Humanitarian aid as an atheist

Out here on the border, social change and spirituality seem to be closely linked. Almost all of the migrant aid centers on both sides of the line are organized by churches, and while the group I’m with, No More Deaths, is secular, it has its roots in Tucson’s Unitarian Church and Catholic liberation theology. This is nothing odd—there’s a long history of religion inspiring social work and activism. Jesus was pretty clear about that whole “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” thing, and there have been no shortage of church-organized homeless shelters, Catholic orphanages and some pretty radical priests talking shit about capitalism since then. Worldwide, it’s not all Christians, either, and if I were better informed about other religion, I’m sure I could come up with dozens of other examples from all over. The desire to help the less fortunate in the world is often seen as a key part of a deep spiritual calling.

My companions for these two weeks are all Christian. I’m with one other No More Deaths volunteer—a Unitarian minister from Georgia named Jeff—and the shelter we’re working with is run by a guy named Phil who lives here in Agua Prieta and is Episcopalian. I asked Phil yesterday about the preponderance of faith-based aid out here, and told me that in his experience, people who don’t come from a faith tradition tend to burn out doing this work faster.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I think it’s hard to deal with the suffering out here without some way to make sense of it,” he said.

He’s not wrong. Last time I was on the border, I was out in the desert putting out water and food for migrants crossing. I went out there expecting to find tragedy, a misguided series of policies which united in a particularly deadly way in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona. What I found instead was deliberate cruelty, overt racism and a series of policies which were explicitly designed to funnel people into the desert, knowing they would die there. Many No More Deaths facilitators describe the Arizona borderlands as a low-intensity war zone, and that’s how I felt during the brief time I was there.

When I went home, it was hard to process all of this. I withdrew from my friends and spent a lot of time drinking while trying to write about what I’d seen. I had days where I couldn’t fathom the thought of being happy, because it seemed so wrong, knowing what I’d seen, knowing that what I had seen was such a small chunk of the whole picture. And I absolutely had nights where, lying in bed with tears running down my face, I thought, “I really wish I believed in God right now. I wish I had some way to convince myself that this would all be okay.”

That’s the thing about being an atheist. Because I don’t believe in God, I also don’t believe in absolute justice. I believe all kinds of evil people die and get away with the evil things they did. I don’t think Ted Bundy and Adolf Hitler are spending eternity in hell being punished for the lives they took—they’re just dead. I don’t think those who have been made to suffer in this life have any greater reward waiting for them, and I don’t think the scales balance in the end. The suffering I see on the border isn’t part of God’s plan or the result of our sin. It’s just awfully, cruelly wrong.

For me, knowing there’s nothing after death makes fighting for this world all the more important. Religion was used in the Middle Ages (and still is by some people today) to justify poverty, to keep the poor from rebelling by telling them that if they just stayed quiet and accepted their fate, they’d be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams once they got to heaven. I would argue that religion still fulfills that function in many parts of the world, at least for some people. For me, this world is all we have, so we’d better make damn sure it’s a good one for everyone. We’re not going to get a second chance. There’s no heaven waiting for us, nothing perfect after we die, so it’s that much more important to keep working towards a better earth.

It’s this thought that keeps me going, and it’s that thought that’s going to make these weeks a challenge. I think partially because of their belief in the afterlife, a lot of Christian work is centered around aid and charity. Feed the poor. House the homeless. Minimize suffering. Run a shelter. Here in Agua Prieta, I’m going to be working in a shelter which provides services to migrants who have just been deported. It’s important work, and I’m grateful that people are doing it. Putting water in the desert is important, life-saving work, too. But none of it gets at the structural, the systems that make these things necessary in the first place. Food banks are awesome, but anyone who thinks they’re solving hunger or poverty is naive at best.

This is the challenge of activism in the world today, and it’s all the more stark for those of us who think that death is just death. We need to make sure people have food today and migrants have a place to get medical care today. But if that’s all we do, we’re not making any progress. We have to find some way to make life better, measurably, systematically. I don’t know what that looks like yet, and I don’t know if the next two weeks will give me many ideas. What I do know is that as long as this wall is here, as long as we build our nation on racism, exclusion and the backs of poor people the world over, what we’re doing is absolutely, unequivocally wrong. It’s because of, not in spite of, my atheism that I feel called to work for as long as I need to to change that.


The U.S.-Mexico border: a brief history

I’m going to be writing a lot about the border in the next month as I work with No More Deaths and delve into my thesis research. I want to make this blog as accessible as possible for people, so this post is an attempt to explain the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border as I understand it and the issues I have with our immigration and drug policies. If you have no idea what I’m ranting about, start here. This post assumes you’re not already horrendously racist and/or categorically opposed to migration. If you are, you should probably stop failing at life.


(A vastly oversimplified) history
The Southwestern United States was part of Mexico until it was ceded in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War (which was basically a war where the U.S. invaded Mexico to steal land as part of Manifest Destiny). An addition chunk of land, mostly in Southern Arizona, was purchased by the U.S. in 1853 (the Gadsen Purchase) to allow for the completion of the intercontinental railroad. The effect of these two land grabs was that many Mexican nationals became part of U.S. territory overnight. There’s also an entire history of indigenous people in this area that I still don’t know a ton about and won’t get into here. But if you want a bit more detailed history, my good friend Madelyn did a wonderful summary on her blog while she was working with No More Deaths.


Migration patterns
Migration between the United States and Mexico has been happening for a very long time, with a lot of overlap between people, racial groups, etc. along the border. (For a solid history, check out this book.) Mexican nationals migrated to the U.S. in large numbers pre-1930s, often to work in agriculture. The Great Depression and the lack of work led to racism and a call for Mexicans to go back to Mexico (sounds familiar), which led to a huge exodus of workers.

Once World War II started, the U.S. began the Bracero Program to combat the labor shortage caused by so many men being off at war. Many Mexicans came to the U.S. on a contract basis to work in agricultural labor, and many were able to become naturalized during this period. The Bracero Program was popular and continued to be renewed until 1964. Many people were crossing without documents during this time as well. The border itself was relatively permeable, and many people, especially men, would come work in the U.S.  for a few years, save money to bring home, and then return to Mexico.

In part because of the horrendous labor conditions revealed on many farms using Bracero workers, and in part because of general racism and xenophobia, U.S. restrictions on immigration have tightened since then. It’s virtually impossible currently for a Mexican national to get a visa without family already in the U.S., unless they have a job skill set we’re looking for (we’re talking M.D., Ph.D. and the like). The current wait to get a visa for a Mexican national with a close relative living in the U.S. is about twenty years.


NAFTA and economic policies
The restrictions on legal immigration haven’t slowed migration to the U.S. by very much. A lot of people have blamed the tide of people crossing on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Signed in 1994, NAFTA lowered all kinds of tariffs and trade barriers between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. One result of this was the flooding of Mexican markets with cheap, subsidized corn from the U.S., which put many rural Mexican farmers out of work, forcing them to migrate to find work.

NAFTA also pushed forward existing Mexican efforts to industrialize the border. Mexico began a border industrialization program in 1964, when the Bracero Program ended, as a way of dealing with all the unemployed young men who were coming back to Mexico. The program aimed to build factories called maquiladoras on the border. Many U.S. companies saw the maquilas as a good investment opportunity, and mostly foreign corporations built a bunch of factories in Northern Mexico right along the border.

NAFTA’s lack of labor and environmental protections continued to make investment in Mexican factories a good economic calculation for U.S. corporations. The growth of maquilashas led to an internal migration within Mexico, as people from central and southern states head north in search of work. The dismal working conditions and low pay, plus the fact that many factories prefer to hire women (they’re thought to be more pliable/compliant, and can be paid less), ends up pushing people into the U.S. as well.

There have been a lot of arguments between people who know much more about this than me about the real effects of NAFTA. Based on the research I’ve done, it seems reasonable to say that blaming NAFTA for our current wave of migration is a bit ahistorical, since migration has been such a key part of U.S.-Mexico relations for hundreds of years. However, it did push a lot of people into poverty, and accelerated existing migration patterns.


Border enforcement
Starting in 1994, the U.S. government began building sections of a border fence in Texas, with the goal of stopping unauthorized migration in urban areas. Various sections of the fence were expanded in the mid-90s, through Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line and Operation Safeguard.

While the stated intention of these policies was to reduce migration, the actual effect was to push migration away from urban areas and into the deserts. Initially, government officials and the Border Patrol said no one would be stupid enough to try to cross through the Arizona desert. Then, they said that they accepted human deaths in the desert as a consequence of border enforcement. Policy became to funnel migrants into a few dangerous areas of desert, including the Altar Valley of Southern Arizona, where No More Deaths works. No More Deaths estimated that there are 300-800 yearly migrant deaths in the Arizona desert alone, largely from dehydration.

Since September 11, the border has been increasingly militarized in the name of national security. Border Patrol has more boots on the ground than at any time in U.S. history, and more and more fence is being built. There are now Border Patrol checkpoints throughout the Southwest—places where officers look into passing cars, make sure nobody’s brown, and ask for papers if you “look” undocumented. The language of the Border Patrol is very military and focused on gaining “operational control” of the border. Most of the people I’ve spoken to who live in and around Tucson and the border towns near it feel as if they’re in a war zone, and that was the impression I got during my last trip down here. Migrants are systematically abused while in Border Patrol custody, and many have died in immigration detention facilities.

Cynics have referred to the militarization of the border as a “Marshall Plan for Mexico.” The Marshall Plan was an economic aid package to post-war Europe that helped get the manufacturing sector back on its feet and is credited with helping to avert the worst of economic catastrophe. Ironically, the U.S. has spent approximately the same amount as the original Marshall Plan on border enforcement with Mexico.

Border enforcement has also has a number of negative environmental impacts. The desert Southwest is a key ecosystem, and serves as an ecological bridge between temperate and tropical zones. It’s also very fragile—wagon wheel tracks from the 1800s are still visible in sections of the Sonoran. Virtually all U.S. environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates environmental reviews for projects, as well as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, have been exempted within a certain number of miles of the border. Currently, there is legislation pending in Congress to extend these exemptions.

The road-building and off-road patrolling of the Border Patrol have disrupted hydrology and shrunk habitat for many endangered species in the area. The border wall itself also fragments habitat, disrupting the migration of many keystone wildlife species. As climate change worsens, animal migration will become ever more necessary, and the impacts of the wall ever-more-severe.


Undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The stepped up border enforcement has been matched by an environment which is increasingly racist and overtly hostile to migrants once they arrive in the U.S. There have been expanded efforts to establish partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency which handles deportations for people in the U.S. Most notably, the Secure Communities program aims to make sure that every person arrested for any crime in the U.S. also has their immigration status checked. The stated goal is to prioritize the deportation of violent felons, but many, many more people are deported for things like petty theft and minor traffic violations.

Laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, which essentially criminalized being brown in public, have left many immigrants who have documents afraid to go out in public or drive cars. These policies end up deporting many people who have been in the U.S. for years and have children who are U.S. citizens. They also create hardships for mixed-status families.


Drugs, guns and cartels
A lot has been made of the violence along the border and the drug wars going on in Mexico. This is an area of policy I’m less familiar with. My understanding basically boils down to the following points:

  • The increased number of people, especially young men, involved in drug cartels is a direct consequence of the lack of other economic opportunities available in many parts of Mexico
  • Drug-related violence is often fueled by guns and other arms which enter Mexico from the U.S.-something our policymakers really don’t want to talk about
  • Drug cartels now have a virtual monopoly on human smuggling as well. It’s almost impossible to cross the border without paying a guide (a polleroor coyote) from a cartel thousands of dollars. Migrants are often forced to carry drugs as well.
  • Drug-related violence on the border, while a very real problem for many people, has been sensationalized and in some case overstated in the U.S. media to make a case for increased border enforcement.



By every reasonable metric—logic, fiscal efficiency, compassion, respect for human life, sustainability—our border policy is a miserable failure. People continue to die in the desert. Drugs continue to cross the line. Habitat continues to be fragmented. And outside of the military industrial complex, which profits from building and monitoring the fence, and the prison industrial complex, which profits from throwing more and more brown bodies behind bars, no one benefits from this system.

In summary, the U.S. strategy for dealing the border is profoundly flawed. It utterly fails to consider the roots of migration and drug trafficking, and refuses to examine the U.S. government’s complicity in fueling these trends. It doesn’t consider the intersections between economic policy, border industrialization, history, migration trends, and drugs. It is ahistorical and fails to consider the humanity of the people it impacts. It is fuelled by and perpetuates a racist society.

I’m going to be writing about these issues a lot more, but I hope this is helpful as a jumping off point. If you want to learn more, check out some of the links and books I’ve referenced in here.

The thesis explained

This blog is often bad about talking about my real life, but I’m going to try to be better about that this summer, especially while I’m here in Arizona working on my thesis. Basically, I decided to try to do as much work as possible on my senior thesis this summer, because next year I’m going to be editor-in-chief for the Pioneer, which is a 40-60 hour a week job. So my options for actually devoting time and energy to my thesis narrowed down to do-it-over-the-summer pretty quickly.

I’ve floundered on topics for a while. I started out thinking I’d do something about food politics in Walla Walla, possibly looking at food choice and poverty in supermarkets (original, right?). Once I realized that was some privileged bullshit and not ultimately very useful, I thought I might go back to Ecuador this summer and do more work around the mining conflict in Intag. But the prospect of trying to organize and pay for that trip was daunting, and I realized I needed more than a month to do that story justice (and wanted to spend at least part of the summer in Walla Walla working on some personal projects). Around that time, I went to the border to work with No More Deaths and came home very angry and inspired to learn more. Since then, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about border politics and history and race in the U.S.

I talked to Aaron, my advisor, and he suggested doing a thesis looking at the Sierra Club’s stance on immigration. The Sierra Club has a very fraught history with immigration, going from a staunchly anti-immigration position (as a way of preventing U.S. population growth) to a neutral position, to current opposition to the border wall and other aspects of border enforcement policy.

I liked this as a starting point for a few reasons. My degree will be in politics and environmental studies, so I need to do something related to both. I also think that while personal stories of undocumented immigrants and the horrors of Border Patrol abuse are interesting, they’ve been done well by other groups. And I liked the idea of a thesis project that totally related to the border, but didn’t rely on interviewing marginalized people and asking them, “How much does your life suck right now because of my government being racist and generally terrible at life?”

The gameplan now is to spend a few days in Tucson doing interviews with any and everyone who has thoughts about immigration and the environment, then volunteer with No More Deaths for two weeks in Agua Prieta, Sonora, with migrants who have just been deported. Then I’ll be back in Tucson for about four days to do more interviews with local environmental and human rights/border organizations.

I had my first two interviews today and I’m already so excited to dive into this project. Aaron told me that if I want, I can do my thesis as a piece of longform journalism (with an accompanying literature review). I’m basically approaching my conversations with different activists and environmentalists in Tucson as part of an extended journalism project, and I already have so many great things to think about. Tomorrow, I have at least one more interview, plus a whole list of new people to contact. There are so many angles and issues to explore, from whether environmental groups can form effective coalitions with civil society groups advocating immigration reform, to the discourse over the environmental degradation caused by Border Patrol activities in the desert. I can tell that narrowing this thesis into a real topic is going to be a challenge, and I’m really looking forward to sorting it all out.

Six stories from the borderlands

One short week, spent sleeping nestled between mesquite bushes and barrel cactus, driving nearly impassable dirt roads by day, and here I am back in Tucson. I have ideas and issues and ideology to wrestle with, and if you’re at all interested in immigration or politics more generally, you’ll have a lot of reading to do in the next few weeks. But for now, while I’m still here, I wanted to share a few short stories from the Arizona borderlands.

1) I meet a man in Nogales. Not a man, I suppose—he’s more or less my age, though substantially taller. Sarah introduces me to him, saying that he’s from a town near my college. We talk for a minute—I’m always excited to meet people who have heard of Walla Walla, Washington. I ask him a few questions about where he grew up, and we part ways.

Later, Sarah tells me that he grew up near me, but was deported last year—caught in a traffic stop. He has no legal way of getting home, no means of re-entering the U.S. I cringe at the thought that in a few days, I’ll step onto a plane and be back home in a matter of hours. There’s a bitter taste in my mouth for the rest of the afternoon.

2) I find myself cooking dinner with a group of anarchists. It’s much like cooking dinner with any group of young people. We have the radio cranked to play the latest in terrible pop music, and we relax into the ease of self-deprecation while waiting for the onions to brown. Any time our limited camp kitchen resources create a challenge, someone feels compelled to blame hierarchical systems of oppression.

“You guys, the patriarchy is burning the quesedillas again.”

Someone else chimes in. “Fucking patriarchy ruins everything.”

We all laugh, and someone suggests adding noodles to the soup. I’m not a huge fan, so I cross my forearms in an x front of my chest—a block. It’s used in consensus circles to indicate irreconcilable disagreement with something being proposed. Here, though, we’ve resigned ourselves to the irony of having a trip run by leaders (or “facilitators”) who don’t believe in hierarchy. The noodles go into the soup. I have a bite, and find to my surprise that it’s not so bad after all.

3) Walking, I notice suddenly that the signs are all in Spanish. I turn to my right.

“Sarah, are we in Mexico?”

She nods.

I’ve walked into Nogales without being asked to stop, show my passport, prove my citizenship or answer questions about my intentions.

On the way back stateside, standing in line, I snap pictures of the trucks lined up and waiting to enter. A Customs and Border Patrol agent snaps at me, telling me to stop. I apologize, saying I didn’t know. I assume this is the end of it, but I reach the front of the line. The man waves me forward and takes my passport.

“What were you taking pictures of?” he demands.

“Signs, the trucks…nothing much.”

I shrug, hoping my casualness will deflect his concerns about homeland security, but it doesn’t work. He motions for me to show him. I turn the screen on.

“You’re not allowed to take pictures of the port,” he tells me, shaking his head. I wonder what I look like to him, greasy hair pulled back into a knot, Chacos covered in Mexican dust. I pause, waiting for him to say something, but he doesn’t. I ask if I need to delete the photo, and he says yes.

The first one is of a sign—no agricultural products may enter the country. He doesn’t check for agricultural products in my backpack, but he makes sure I hit the delete button twice. The next photo shows two trucks under a sign that says “open” in green lights. I hit delete. We continue this for twenty images until I reach one of the border wall, framed by construction work.

“The wall is okay,” he tells me grudgingly. I put my camera away, ask if he needs anything else, and walk back into my country.

It didn’t occur to me until after I’d crossed that I could have refused. It didn’t occur to me until later that night how low the stakes are for me when I choose to cross a border.

4) The two Border Patrol agents are joking with each other, but I can barely hear them over the rattling of chains. To my left are forty or so detainees—people picked up near the border in the last few days. They’re here in court to plead guilty en masse to criminal offenses—entering the U.S. not through an authorized port, re-entering the U.S. after being deported. Six at a time, they go up to the microphone and the judge questions them.

“Are you a citizen of Mexico?”
“Were you found in Arivaca, Arizona on the 22nd of March of this year?”
“Were you previously denied admission, excluded, deported and removed from the United States on April 2 . . .”

And together, as a group: Culpable. Culpable. Culpable.

“All guilty,” says the translator to the judge.

Those six file out, and another six are up. Some of them were previously deported earlier this year. I can’t imagine making the journey through the desert twice in a lifetime, much less twice in one year. Those who have never been deported before will be back on a bus to Mexico this afternoon. How many of them will try again? How many of them will end up back here?


5) Heading back into town, we pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint. They’re stationed strategically throughout the Southwest to pick up migrants who have survived the desert. We roll down the window, and he sticks his head in the car.

“Everyone a U.S. citizen?”

Marcel, our driver, says no, he’s German, and starts to hand the man his passport. The agent glances at the cover, doesn’t open it, and hands it back.

“I’ve seen all I need to see,” he says to our four white faces. “You folks have a nice weekend.”


6) We’re out on water drops, delayed a few hours because I noticed the car needed gas right before we’d reached the remote washes where we put supplies out. It’s our second stop on the route, and each of us carries a gallon of water in each hand. On the caps, we’ve drawn hearts. The sides say Suerte or Buen viaje in black marker.

We follow the migrant trail, but when we get there, we find almost a dozen full jugs of water. The Samaritans have been here recently. I tell myself it’s a good thing that the water isn’t being taken, hoping that it means people don’t need it, not that they aren’t finding it. We rearrange the jugs, placing them directly on the trail, since the coyotesdon’t always let people stop to grab supplies when the groups move at night. On the side of one, in pink marker, is a wish: Hasta un mundo sin fronteras.

Until a world without borders.