Prudencia Martin Gomez, 18, died in the desert. "By the time they found her body ... it had already been ravaged by scavengers and the elements."
In A Common Humanity: Ritual, Religion, and Immigrant Advocacy in Tucson, Arizona, Lane Van Ham opens with an account of Gomez's memorial ceremony at the site of her death. Death, after all, prompted the advocacy work Van Ham examines.
Economic and political forces swept Mexican farmers from their land and spurred the United States' immigration crackdown in the 1990s. U.S. policies funneled desperate migrants through a desert corridor where more than 1,400 bodies were recovered between 1998 and 2009.
For three years, Van Ham studied the efforts of three organizations—Samaritans, Humane Borders and Derechos Humanos—that formed in response to the dying and now work on behalf of undocumented immigrants. These groups' advocates provide water for immigrants, search for those in distress, commemorate those who have died, educate the community and/or push for immigration reform. While the missions and approaches vary, they all work in a time and place where undocumented immigrants are considered "invaders" by some, and "neighbors" by others. Van Ham writes that "immigrant advocacy has become a controversy in and of itself, in which the participants are pilloried as traitors or criminals and praised as ethical visionaries."
The book examines the response on Tucson's doorstep, while reminding us that the complicated debate over immigrants is a worldwide issue exacerbated by the shifting dynamics caused by globalization. Communities as close as Georgia and as far away as the Canary Islands and Yemen deal with conflicts surrounding displaced people. Various political views are acknowledged, but A Common Humanity focuses on the impulses of those who view our border as both a reflection and symptom of the worldwide divide between rich and poor.
Van Ham says most of the immigrant advocates he interviewed embrace their U.S. citizenship and believe "that the problems they are trying to address can be fixed through government action." At the same time, they are skeptical "about the government's ability to act justly" without public prodding.
Van Ham's work lays out the relationship of religion to patriotism and advocacy. Through his fieldwork, he documents how some advocates are inspired by religious, spiritual or moral imperatives to address the divide. The players have varying beliefs and approaches, but they appear united in hearts and minds by having reached the same answer to the question inspired by both the Old Testament and the New Testament: "Who is our neighbor?"
He explores the "moral paradigms by which participants identify border and immigration policies in need of redress, how they represent those and how they understand their identities as citizens," and asks: "What are our responsibilities as human beings to other human beings? Do these responsibilities apply to all humans, or only particular ones? ... To what social collectivity are we bound and accountable? And what standards do we use to decide the answers to these questions?"
The advocates sustain themselves in part through rituals like the one held on Thursdays at El Tiradito. The gathering serves a variety of purposes. It's a place to share information, recognize those who have perished and offer others a chance to unburden themselves. A volunteer for Derechos put it this way: "I spend my days documenting abuses, and talking to people about and listening to how horrible people can be to each other, and if it weren't for the vigil, where I can just leave that there and pray for it and acknowledge it, I don't know what I'd do."
While Van Ham participated in, as well as observed, these groups, his narrative voice remains unemotional and authoritative. Background concepts and organizations profiled are taken apart like words in a diagrammed sentence, giving readers a chance to see how each segment works toward creating the whole. With its meticulously researched material thoughtfully presented, A Common Humanity would be an ideal textbook. The scholarly language might put some off, but those who push on will be better for having read it.
Van Ham describes his book as "a blurry action shot of a work—or a world—in progress." Some believe that how history looks back on the progress yet to be made will be shaped in part by those who drove out into the desert, gathered in a circle, built the cairn shrine and sang "Peace Is Flowing Like a River" for their neighbor, Prudencia Martin Gomez.