Brothers' Keepers

'Crossing With the Virgin' tells the border story from the point of view of the Samaritans

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Border Patrol concluded that the best way to stem the incoming flow of migrant workers from Mexico was to intensify security around border towns, cities and highways—until then, the primary points of entry into the U.S.—and let the intervening desert take care of itself.

After all, as the thinking went, no one in their right mind would attempt to cross such treacherous terrain on foot. However, desperate people often do the unexpected, and in the years since, literally millions of people, including increasing numbers of women and children, have traversed the Arizona desert looking for relief from difficult economic circumstances in their homelands. Most have suffered, and many have died.

However, as long as people are dying in the desert and not right outside of our climate-controlled houses, it's a situation that's much easier for the public to ignore.

In July 2002, a small group of Southern Arizonans decided that this problem was a human tragedy far too great to ignore. Calling themselves the Samaritans, and armed with water, food and medical supplies, they began fanning out across the desert and bringing aid to travelers in distress. Eight years later, the Samaritans, with chapters in both Tucson and Green Valley, continue their indispensable, life-sustaining work.

In Crossing With the Virgin: Stories From the Migrant Trail, three members of the Samaritans share their experiences along the back roads, arroyos and rolling hills of the Southern Arizona desert. Written by Kathryn Ferguson, Norma A. Price and Ted Parks, this book is a moving depiction of the travails migrants often go through once they enter the Land of Opportunity.

What border crossers experience on their way to work is significantly more disquieting than early-morning drowsiness and rush-hour traffic: severely blistered feet; broken bones; rattlesnake bites; exhaustion; near starvation; dehydration and heat stroke; abandonment by their guides; apprehension and deportation by the Border Patrol; and the constant threat of robbery and sexual assault.

And then, of course, there's death. Most migrants who perish—like Lucresia, whose father's determined search for his daughter's remains is the subject of the book's most poignant essay—die from exposure to the unrelenting elements. However, others die more violently, gunned down during battles between competing drug- and migrant-smuggling rings, or, like 16-year-old Juan, while trying to escape from the Border Patrol.

This book does not present la migra, the Border Patrol, in the most favorable of lights. There are isolated stories of unbridled sadism—an agent denying water to parched migrants while drinking in front of them—as well as moments when officers demonstrate genuine warmth and compassion. However, while it readily acknowledges that the Border Patrol has saved numerous lives, this book leaves the impression that a large number of agents are insensitive, macho bumblers.

We also get a clear sense of the personal crises that motivate so many people to jeopardize their lives while coming here. Witness the story of Dagoberto, whose personal economic apocalypse led him on a long trek from Mexico to Nebraska. Once a highly paid executive with Levi Strauss' Mexico division, Dagoberto lost his job when, as a result of NAFTA, the textile plants he was responsible for closed. He ended up losing his home and family, and in Nebraska, eating out of garbage cans and eventually working in a slaughterhouse.

Focused as it is on human suffering, this book is naturally antagonistic toward U.S. border policy. The stories are linked together by a compelling, heartfelt manifesto based on the premise that nation states have outlived their usefulness; the insightful observation that borders are both arbitrary and imaginary; and the argument that the mass migration of Latin Americans to the United States is, like most other migrations in human history, an essentially unstoppable force.

At its core, though, this is not a political book. It's a deeply compassionate exploration of faith as reflected in the many images of the Virgin of Guadalupe that migrants carry with them, and of the conviction that, beneath the all-too-strident rhetoric, we are our brothers' keepers.

"I would be responsible," writes Ferguson of her reasons for volunteering. "It would be as if they had died in my front yard; I would never forgive myself."

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