No More Deaths/Kate Morgan-Olsen
Migrants crossing the Southern Arizona desert can die of dehydration if they do not stumble across provisions such as these gallon jugs of water, which were placed near a migrant trail by the faith-based group No More Deaths.
THE SUN SHONE OVERHEAD as we walked through migrant trails etched into the mountainous Southern Arizona desert, looking for the body of a seventy-year-old man. It was a hot afternoon in July, five miles above the U.S.-Mexico border.
For months, I had worked with the faith-based humanitarian aid organization No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths), leaving plastic gallon jugs of water, easy-open cans of pinto beans, blankets, and other necessities along trails sprinkled with clothing, water bottles, food wrappers, cell phones, children’s toys, and toiletries discarded by the hundreds of undocumented migrants who risk the treacherous journey across the border every day. For months, we had found our gallon water jugs slashed and vandalized, and our cans of beans torn open and drained by agents of the United States Border Patrol intent on depriving hungry and dehydrated travelers of life-saving sustenance.
Walking through forbidding desert hills dotted with cacti and mesquite, I dreaded the moment when I would turn the corner and find the man’s remains stretched out under the unforgiving sun. Two days earlier, another group of humanitarian aid volunteers had found an injured seventeen-year-old boy on the side of the road. His group of ten travelers had been scattered by a low-flying Border Patrol helicopter, he said, and he had wandered for days with the seventy-year-old man and a forty-year-old woman. When his companions grew too tired to continue, he tied a pair of red boxers to a mesquite tree and left them underneath, promising to return with food and water. The day after his rescue, volunteers found the body of the woman.
We never found the body of the man, nor did we ever learn his name.
It is well known that Jewish tradition requires the deceased to be buried speedily after death. As the soul returns to G-d, the body must not be left to linger in the land of the living. A Jewish cohen (priest), though normally forbidden contact with a dead body, is commanded to render the honor of immediate burial to a corpse he finds on the street, even if he is on his way to enter a temple’s sanctuary on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Because the human being is made in the image of G-d, to leave the image of G-d rotting in the street (or in the desert) is to condone the desecration of G-d’s name.
Creative Commons/Tomás Castelazo (tomascastelazo.com)
Crosses along the Tijuana–San Diego border wall remind would-be migrants of those who have perished in their attempts to cross over.
According to the Arizona-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition), nearly 180 human remains have been recovered in the Arizona-Sonora desert since October 2011, bringing the total since 2000 to almost 2,500. The number of dead bodies never recovered is undoubtedly much higher. The remembrance of every migrant who has died in the desert — those recovered, and those left to dust — remains as a testament to the horror of U.S. border policy, and bears witness to the cruelest injustice perpetuated by our government on a daily basis.
In the last decade, the United States has been seized by a spasm of anti-immigrant sentiment remarkable for its ferocious nationalism and uncompromising xenophobia. The persecution of neighborhoods, the raiding of workplaces, and the breakup of families by federal immigration authorities has accelerated inside this country. Meanwhile, a policy of increased and selective militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, begun in the 1990s, has strategically sealed off urban hotspots such as San Diego and El Paso to funnel migration into the vast and treacherous expanses of the Sonora Desert in Southern Arizona, deliberately turning the parched desert into a deadly weapon of “deterrence” and casting nearby cities like Tucson into the crosshairs of the national immigration debate. Faith-based communities have a vital role to play in today’s struggle for migrant justice, and in Tucson, they have put their faith into action for decades.
Throughout the history of Tucson’s migrant justice movement, faith-based communities have struggled alongside threatened communities in the barrios(neighborhoods), on the border, and in their houses of worship to effect meaningful and lasting social change. In the 1970s, a multi-faith coalition called the Tucson Ecumenical Council worked closely with a broad swath of community organizations to support undocumented families endangered by Border Patrol and INS persecution, lobby the city to establish social services and facilities for impoverished communities, and raise money to fund legal efforts to fight deportation. Most importantly, religious leaders and congregations cultivated and maintained long-lasting personal relationships of faith and solidarity with undocumented families and communities, involving themselves directly in the struggle to better the lives of neighbors and congregants.
Tucson pastor John Fife, a long-time Sanctuary activist, offers this description of the movement’s origins:
It initially involved some families that needed help, and of course the church was a place where folks were to help with housing, or with food, or with clothes, or with a family crisis, or whatever it was…. There were then, as there are now, many mixed families, where, for example, the parents were undocumented, but the children were United States citizens. So our efforts to legalize or regularize the status of members of those families, who often were also members of our congregation, represented vital work to protect the integrity of our families. But basically what made it all possible were the many solid relationships developed between community-based organizations and faith-based organizations in the barrio.Communities of faith also took a direct role in protest and activism. In 1970, when the Barrio Hollywood neighborhood held a series of marches, protests, and occupations to demand that the vast acres of the elite El Rio Golf Course be partially converted into community-oriented parks and facilities, religious groups sprang to action, holding regular prayer services on the ninth tee as a disruptive act of protest.
Because close relationships had already developed between religious congregations and migrant communities, faith-based groups working in Tucson’s largely Latino South Side in the early 1980s were quick to notice the growing number of refugees arriving in the barrios to escape political violence in Central America. As congregations like Southside Presbyterian Church worked to provide emotional, legal, and material support to refugees, they came to realize that the United States was funding and assisting Central American death squads with one hand, while working to deny asylum to political refugees with the other. A group of the faithful found themselves called upon to act. “Immigration judges were turning down everyone that we would take in to apply for political asylum, and refugees were dying in the desert,” recalls Fife, who was at the time the minister of Southside Presbyterian Church. Fife says Jim Corbett, a congregant in his church, came to him and asked him to consider two historical moments: the emergence of the slavery abolition movement and U.S. churches’ decision to help form an underground railroad to help slaves cross to safety, on one hand, and the almost complete failure of churches to help and protect Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, on the other. Fife says Corbett then declared, “We can’t allow that to happen on our border in our time,” and added, “I’m going to start a small group of folks who can help Central Americans cross the border safely without being captured by Border Patrol, and I believe that’s the only ethical position that people of faith can take under these circumstances.”
No More Deaths/Hannah Hafter
Volunteers provide basic medical aid to migrants injured while crossing the desert.
Six months later, when Border Patrol discovered that networks of worshippers were helping refugees cross the desert and housing them in Southside Presbyterian Church, Fife, Corbett, and the entire congregation decided to publicly defy federal law and declare their church a site of sanctuary, where refugee families could seek shelter while applying for political asylum. Citing as historical precedent the role of the church in the Middle Ages as a site of sanctuary for individuals seeking legal arbitration or protection from state persecution, the Sanctuary Movement also drew inspiration from the ancient cities of refuge of the Hebrew Bible, where individuals could escape from blood feuds or obtain a fair trial if accused of a serious crime. During a 1984 gathering of international Sanctuary activists at Temple Emanu-El Synagogue in Tucson, Dominican Sister Renny Golden said “the locus of G-d in history is discovered among the poor and the oppressed,” affirming that the theology of Sanctuary recognized the Torah itself as a document of migration and exodus, and sought to bear practical witness to its commandment to “welcome the stranger in your midst, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
To explain their work, the pioneers of Sanctuary in Tucson developed a philosophy of “civil initiative,” which they defined as “the legal right and the moral responsibility of society to protect the victims of human rights violations when government is the violator.” The decision to declare Sanctuary was a collective one, assumed by a congregation united in faith, solidarity, and compassion. “Whenever a congregation that proclaims the prophetic faith abandons the poor and persecuted to organized violation,” wrote Corbett, “its unfaithfulness darkens the way for all humankind. And when it stands as a bulwark against the violation of human rights, it lights the way. The congregational obligation to protect victims of state crimes extends beyond our individual civic responsibilities, because only in this kind of covenant community can we provide sanctuary for the violated.”
By 1986, over 560 synagogues and churches across the country had declared Sanctuary, and seventeen cities— including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco— had declared themselves “cities of sanctuary,” instructing public employees not to cooperate with federal immigration agents. By that time, undercover federal agents had infiltrated the movement as volunteers, collecting secret tape recordings of church meetings, conversations with pastors, and worship services. Priests, nuns, and other religious leaders and community activists were arrested, indicted, and charged with federal crimes, only narrowly escaping lengthy prison sentences thanks to an international outpouring of support.
Desert Aid and the Militarization of the Border
By the end of the 1980s, the Department of Justice agreed to end all deportations to El Salvador and Guatemala, grant all refugees from those countries work permits and temporary protected status, and reform the political asylum process. But as the first incarnation of the Sanctuary Movement drew to a close, a new human rights crisis loomed on the horizon. The inauguration of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 made the Mexican economy, and in particular the production of corn, dependent on American imports, sending countless destitute small farmers across the border to find work. The United States responded to these effects of its own policies by cementing key urban sections of the 2,000-mile border with eighteen-foot steel walls, vastly expanding the Border Patrol, and hyper-militarizing the border with state-of-the-art surveillance technology at taxpayers’ expense. These attempts to deter migration by forcing migrants to cross the treacherous desert have not deterred migration, which continues to oscillate in tune with the ebbs and flows of the U.S. economy, but have instead resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 migrant workers and the injury of tens of thousands more.
In response, faith-based communities in Tucson created the organization Humane Borders in the year 2000 to place water stations, marked by flagpoles, in critical areas of the desert. Today, Humane Borders continues to place over 20,000 gallons of water in the desert each year. Two years later, with the death toll rising, the Samaritans were formed as a brigade of medically trained, Spanish-fluent volunteers sent to patrol the desert on four-wheel-drive vehicles loaded with food, water, and medical equipment. Today, groups of Samaritans from cities across the borderlands descend daily into the desert, treating men, women and children suffering from dehydration, malnourishment, broken bones, rattlesnake bites, and, in some cases, sexual assault. Finally, in 2004, No Mas Muertes was formed to establish a permanent humanitarian aid camp in the desert. No Mas Muertes also staffs aid stations on the Mexican side of the border, in partnership with the government of Mexico, to treat migrants deported from the United States.
In 1984, the first international gathering of Sanctuary activists in Tucson affirmed that “Sanctuary is a dynamic movement that is no longer just place but more than place. . . . [it is] an event and a community.” Just as the practice of Sanctuary spread beyond Southside Presbyterian Church into a nationwide movement, so today’s desert aid movement has spread beyond communities of faith, as independent organizations in border towns most impacted by the crisis mobilize resources and form coordinated networks of solidarity and resistance.
In June 2012, a grassroots organization called People Helping People opened the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office in the 700-person town of Arivaca, Arizona, thirteen miles above the border, to offer resources, information, and support to a close-knit community that, in the last decade, has become a battleground of America’s war against migration. The residents of Arivaca, who have lived for decades without a police force or town government, now face the constant presence of drone helicopters overhead, Border Patrol vehicles and checkpoints in the streets, and migrants knocking on their doors day and night, begging for food, water, or shelter.
“I think it’s disgusting living in a war zone,” says Leesa Jacobson, an Arivaca resident, People Helping People volunteer, and Samaritans activist, “and that’s basically what we have here. It’s very incongruous to have so much natural beauty around, and then to have so much human ugliness. . . . It almost gets to be normal to have to go through a checkpoint every time you go to the grocery store, and that’s no good. It almost gets to be normal that Black Hawk helicopters are flying over your head, and they fly low, and you know that people are running for their lives, and getting lost, and that these are the people you will later see turning up at your front door, hurt and sick.”
The Humanitarian Aid Office promotes community-based discussion, education, support, and outreach, and works to spread legal information, material resources, humanitarian aid training, and other services to unite the community in resistance and solidarity. “We have know-your-rights trainings with an ACLU lawyer that are wildly popular,” says Arivaca resident and community organizer Sophie Smith. “We have regular meetings at the office that are incredible magnets for community involvement. And this community resists border militarization in a thousand small ways. People offer their homes for hospitality and respite to travelers in need, people stop on the side of the road to give food and water. . . . Now, having an office in the center of town means that people have a place to go for support when they have issues. The idea is to have a community response rather than a state-based response. Instead of calling Border Patrol, we can help each other.”
Migrant Justice in an Age of Economic Violence
Today’s migrant justice movement in America faces a vastly different political context than that faced by organizers in the 1980s — one marked not by the immediacy of death squads and military dictatorship but by protracted neoliberal economic exploitation. While the refugees who crossed the border then were fleeing U.S.-orchestrated political violence, today’s migrants are fleeing U.S.-orchestrated economic violence. While many of yesterday’s refugees came temporarily to escape brutal dictatorship and sought ultimately to return to their countries of origin, many — though certainly not all — of today’s migrants cross the border to find work and build new lives in the United States.
Today, a plurality of organizations such as Humane Borders, the Samaritans, No More Deaths, and People Helping People work tirelessly to alleviate suffering at the border and in the desert, while broad-based initiatives work throughout the country to strengthen and support undocumented families and communities.
In Tucson, recent xenophobic public policy has banned Mexican-American Studies from the public school system and has authorized police to demand proof of citizenship for even the most routine traffic stop, as the Border Patrol continues to terrorize the city’s proud, vibrant, and resilient barrios. In response, grassroots organizations such as Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition), Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty), El Cora zón de Tucson (The Heart of Tucson), and countless others offer legal representation, support networks, and other vital services for families threatened with deportation, while advocacy organizations such as We Reject Racism, U.N.I.D.O.S., and Fuerza! work to raise awareness and influence public policy around specific issues. Activists and organizers continue to pressure the Tucson Unified School District to lift their ban on ethnic studies courses, while shops, restaurants, and homes throughout the city proudly display “We Reject Racism” posters to passersby, affirming their solidarity with Tucson’s Latin American community.
From the Sanctuary Movement to No Mas Muertes, faith-based resistance in Tucson, too, has changed within this evolving political context. While yesterday’s congregations openly defied federal law, today’s religious activism in Tucson, from faith-based desert aid organizations like No More Deaths to church-based day laborer centers like the Southside Worker Center at Southside Presbyterian Church, commits itself primarily to community support and humanitarian aid within the parameters of law. Nationwide, the New Sanctuary Movement functions as an invaluable organizing platform for congregations to resist the criminalization of migrants, support undocumented communities and advocate for political reform.
“Today, the war in poor countries is more economic than military,” said California Sanctuary veteran and New Sanctuary Movement activist Ched Myers shortly after the New Sanctuary Movement’s founding in 2007, “but the casualties are the same: families pushed and pulled from their homes by the displacing forces of globalization. . . . We are again confronting a painful landscape of human suffering, which again offers our religious congregations an urgent opportunity to practice our faith.”
In the 1980s, faith-based communities in America practiced Sanctuary with a long-range perspective. “Today,” they reasoned, “we provide shelter for the refugee in the hope that tomorrow, through the combined efforts of the entire movement, justice may prevail.”
Today, faith-based migrant justice activism in America — whether it takes the form of a gallon jug of water in the desert, a day laborers’ center in the barrios, a protest on the streets, or an entirely new social movement — continues the tradition of civil initiative, bearing witness to what Sanctuary founders described as “the legal right and the moral responsibility of society to protect the victims of human rights violations when government is the violator.” Like the Tucson Ecumenical Council in the 1970s, congregations today must apply themselves directly to the issues facing their local undocumented communities. Through forming interfaith coalitions, building networks of material and spiritual support with community organizations, raising aware ness, and taking direct action against deporta tion, racial profiling, and all other forms of anti-immigrant xenophobia, faith-based communities can amplify the movement for comprehensive immigration reform, bearing prophetic witness to the words of Leviticus: “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).