To our right the desert sunset was a dazzling blaze of gold with streaks of red behind towering saguaro cacti, as my partner Bill, our friend Becca, and I drove south from Phoenix to the Arizona-Mexico border. To our left a glowing, salmon-colored full moon rose and perched on a blue-gray mountain peak. We were on our way to participate with a hundred other people of faith from around the country in a week of prayer and protest, communion and confrontation, organized by the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.
The breathtaking beauty of the moment was interrupted by a bank of glaring floodlights, affixed to an enormous metal arch spanning the other side of the highway, behind which waited a backup of northbound traffic. The Border Patrol checkpoint was chilling, like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie: the blinding lights, a phalanx of agents dressed in army green with weapons at the ready, a drug-sniffing dog running between cars.
People here remember when this border was porous and they crossed over freely to work, visit family members, and share food. But those days are gone. It is now a war zone. Mike Wilson of the native Tohono O’odham people called the Border Patrol an occupying army of his tribal land, which spans both sides of the border. “The militarization of Indian country is a prototype of a military state,” he told us. “What’s happening to us will happen to you.”
I think of his words as I write this, aware that a large caravan of thousands of migrants—women, men, and children, mostly Hondurans—is heading north through Mexico. A group in El Salvador just announced that it is planning another caravan. I applaud their bravery. And I shudder as I imagine what will meet them, daily dogged by a hateful chorus of presidential threats and lies, when they touch our country’s soil.
On our first day at the border, our group witnessed Operation Streamline in the federal court in Tucson. In an hour and a half, the judge sentenced 83 migrants to detention or deportation. They were led into the dark and cavernous courtroom seven at a time, wearing the ragged and sweat-stained clothes they had lived in for days or months, momentarily unshackled but standing with their hands still clasped behind their backs, heads bowed. “The United States versus Rafael Enrique Ramirez.” “The United States versus María Mercedes Hernandez.” On and on it went: the criminalization of desperate people seeking safety and survival.
Later in the week we made a pilgrimage through the desert, carrying icons and flowers, to the site where Miguel Vasquez Lara died of dehydration at the age of 26—one of 3,000 migrants known to have perished in the last decade in this harsh and unforgiving land. We heard the poignant stories of the brave souls of Mariposas Sin Fronteras (Butterflies Without Borders), a group of young LGBTQ migrants who serve their sisters and brothers who have been especially targeted for abuse and brutality in their home countries, on the journey north, and in detention.
In the Mexican border town of Nogales, we visited shelters that serve migrants before and after they attempt to cross into the U.S. They provide a bed, food, clean clothes, and an opportunity to call home. Care is available for battered spirits as well as blistered feet and broken bones. Across the street and up the hill from the shelter named El Comedor, members of drug cartels in condominiums train binoculars and cameras on its entrance to help them decide which women and children they will traffic.
A few blocks away at the border wall, we stood in front of a large mural of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, at the spot where he was gunned down at the age of 16 by Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz. In an extremely rare example of criminal indictment of Border Patrol brutality, Swartz was charged in the teenager’s death. He was acquitted of second-degree murder in April. His trial for manslaughter began today in Tucson. Our group circled for communion, breaking bread beside handprints, angel wings, and words of hope painted on the towering wall’s rusty slats.
As we spread out in front of the Nogales Border Patrol Station, the largest gate on the Arizona side, a parade of huge semi-trailer trucks roared past us, loaded with produce on its way into Mexico. It was an unsettling reminder that the current immigration tragedy has its roots in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA opened the way for the U.S. to flood Mexico with heavily subsidized corn and other produce, undercutting the livelihoods of two million Mexican farmers. The resultant widespread poverty fostered an explosion in gangs, drug cartels, and their savage violence, both in Mexico and Central America, pushing an unrelenting tide of desperate people north. This is a crisis made in the U.S.A.
With Border Patrol agents fanned out across the street from us, we held signs of protest as we chanted, prayed, sang, and read a litany of names of migrants who recently died in the Arizona desert. We listened to a reading of Somali refugee Warsan Shire’s poem “Home,” which has become a rallying cry for migrants all over the world. It begins “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Migrants from Mexico and Central America are indeed fleeing the mouth of a shark. But they are walking into the jaws of a crocodile.