The No More Deaths camp, miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, is buzzing with activity. A group of five migrant travelers sling on their tiny backpacks filled with granola bars, tortillas, cans of beans. I hear that M. had a full bottle of cologne in his pack and smile with the thought of the “necessities” that make us human. He hugs me in a cloud of spice and pine and wishes me “buena suerte!” (Good luck). He and I had attempted conversation across the picnic tables over many meals but our lack of language skills reduced us to laughter most of the time. I wish him “buena suerte” back and he continues his rounds, thanking every volunteer in camp. The other men do the same with hugs, handshakes and kind words.
We stand in the pooling light of the kitchen tent as they walk into the darkness of the shrub-lined trail to the north. It is surreal to watch them disappear into the night. Will they make it? They swore that they would stick together, that they wouldn’t leave anyone behind. But what if they were “dusted” and scattered by a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter? What if someone was injured or stung by a deadly scorpion or bitten by another rattler and end up like one of the 477 (but most likely more) migrants who died in the desert last year? Would they still stay together? How long would the rest of their journey be? Days? Weeks? Will we ever know if any of them would make it? Will we see any of them when we sit in on the trial proceedings at Operation Streamline in Tucson?
Will they be one of the 70 detained migrants who will plead guilty of the criminal offense of “illegal entry” or “illegal re-entry” and be sentenced to serve time in privately owned, tax-payer funded, for-profit prisons? And if they do get caught, convicted and deported, that criminal record will prevent a path to citizenship if the currently debated immigration reform bill passes through Congress, so will they just try this perilous journey again and again to get to the U.S.?
How many of these folks are trying to get back home to California, or specifically San Diego to be with their families? How many neighborhoods in my own city are being ripped apart by these misguided policies? More than 400,000 deportations occurred in 2012. How many of those were parents and family breadwinners trying to get back to their established lives and had no other realistic choice than to cross illegally? How is sealing off the entire border, doubling the amount of Border Patrol and jailing more migrants going to help anything when it’s obvious that stopping people from crossing the border is not the real priority as a group of scratched-up volunteers seems to have a better grasp on where people are in the desert than the government agencies? What is really going on here?
We stare at the spot where they disappear through the brush until the yawns involuntarily begin to leapfrog through our dusty and tangle-haired group. Our day is over. I climb into my sleeping bag and dream of cactus, of water jugs, of freedom. I want to wake up to a day where this sort of work isn’t necessary, where this sort of privilege is irrelevant, where there is not fear and pain and desperation with every blistered step.
I may be naïve, overly optimistic, foolish. But at least I (we) am (are) doing something out here in the beautiful, tragic, life-giving and life-taking desert where the invisible wander, work and dream every day.
Parts 1, 2 and 3 of Goff’s journey appeared in the Oct. 10, Oct. 24 and Nov. 7 issues of Beach & Bay Press. Find them here, here and here.