Desert Ordeal

Activists walk the punishing Migrant Trail

The sun was high in the sky when the Migrant Trail participants neared their final destination, after 75 miles and seven days of late-spring Arizonan heat, with worn feet and heavy hearts. Along Highway 86, they marched, wearing hats and hiking boots and carrying 2-foot white crosses with names like Juan Manuel Ramirez, Marcia Torres and hundreds of others. On many of the crosses is just the word "desconocido"—unknown.

Roughly 60 people, from many states and countries, walked the 14th annual Migrant Trail from Sasabe to Kennedy Park to honor and remember the thousands of men, women and children who've died while attempting to cross the desert through the Arizona-Mexico borderlands and also to bring attention to an ongoing crisis that's persisted for more than two decades.

"This is a group of committed individuals and organizations that gather around this issue of ending migrant deaths in the desert," said volunteer Olivia Mena. "Many of the people have committed to doing this until the deaths end."

The group sets out daily around 5 or 6 a.m. and walks an average of 10 to 12 miles. They have a support team who carry water provided by the human-rights group Humane Borders, driving up the road and setting up a refill water station every mile-and-a-half. They also have vehicles carrying most of their tents, sleeping bags and gear, as well as a trailer carrying two porta potties.

For breakfast, they have light snacks, and community supporters provide them with lunch and dinner.

Their last evening, at a campsite dubbed "hell camp" for the lack of shade and abundance of broken glass on the ground, walkers gather under tarp lean-tos and eat chilli, cornbread, salad and watermelon, provided by No More Deaths.

That night, Kat Rodriguez sat in the shaded gravel and ate half-melted ice cream. She's walked every year and says she doesn't intend to stop until there's an end to the immigration policies that perpetuate the deaths along the border.

"It's not meant to be a migration simulation," Rodriguez says. "We're not pretending to be migrants. We're not pretending any of that. It's just that there's something about walking and being in that space that gives you insight."

She remembered the first year, a participant had to be taken to a hospital and receive fluids because she became so dehydrated. Rodriguez was scared for the young woman as they waited for help. The woman was crying when she looked up at the group gathered around her and said that if they were really migrants, she'd be the first to die.

"We all know that none of us would make it," Rodriguez said. "Pretty much none of us were raised in privilege—the way we grow up and have water and food and some basic securities, none of us would be able to make that trek. It's amazing that people do, and it's tragic that so many end up dying."

The group has gotten way more organized since that first journey. As they walk, people yell out "water" as a reminder to keep drinking, and they even talk to each other about bodily functions to make sure signs of extreme dehydration don't go unnoticed. And if someone does need a rest, they can take a break in an air-conditioned support vehicle.

As the group walked into the final destination, Kennedy Park, they held the crosses high and called out the names of the dead. Community supporters waited for them, with a buffet laid out. Musicians Pablo Peregrina and Ted Warmbrand played songs of peace and finding an end to suffering.

The participants shouted in English and Spanish that they walk and will continue to walk for all the men, women and children whose remains are found in the desert and all whose remains are never found.

A few first-time walkers spoke to the group about why they came and what they learned. Samantha Shipman, from Alabama, told the group that on the walk, she won the unofficial award for worst blister. The group clapped for her as she recounted all the support she got treating her blister while struggling to walk.

"I had a team of support vehicles to carry me when I couldn't walk," she said. "I had a seemingly unlimited supply of water and food from so many people who graciously volunteered to support us on our journey. I had shade, a tent, gear, chairs. And I also had the luxury of not being afraid."

And despite all the support, Shipman said the journey was still really hard. She tells the crowd had she been an immigrant, without a support team, she would have died because of a blister.

"The people who somehow do make it across are friends and neighbors," she said. "People who, just like you and me, want to support and protect their families and live the American dream."

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