is one of the focal points of a vigorous national debate on comprehensive immigration reform, in which border policing has become a high priority. The way the bill now stands in the U.S. Senate, another $6 billion would bolster border enforcement apparatus that already has received unprecedented funds since the mid-1990s. And much of that would be spent on this area of Arizona.

Cristen Vernon, a student from Michigan who is walking the migrant trail for the third time, tells me that "it's disgusting that the migrant deaths are not being discussed in this national debate." It's true. So far, the immigration reform debate continues as if these deaths have never happened.

The Migrant Trail Walk began in 2004 when a small group of people committed to do the walk in response to increasing reports of people dying in the desert under horrifying conditions. It takes migrants at least three days to walk through Arizona's southern desert before reaching Phoenix or Tucson. Most cannot carry enough water for this journey. Stories of people dying—some so crazed with thirst that they try to eat thorny cactus pads—began to reach Tucson with regularity. There were stories of migrant men and women who walked barefoot for days on the hot desert floor, with feet so swollen with blisters that they couldn't jam them into their shoes. Many Tucsonans, such as John Fife, the former pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, began to characterize the situation as a "humanitarian crisis."

So many have died in the desert since 2004 that one of the 2013 walkers, Native American elder Maria Padilla, said the Migrant Trail Walk "is like walking through a graveyard."

Kat Rodriguez of Coalicion de Derechos Humanos underscored Padilla's observation by saying that "few of us who have been doing this this entire time thought that we would still be doing this 10 years later." This year, 77 bodies have been recovered in Arizona through April. On May 28, while the group walked, five more skeletal remains of presumed border-crossers were found close by on the Tohono O'odham Nation. Rodriguez said that even with fewer people crossing in recent years, "it is more likely that you will die now, than five years ago." In the last 10 years, the remains of 2,000 migrants have been recovered in Arizona. Many believe that there are many more remains still to be discovered.

"We don't say it's a failed policy," Rodriguez said, referring to the deaths, "we say it's a policy by design."

It was in the mid-1990s when the enforcement strategy of the U.S. Border Patrol drastically changed, with the agency concentrating resources and agents in urban centers along the U.S.-Mexico border. These places had been traditional migrant crossing sites. The change in strategy funneled migrants into desolate sections of the borderlands, such as where we walk in the Altar Valley. The remote desert was supposed to act as a natural barrier and deter people from crossing, according to officials. "We saw the intentional policy of the United States," said historian Guadalupe Castillo, "to push people into more dangerous terrain where collateral damage, as they call it, would occur." Castillo said that officials knew there would be deaths.

Sasabe, Sonora, native Natividad Cano says that it hasn't always been this way. Cano, who is a substance abuse counselor and lives in Tucson, remembers a time when the port of entry in Sasabe, Ariz., was a one-room adobe building. In the 1960s, when she was in fourth grade, she had to go to school across the border in Sasabe, Ariz. "The officer sitting inside his office would wave us through, especially during the heat or cold. He knew us." I ask Cano if she feels at home in the land where she is from anymore. She says no, "it doesn't belong to the people anymore, it belongs to the government." She says that it feels like an "occupied country."

Cano says that "there is always a sense of fear, even if I haven't done anything." This has, she stresses, directly affected her family and is one of the reasons why she walks.

But for Cano, as for most walkers, the Migrant Trail Walk is also an act of solidarity with the migrants who have died on their journey north. On this fourth day, as the blazing sun heats up the asphalt on the highway, everyone is starting to feel what it's like to travel on foot through the desert as a heat wave approaches.

However, in no way is the walk meant to imitate a migrant's northward journey. Unlike unauthorized migrants, the walkers have access to abundant water and food. Many organizations from Southern Arizona, including BorderLinks, the Shalom House, the Green Valley Samaritans, the Tucson Buddhist Center, No More Deaths and Derechos Humanos, bring lunches and dinners to the walkers every day. There are also medical supplies such as bandages and moleskin to treat blisters. Perhaps the biggest difference between the migrants' journeys and ours is that there is little of the fear that Cano describes. The Border Patrol, for the most part, leaves the walkers alone.

Yet, it is still hard. It doesn't take long for your legs to get tired, or to feel the hot spots on your feet where blisters might emerge. It doesn't take long, especially on this 15-mile day on hot asphalt, for you to feel slightly disoriented, even if you are chugging water at a rapid rate. It doesn't take long, in the heat, to feel slightly out of your head, a situation in which a small injury—a twisted ankle, a cramped calf—could put your life in peril.

When you look at a map produced by the nonprofit Humane Borders that pinpoints the places where migrant remains have been found, Southern Arizona is covered by a thick, red cluster of dots. This is especially so in the Altar Valley and the area stretching west to the Tohono O'odham Nation and beyond to Organ Pipe National Monument. The area where we walk is still one of the most heavily traveled migrant corridors into the United States.

As such, it has been deemed a high priority for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"We first increased the pressure in Texas and in California, and as we succeeded in driving down illegal activity there, it steadily moved toward the middle—toward Arizona, "former CBP chief Alan Bersin said in the Spring 2011 edition of Frontlines, a CBP publication. "As we adopt our operations there, we do so knowing that it's time to clamp down on this corridor. It's time to finish the job."

In March, Mark Borkowski of CBP's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition further underscored Bersin's words. He told anxious industry reps at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix that CBP would be buying technology, particularly fixed and mobile tower systems, to complete the "virtual wall" in Southern Arizona. He also said there would likely be more money for technology in the comprehensive immigration reform bill. Borkowski was not wrong. The proposed reform package has $3 billion designated for surveillance technology, including 24/7 drone surveillance. And there are many lawmakers, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who want more.

From May 29 to May 31, while the walkers traversed 40 miles in increasing heat, the fourth annual Border Management Southwest: Securing the U.S.-Mexico Border with Tactical Strategies and Technologies took place in Tucson. The philosophy of the conference, as defined in its brochure, illustrates how wide the breach is and how deep the tensions run when different groups of people interpret our international divide.

"Today, the U.S. is faced with non-traditional challenges and irregular opponents who work in the shadows and choose not to fight on the battlefields of the past. They choose to exploit our weaknesses in defense and homeland security, of which our Nation's borders play an enormous role."

The conference brought together the "relevant stakeholders" to discuss the "most pressing issues facing the Department of Homeland Security." Attendees included policy makers, military personnel, law enforcement and industry representatives, who discussed border threats facing the United States, and the strategies and policy initiatives of the Department of Homeland Security.

The increasing, yet still somewhat hidden, participation of industry adds a little-discussed profit-making element to the border apparatus. Border protection is seen as a sure-fire growth industry, with billions of dollars at stake. At the global level, the border security industry is estimated to be growing at an annual 5 percent clip.

The U.S. Border Patrol has said that, like Humane Borders, an organization that places water along well-traveled migrant routes in Arizona, it, too, wish to decrease migrant deaths. The agency has placed emergency beacon towers in the desert that can be used by distressed migrants. According to Border Patrol public information officer Andy Adame, speaking to The Observer, the towers, along with the agency's 50-person search and rescue unit, have saved 600 lives in the last year. In the article, Adame rejected the notion that CBP's border security operations have led to an increase in deaths in the desert.

None of the dozens who participated in the Migrant Trail Walk were invited to participate as "relevant stakeholders" in the Border Management Southwest summit.

On Sunday, June 2, 7-year-old Tucsonan Itzel Cozamayotl leads the walkers into Kennedy Park in Tucson, where the 75-mile trek ends. As the first person in line, Itzel holds the prayer beads. Each red bead represents one of the 77 deaths in 2013. Some of the walkers are limping as they walk into the park, with blistered feet, strained muscles and sweaty faces. It is almost noon on a day that will reach 107 degrees.

Earlier that day, at a Bureau of Land Management site on the outskirts of Tucson, the group gathered on a hill that offered a sweeping view of the Altar Valley. In the distance you could see Baboquivari and Kitt peaks, which were constant companions on our journey. Christi Brookes, one of the walkers and a teacher from Michigan, says that "talking about the realities of the Arizona desert to Michigan students puts a face on something that has no face, you know, something that has only come to them from talking heads on TV. It makes them curious, and I can answer some of their questions."

Another walker, Olivia Mena of Austin, Texas, says, "I suppose that someone on the outside might wonder why are these people walking through the desert, what does that really help? But for me, as someone who formerly worked as a border reporter covering migrant deaths—I even accompanied migrants' bodies back to their homes in Mexico—it is important. And when you share in those kinds of experiences, you realize that those are the kind of people who get lost, they don't get an obituary in the paper here, nor do they show up in the public record or consciousness . . . "

Itzel's mother, Marisol Aguirre-Flores, an organizer of the Migrant Trail Walk, says that she does the walk because, "I am able to leave an offering, to offer a little bit of sweat, a little bit of struggle for those people who are disenfranchised. . . . It is important to me to have my daughter raised in a way in which she is conscious that things aren't fair and people are not treated equally, based on where they were born or what they look like."

There is applause from the small group gathered at Kennedy Park as Itzel leads the walkers to the finish line. Itzel told me on the day we walked 16 miles that she was excited "because I wanted to walk the migrant trail for several years, because I just wanted to finish the journey of the person on my cross or any person who died trying because they didn't have enough food or water." At the park, she placed her cross on the trunk of a big tree, finally completing at least one part of a long journey.


More by Todd Miller

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