Douglas in photos

I tend to mostly to text-based stuff on here (print journalist, people), but one of my goals for this trip is to get more photos up to accompany the text. With that in mind, I took a walk this morning, with the intention of documenting a bit of what life is like in Douglas and showing you all where I’m actually spending these two weeks. This isn’t really accomplishing my goal, since I’m just doing photos and not text, but I’ll get there eventually.

My bed in the trailer where I live. Hard to see here, but it’s essentially three mattresses stacked on top of each other, and consequently very wobbly.

Trailer kitchen! Thus far, it’s cockroach free, but appears to have at least five other species of relatively large insects crawling around. I get to cook, since Jeff, my Unitarian minister roommate, doesn’t really know how.
Our trailer from the outside. It’s owned by Fronteras de Cristo, which runs the migrant center, hence the giant cross on the screen door.

Trailer park! Many of our neighbors are fond of mariachi music, but sadly none of them have unsecured internet networks for me to mooch off of (I’m typing this at the migrant center, which does have wi-fi).

My daily commute along the Panamerican Highway. It’s about a mile from our trailer park to the Mexican border–we can bike or walk.

5th Avenue, 5 blocks from the border. Almost all the businesses in Douglas are giant chains or  small shops catering to Spanish-speakers. I haven’t seen any local businesses that had signage in English, even on the U.S. side of the border.

A lot of the fast food places have peso exchange rates on the sign, and the Mexican food places I’ve been to in Agua Prieta are all happy to take dollars as well.

Douglas used to have a Safeway, but it closed down. So here are the ruins of Safeway.

A stop sign at the end of 5th Avenue. It says “Chino Road,” which left me wondering if that’s a reference to the area’s mining past (a lot of Chinese immigrants worked in copper mines in Cochise County, chino means Chinese in Spanish) or just a coincidence.

Landscape outside of town looking south. You can just see the border wall in the distance.

An old no trespassing sign. The small print on the bottom says it’s from Phelps Dodge Co., which was the big mining company in Douglas back when it was a copper smelting town.

The official surveyed boundary of the United States, as seen through the border wall.

Douglas’ wastewater treatment plant, out in the desert to the west of town, just a few hundred feet from the border fence.

The wall once again. I got Border Patrol called on me twice for walking too close to it–I set off their cameras, and they had to go check. The agents responding were excessively nice and apologized to me for interrupting my walk. Don’t think it would have gone so well if my skin were a different color.

Wal-Mart is like five blocks from here, but apparently has a shopping cart return right before the border crossing  because so many people cross just to go shopping. Phil, who coordinates the migrant center, said it’s been estimated that 80% of Douglas’ sales tax revenue comes from Mexicans buying stuff.

The migrant resource center where I’m working. It’s literally right after you cross the border, so you can’t miss it.  Can’t decide how I feel about the “may we live always as brothers” text–good aspiration or cruel irony.


Migration from the Mexican side

I like to think I’m pretty good at seeing the complications of issues, of looking at things from a variety of angles. I’ve realized, though, after my first day working in the Migrant Resource Center here in Agua Prieta, Sonora, that my thinking on migration has been missing a huge chunk of the picture. I’ve spent time thinking about the border wall, U.S. immigration policy, drug wars, deportation proceedings and racism. What I’ve really forgotten to think about is what happens to migrants once they’re repatriated to Mexico.

The intricacies of U.S. immigration law are really complicated, and I still don’t fully understand them. Some people who enter the U.S. without papers are legally deported, meaning they’re barred from re-entering the country for a certain number of years (5, 20, life) and will face criminal charges if they disobey. Some people are charged criminally for unauthorized entry to the U.S. and serve jail time before being deported. Some people simply sign a voluntary departure form. Regardless of the method by which they return to Mexico, though, the process is pretty much the same. People spend time in a detention facility, usually run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and then they’re bussed to the border and dropped off, often without their stuff.

This means that Mexican border towns—Nogales, Naco, Agua Prieta, Ciudad Juarez—have had to come up with an entire infrastructure to deal with the busloads of Mexican nationals who come through them. Most Mexican migrants to the U.S. are from central and southern Mexico, and taking care of everyone and getting them home is a huge logistical challenge. There’s a Mexican federal agency, Grupo Beta, which provides assistance to migrants. One of the big things they do is help people pay for bus tickets home. They’ll cover 50% of your bus fare home, and can also provide transportation around the border towns if people need to get to shelters or the hospital. They also run a public service campaign telling people not to try to cross into the U.S. through the desert (No vaya usted—no hay suficiente agua). The Mexican consulate can also buy you a bus ticket home, but this only works once per person in your entire life.

The Migrant Resource Center here tries to provide people with the things they’re most likely to need once they’re repatriated. There’s free food (bean burritos) and drinks, basic medical care, clothes and shoes, free phone calls to both the U.S. and Mexico, assistance locating belongings and family members, and assistance with bus tickets. Phil, the guy who runs the center, said that traffic really varies. From May 2010-December 2011, the center didn’t serve any migrants, because ICE had stopped deporting people through Agua Prieta for whatever reason. Then, in January 2012, they had a trickle which picked up to thousands of people per month by March. It’s started to slow again now, and we might go this week without serving more than a dozen or so people. But the plan is for me and Jeff to work 8 hours a day at the center this entire week, then take Saturday off. (I’m thinking about just taking my camera and a ton of water and walking along the border wall until I get bored.)

I’m looking forward to talking with the center’s regular volunteers, almost all of whom are Mexican. I had a long conversation with Sergio yesterday, a man who volunteers every Sunday. Besides being nice Spanish practice (those parts of my brain are slowly waking up again), it was a great way to learn about Agua Prieta and Mexico. I always have to remember to take conversations like that with a grain of salt, to remember that no one person is speaking gospel truth and that anyone I’m talking to in that context is usually going to be middle or upper middle class.

One thing I’d like to learn more about, though, is why Agua Prieta is a relatively safe town when so many other border towns have become increasingly violent. Not that the media narrative of border violence isn’t overblown, but Agua Prieta in particular is, by all accounts I’ve heard, perfectly safe. Sergio told me that if you want to get into trouble, you can do that, but if you stay out of bad activities, you’ll be fine. Phil and Tommy, another church guy, have dismissed most of my safety questions by telling me it’s fine. Yes, I can walk around Agua Prieta at night by myself. The worst problem they’ve had with female volunteers solo is getting catcalled, and that’s something which is hardly unique to here. I did end up walking through town by myself last night, because we went to a minor league baseball game and I didn’t want to wait in the hour-long car line to cross the border in Tommy’s car, so I just walked about a mile and a half back home (mostly on the U.S. side). And nothing felt sketchy. I know my anecdotal perceptions don’t mean much, but everyone I’ve talked to has consistently told me that violence in Agua Prieta is way, way lower than in Nogales, much less Ciudad Juarez. Anyway, if I do figure that one out, I’ll be sure to write about it.

Seeing through the wall

When Terry Tempest Williams came out with her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World a few years ago, I was pretty sure she’d made it just for me. For as long as I can remember, that title has more or less been my life philosophy. I was raised hiking and backpacking in a loving family that showed me how many amazing things the world has to offer, and I’ve been fortunate to have friends throughout my life who have been supportive. But much of my life has also been spent looking for problems in the world, reading about war and starvation and violence and systematic inequalities.

It was with this in mind that I went to a concert on the border wall yesterday afternoon. Some churches in Douglas and Agua Prieta had organized a binational chorus to perform on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, just outside of town. Wearing orange shirts with the trickster god Kokopelli on them, a group of singers stood on each side of the wall. They traded verses back and forth, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish. People gathered on both sides to listen and watch. There were white people and Latin@s on both sides of the wall, Mexicans and Americans, and people of all races and nationalities speaking English, Spanish, and everything in between.

Chorus on the U.S. side of the wall.

My initial reaction upon seeing the border wall has always been a combination of rage and sadness. It’s monumental, terrifying in its scale, awesome in its cruelty. It’s a scar on the landscape, bisecting habitat, casting some as “other,” reminding the world of American military might. The scale of the wall compared to the assembled singers had its usual effect on me. I saw people sticking hands through the wall to take pictures, friends shaking hands through the fence posts. I reflected on the fact that, while I could freely move between the two sides, at least half of the people present didn’t have that privilege.

Looking down the border wall in Douglas, AZ.

In spite of the way injustice is written on the dusty ground, the people singing did so in celebration. The songs were sometimes somber, but the atmosphere was happy, almost celebratory. Friends smiled at each other. Every time the chorus on the U.S. side stopped singing, a man on the Mexican side would spin a giant homemade noisemaker, the crackle carrying far beyond our party. Border Patrol vans circled in the distance, but left us alone.

A woman on the U.S. side of the border.
Chorus on the Mexican side, as seen through the wall.

Realizing this, I thought back to my last time traveling through the deserts of the American West, almost two years ago. I recalled how no matter where we were, almost every night I could watch the sun set through a barbed wire fence Contemplating that scene, my mind would freeze the frame and see the aesthetic beauty, cattle grazing, beavers driven to extinction, disappearing sage grouse, American tradition, a struggling family and climate change captured together in a single image. And in spite of the imperfections writ large on the landscape, I always found beauty in the complications of that scene. I always found a way to appreciate the place while seeing its scars.

For as long as I’ve been seriously thinking about it, I’ve seen our border and immigration policies as evil, and the wall as the clearest manifestation of that. I still feel this way—there’s no amount of beautiful singing in the world that could make me feel differently. But yesterday’s concert was a good reminder that we can be happy in the midst of evil, celebrate even in the fact of injustice.

Now, my mind freezes the frame on the assembled orange t-shirts, the people singing their hearts out in the U.S. and Mexico. Looking at them, it’s clear they represent a single community. There’s resiliency in their insistence on ignoring the wall to the best of their ability, in their efforts to continue with life as normal in spite of the monstrous demonstration of military might standing in their way.

But more than that, their celebration is a parody. In choosing to be happy in spite of the fence, in choosing to play music no matter how impractical it may be, they’re showing the fence for what it really is. The electronic keyboards and bongo drums and prayer flags hung on the metal stakes make the wall look absurdly, ridiculously out of place. In the act of bringing something beautiful to this broken place, they’ve made the wound that much more visible. And they’ve reminded me that we can fight for things we care about without forgetting to smile, that we can hold love and rage in our hearts simultaneously. Because all over the world, in places where violence has taken hold, places the state sees strategically while everyone else forgets to look, there are people who will keep fighting and keep playing music, never forgetting that walls, turned on their side, are bridges.*

*This was a piece of graffiti on the border wall near Nogales, though it’s since been painted over. Written in Spanish, it said las paredes vueltas de lado son puentes.

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 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.

Building a border wall

My alarm on Monday went off at 3:40 a.m. After a cursory attempt to get dressed and put my contacts in, I walked out the door fifteen minutes later with a mug of green tea. My heart was racing as I walked to the library. Starting at four, a group began to assemble on the front steps. All told, there were about ten of us. We carried wooden pallets and metal stakes from cars, busted out the hammers and nails, and got to work. Our task was simple: to build a border wall.

After two hours of work, we’d driven stakes into the grass, put the pallets on top, and stapled cardboard to the whole thing. Our wall stretched from the library to the tennis courts, blocking off a funnel pathway for students walking to and from class.

We spray-painted the side facing the library with graffiti in a variety of languages—German, Arabic, Spanish, English—and made references to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Berlin Wall and the Israeli occupation.  This side was the “occupied” side of the border, the side that traditionally has graffiti on it.

I added my favorite piece of graffiti from the U.S.-Mexico border wall, though it’s since been painted over: Las parades vueltas de lado son puentes. Walls turned on their sides are bridges.

The other side was blank, except for a large proclamation: International Border. Please have documents ready.

It wasn’t a serious impediment to travel—people could easily go around the library or through the tennis courts—but it was big enough that people had to stop and look at it, think about how they could navigate around.

I won’t speak for the other members of the group, but I was motivated to participate in this project because of my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border over spring break. Spending a week in the Arizona borderlands made it abundantly clear to me just how much is broken about our immigration policies, their enforcement, and the very notion of a border in the first place.

The wait to get a legal visa for Mexican nationals is currently about twenty years if you already have a close relative living in the U.S., and the U.S. government has yet to recognize the drug-related violence in Mexico as a legitimate conflict, which means people threatened with death can’t apply to get asylum. U.S. policies, including free-trade agreements like NAFTA, the continued criminalization of drugs and the unwillingness to stop weapons from being smuggled into Mexico, account for many of the problems pushing people north—realities that our immigration laws largely refuse to consider.

Border fence from Arizona, near Nogales.

The U.S. enforces its immigration laws through a physical border in the Southwest, which pushes migrants into the desert, where many die of dehydration and other injuries in the attempt to cross into the United States. Still, to focus only on that physical border fence would be disingenuous. The U.S.-Mexico border has worked its way into communities across the country, and the line separating us from them is redrawn constantly in day-to-day interactions between citizens, migrants, law enforcement, government officials and the mixed-status families affected by immigration policy.

In short, U.S. border and immigration policies have combined to make movement a privilege, something accorded based on citizenship and skin color. As a U.S. citizen, I can enter 90 countries around the world with no visa, including virtually every Latin American nation. If I want to walk into Nogales for a day of shopping, I’m free to do so. Driving through the American Southwest, I can sail through Border Patrol checkpoints without having to show ID—my whiteness is enough to tell the uniformed men that I “belong” in this country.

Border Patrol checkpoint near Tucson, AZ

Perhaps most insidiously, these things are simply part of my life. Part of having these privileges is not having to think about them. When I flash my passport coming back to the U.S. from Mexico, I don’t have to consider that the blind luck of being born in the States has given me the ability to move freely from country to country. I don’t have to think about the fact that there are people moving through the desert around me who might die in the attempt to simply make it into my country, even without any guarantee of legal status in the future. My family will never be split by deportation, unable to reunite on either side of the border because it’s too risky.

For me, this is the value in building a border wall on campus. Whitman students as a group are largely privileged. Virtually all of us are U.S. citizens, and international students are generally here with documentation and visas. There are fewer than a dozen undocumented students on campus. For most of us, movement is not a privilege we have to think about. Most of us will never encounter a border that we are not legally allowed to cross. Most of us will never have to consider the possibility of being deported.

When we first put the wall up, students reacted to it. It made crossing the path impossible, so people were forced to interact with it. Some students were frustrated by the boundary. I overheard several comments such as, “I don’t get the point of this,” “This is ridiculous, it’s in a public space,” and “It’s not fair; they’re blocking the path.” A lot of people stopped to read the graffiti. But every single person, no matter their thoughts on the project, had to think about it. At the very least, they had to consider their own movement—how can I get around this wall?

I was tired after our 4a.m. construction call, so after breakfast with the construction team, I went back to sleep from 8 to 10:30. After my nap, I went back to look at the wall. Apparently, we’d frustrated some people enough that they felt compelled to knock down two pallets in the middle of the wall. It was a small gap, but it changed the wall completely. With the hole there, students no longer had to think about their movement. Some still stopped to look at the graffiti, but far more walked by talking with friends or texting.

If there’s one lesson I got out of this, it’s that reconceiving the ability to move as privilege is a challenge. I think it’s important for people to recognize the things they take for granted, and important to push people to think about what those things are. I had a ton of fun building the wall, and I hope that we were able to get at least a few Whitties thinking about all the borders in the world, visible and invisible, that have much more serious implications than just being a minute late to class.

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.