Westmont Magazine La Caminata
Soon after 9 p.m., about 12 hours after we entered Mexico, we walked into the immigration checkpoint that separates Nogales in Arizona from Nogales in Sonora. One passport scanner didn’t work, but at that hour the foot traffic was light and the line thin. The passage to the United States took five minutes. Less than two hours later, via Interstate 19, we could be in Tucson.
For those without documents, the journey to Tucson usually requires seven to 10 days. It often starts in the hills to the east and west, well beyond the last edge of the four-mile fence that divides the American Nogales from the Mexican one. The pavement ends out there as well, making the terrain more arduous to patrol. Poor migrants, eager for work in the United States, will find guides in the arroyos and canyons, some of them thieves or members of drug cartels. It’s not uncommon for migrants to be robbed or stranded by the coyotes, the human smugglers who often take them into the desert and abandon them without food or water. Even for those migrants who aren’t betrayed by their escorts, the long trek of la caminata (the border crossing, literally “the walk”) through the Sonoran desert presents a continual hazard of dehydration, snake and animal bites, blisters, and wounds from brush, rocks and barbed wire. In the winter, the ground is occasionally frozen, the thorns and cacti masked by snow.
I had come into this region to join a dozen Westmont faculty and staff who were engaged in an immersion experience near the Mexican border. Organized by Cynthia Toms, the trip was an effort to explore many strands of the immigration debate. The Westmont cohort included Brad Berky (Westmont in San Francisco), Dinora Cardoso (Spanish), Jason Cha (Intercultural Programs), Mary Docter (Spanish), Rachel Fabian (Student Life), Chris Hoeckley (Gaede Institute), Cheri Larsen Hoeckley (English), Liz Robertson (Student Life), Rachel Urbano (Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum), and Rachel Winslow (Westmont Downtown). What we saw was unsettling—poignant, enigmatic, tragic—but also full of reminders of courage and compassion. A few days are not long enough, of course, to craft policy solutions to a moral crisis and political dispute that seems to grow more and more intractable. But those hours give the dilemma human faces and leave searing impressions about the need for a “just mercy.”
Before my arrival, several of my colleagues had undertaken a long hike into the Arizona desert, where they found crosses marking sites where migrants succumbed. The Tucson Samaritans, a mission of Southside Presbyterian Church, coordinated those walks. With the consent of border officials, the Samaritans bring water, food, and emergency supplies into the desert. At times they encounter human remains. In the last dozen years, the bodies of more than 1,000 migrants have been recovered in Arizona. So many who are apprehended during the journey immediately need medical attention. Many surrender themselves to get care. About 120,000 migrants were caught in the region south of Tucson during 2012, down from more than half a million in 2000. Some of the professors spoke of the fierce paradox of the scene: the beauty of the wide horizons and red-rock strata matched with the specter of fear and fatality.
Many of the faces we met were exhausted. We spoke with several recent deportees, relying on Professors Cardoso and Docter and our guide as translators. Some of these people were waiting at Grupo Beta, a Mexican government organization that aids recent deportees. Often confused and homeless, they are easy targets for miscreants or the mafia. Others had found a few days of respite at San Juan Bosco, a Christian shelter. We conversed with a 30-year-old man who had left his children with his mother in Mexico, never admitting to them his intent to cross until after his capture. Another 23-year-old deportee had a child on the American side. A teenage Guatemalan seemed to be resigned to return home, his long journey at a dead end. Some teenagers, already deported twice, insisted that trying to cross again was the best way to help their families. One father, now separated from his wife and child for more than a year, asked us to pray for him. We prayed for several people, uncertain of any advice we could offer. Most of those we visited are adrift in Nogales, without work in a city where laborers average about $4 a day—less than half the minimum hourly wage just a 100 yards away in Arizona. Two or more of our conversationalists were clinging to hopes they would get the papers to cross legally, though anyone with a record of an unauthorized entry faces long odds.
Across the boundary, at the U.S. Border Patrol, the young employees faced their own anxieties. Two of our hosts had lived on both sides of the border; they acknowledged that they were children of migrants themselves. In a control room with extensive surveillance technology, agents could spot the slightest movement on the desert trails, though could not tell whether the walkers were looking for work or carrying weapons and contraband. A vast drainage system under Nogales has made it far easier for drug traffickers to create tunnels: more than 100 tunnels have already been discovered under the city. The narcotics business can prey on migrants to be “mules.” In the Border Patrol office, employees were clean and composed in their well-pressed uniforms, but the office décor betrays fears. Midway up the main stairwell, a glass case exhibits a leather belt that stopped a bullet and spared an officer’s life. In the common room we found a variety of brochures advising patrol officers how to seek help should they ponder suicide. One placard, posted twice, urged them to give their best, even if this proved to be the day of their death. It’s far too easy, from our safe distance, to underestimate the costs of a militarized border.
On the Mexican side, the most immediate symbol of that cost is the homespun memorial for José Antonio Elena Rodriquez, a 16-year-old boy shot by a Border Patrol agent in 2012. Dozens of Mexicans have been shot across the boundary, though it’s José Antonio’s image that has come to personify the tragedy. Built in 1994, the fence is a string of vertical iron rods, most rusted, several inches thick and six inches apart. Family members can reach through the cracks to touch loved ones. Young people can throw rocks, and officers can aim guns. José Antonio, apparently an innocent bystander during one rock-throwing episode, was struck down by gunfire on a sidewalk. More than three years later, after the release of an autopsy disclosing that the boy was hit by more than a dozen bullets, the shooter was finally indicted. Nearby, a set of crosses rests close to the fence itself where a vigil for José Antonio was held on Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The image of a lit candle has been reproduced there on dozens of the iron rails, as if the vigil continues night and day.
We also saw José Antonio’s image on a small mural painting on the brick wall of El Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (Home of Hope and Peace), a community center in the impoverished Bella Vista neighborhood. Here, close by a children’s playground, he looks to be jumping rope, though there is no rope visible. What can be seen is a flak jacket, painted carefully on his chest, and a halo and wings, struck hastily with a white spray can. I could not determine if the white spray is the final touch of the artist or the stroke of a later hand, but I was reminded that the claim of innocence relies, as it so often does at violent borders, on the idioms of graffiti.
In the midst of the sorrow and desperation, the work of humanitarian groups—Catholic, Protestant, ecumenical, and secular—provided inspiration. Scott, our guide for the day, is an American clergyman who lives at El Hogar de Esperanza y Paz. HEPAC, as it is known, is poised on a small hilltop that offers a vista over Nogales. In the immediate distance earthen slopes are held in place with walls of stacked tires; three miles to the northwest, the border fence crawls over the undulating hills. To a large extent, HEPAC tries to turn gazes away from the fence, as it strives to build opportunities for migrants in Nogales so that “citizens do not feel that their only choice for survival is to risk their lives in the desert in an attempt to immigrate to the United States.” Jennifer, our host there, described how increased border security—including drones and more extensive surveillance equipment— has prompted many of the poor to become “invisible.” Thousands of migrants come to Nogales with no plans to settle, but as dreams divert they get stuck in town. HEPAC seeks to find them, offer education, free lunches, camps for children, and classes for adults still needing to complete their elementary and high school coursework.
The night before our journey into Mexico, we met with John Fife, former pastor of Southside Presbyterian and the co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. He recalled how early attempts to shelter Central American refugees in Southern Arizona eventually sparked a national network of more than 500 churches that took in those who fled violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Even with the current political impasse, he saw reasons for encouragement in the broad consensus among churches— mainline to Southern Baptist—about key principles in any immigration reform, including the necessity of documenting workers for their own safety.
Most of all, Fife pressed the overriding mandate of Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . .” Few have followed that call more faithfully than Juan Francisco and Gilda Lourereiro, founders of the San Juan Bosco Shelter that we visited during our final hours in Mexico. Thirty-four years ago, the couple returned home to find a homeless Oaxacan woman and child in front of their store. Now, more than a million people have passed through the shelter they founded in one of their spare buildings. Government policy limits the stays to a few days, but the time is filled with showers, meals, and a place to rest. “Political camps vary,” Dinora Cardoso reflected after our return, “but seeing Jesus in the face of the stranger and the poor will be meaningful to most everyone.”
Although our sojourn at the border was brief, what we witnessed there continues to reverberate on campus. The faculty and staff on the immersion team spoke at a Faculty Forum, and Westmont’s Reel Talk film series hosted the showing of “Who is Dayani Cristal?”—a documentary tracing the journey of a deceased migrant back to his Central American home. This fall, the theatre department sponsored the reading of two plays about immigration. There are also plans for another team of Westmont faculty and staff to travel to Nogales to study the dilemma once more.
Political remedies don’t come easily, especially at a time when shrill rhetoric often drowns the nuances of mercy and justice. I came away from Arizona stirred by the courage of those Christians willing to engage the complexity of policy debates without abandoning their first commitment to be agents of grace among the displaced and suffering. I also came away more aware of how easily I can insulate myself from the trials of the refugee. As our Christian liberal arts community engages the issues of immigration—not only at the U.S. border but also around the world—I hope that some of our students will be inspired to pursue the further study, service, and diplomatic endeavors needed to address the human crises at the borders. If globalization has made us more conscious of business ventures that transcend borders, it has also made us more aware that violence, disease and poverty create desperation and dislocation without our own freedom and agency. The political discourse about our borders too often degenerate into caricature and partisanship— a far cry from the imagination and discernment needed to refine policies that reduce violence and protect the vulnerable.
During our time in Mexico, our conversation with Taller Yonke, a self-taught muralist, sculptor, and catalyst for the border art movement in Nogales, powerfully reminded us of human vulnerability. “Border Dynamics,” his large metallic sculpture, is installed as public art on the campus of the University of Arizona quite near where we stayed in Tucson. He had first envisioned the exhibit—a group of four figures, each roughly 14 feet tall—for installation on the actual border fence. The figures lean and press against the wall, their intentions ambiguous. Are they raising the fence, holding it in place, pushing it down, or simply straining against each other? Painted panels on each figure reveal the sinews and tissue below the epidermis; iron-red brushstrokes imply biceps, deltoids, and quadriceps, with streaks of white suggesting the ligaments and tendons clinging to bone. Some observers see the taut muscles as the index of struggle. Others recognize frailty—even a hint of death—behind the exertion. One scholar contends that the prominent ribcages forecast the skeletal remains found so often under the desert sun.
Yonke offered his own slant. When you can see only the raw tissue of the muscles, he told us, you don’t know the color of the skin.