As immigration debate heats up, clergy focus on Arizona desert's death toll

As immigration debate heats up, clergy focus on Arizona desert's death toll

April 30, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

Tragic cat-and-mouse game continues

TUCSON, Ariz. - Every day, thousands of men, women and children from Mexico and Central America attempt to cross the border into Arizona. They travel hundreds of miles, often on borrowed money. Some come with the promise of a job. Others come to rejoin family. Many are Christians, carrying with them religious symbols, Bibles, or pictures of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas. Like the ancient Israelites, they believe God is with them on this journey.

There is no Red Sea to cross, only the vast Sonoran desert. Out here, Baboquivari - the foreboding sacred mountain of the Tohono O'odham nation - towers over grasslands. Thorny scrub trees offer little shade, and gnarled cacti beckon with spiky arms and fingers. Rattlesnakes wait for the cooler night hours, when the coyotes raise their voices in an otherworldly howl. Coyotes of the human variety, part of the increasingly lucrative human smuggling business, lead groups of migrants through this terrain. Sometimes, these "coyotes" prey on their human cargo - stealing their money, raping the women and girls and abandoning the weak and injured who can't keep pace.

Migration through the Sonoran desert has increased rapidly since the late 1990s, when tough border enforcement measures at urban crossing points forced migrants into the outlands. Back then, the architects of the Border Patrol strategy predicted the hazardous terrain would be a deterrent. They couldn't have been more mistaken. And so began the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and those who cross the border illegally.

Right in the middle of it

Sahuarita, Ariz., was once a quiet, family-oriented community about 35 miles north of the border. Now its streets are a daily battleground between Border Patrol, drug dealers, smugglers and migrants. "Down here, we're right in the middle of it," says the Rev. Randy Mayer, pastor of Good Shepherd UCC. One recent afternoon, as Mayer's children were boarding the school bus to go home, Border Patrol agents chased a man across school property as a helicopter hovered overhead.

In such frustrating circumstances, it would be easy to blame the problems on the migrants themselves. But Mayer doesn't see it that way.

"At some level you have to step back and say, 'Something caused this.' We have to go back to the cause. You can't just build a fence," Mayer says, referring to a proposal passed by the U.S. House of Representatives calling for the construction of a 700-mile wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

"This is an economic problem," Mayer explained. "We supposedly created free trade agreements. They must not be very fair if they are creating these desperate conditions," he said.

'People made poor'

The Rev. Delle McCormick, a UCC minister, has watched the situation develop from south of the border, having spent most of her vocational ministry among the people of southern Mexico.

McCormick served as a missionary in Chiapas for Global Ministries on behalf of the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from 2000 through 2003. There, she brought healing to men and women who suffered the violence of crushing poverty as well as the "low-intensity" war in Chiapas. Before that, she was the director of an immersion program at a retreat center in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

It was a conversion experience on a reverse mission trip to that same retreat center, years earlier, that led McCormick from the wealth and comfort of upper west side Manhattan to selling produce at a farmer's market in Pennsylvania, then on to seminary and back to Mexico.

McCormick now lives in Tucson and is executive director of Borderlinks, a bi-national organization offering educational trips that include living with families in Mexican border towns. Like Mayer, she sees an unmistakable link between U.S. prosperity and the poverty to the south.

In speaking about the plight of the people of Central America and Mexico, McCormick uses the term "people made poor."

"They are made poor by people, not by God," McCormick explains. "I use that language to challenge people to think about the movement from one place to another - how they got there . and also, how we're complicit in their being made poor."

Our economy is based on what they call in Latin America gente desechable, or "disposable people" - a justice issue in and of itself, says McCormick.

The term "illegal alien" is another way of refusing the humanity of the migrant, say many border activists and human rights advocates.

"No human being can be illegal," says Liana Rowe, associate for Justice and Witness Ministries with the UCC's Southwest Conference. "This society would like to demonize these people to the point that they're not human any more."

Is humanitarian aid a crime?

Since 1999, the number of people dying in the desert has climbed steadily. Last year, 279 died in Arizona, not including those whose bodies were never found. Seventy-five deaths occurred in July alone.

"Morally, there is no way we can turn our heads," says Mayer. For the past five years, Good Shepherd UCC has maintained water stations for Humane Borders, a group that puts tanks of water in the desert. Three years ago, the church began holding border issues fairs to educate the community. This led to the formation of a Samaritan Patrol group to drive the desert roads looking for migrants in distress. They operate 4-5 days a week and usually include a medical professional and a Spanish speaker. They take along food, water, clothing and medical supplies, and often encounter migrants in need.

McCormick and Rowe are both firm advocates of faith-based efforts to stop the desert deaths.

Borderlinks trip participants may travel the desert with Humane Borders. Rowe is a longtime Humane Borders volunteer and helped found No More Deaths - a coalition of faith-based and human rights groups that maintain base camps in the desert from May through September, offering emergency first aid and sustenance to migrants in distress. Mayer's congregation supported one camp by bringing home-cooked meals weekly to volunteers.

As humanitarian efforts ramped up during the last six years, the groups communicated regularly with the Border Patrol. Each let the other do his or her job, and sometimes, Border Patrol agents would allow humanitarians to care for migrants rounded up for deportation. But when the Border Patrol got a new Tucson sector chief, the relationship deteriorated, Rowe said.

Last July, two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested for evacuating three migrant men in need of emergency medical attention. The volunteers followed the group's long-established protocol, which includes calling a volunteer nurse or doctor about whether to transport a person to a Tucson hospital.

The arrests are a misuse of laws intended to target human smugglers, Rowe says, and the goal is to make people afraid to help migrants. "People who would follow their Christian teachings and offer assistance are afraid to offer so much as a cup of water or food to anyone they encounter. If they find someone in a ditch at the side of the road, they are afraid to stop and help," Rowe says.

A trial is scheduled for April 25. The volunteers, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, are charged with two felony counts each, and could face up to 15 years in prison.

Mayer, McCormick and Rowe are concerned about the trial. "This is not about legal or political posturing over who can be in the desert and who can't," says Rowe. "This is a religious and ethical mandate to us to be out there helping people who are dying in a desert that's inhospitable."

Meanwhile, the desert gets hotter, and the people keep coming. While migrants were once mostly men, volunteers are now seeing more women, elderly people and even unaccompanied children, Mayer said.

Crossing the border is supposed to be a misdemeanor, based on the way the law is written, Rowe said. "But it effectively carries a death sentence."

Rebecca Bowman Woods is news editor for DisciplesWorld magazine.

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