The sun beats down on the quiet and desolate landscape of the southern Arizona desert, barren of civilization and life. But a dark reality lurks in these craggy hills and valleys known for their natural beauty. These stretches of land on the United States-Mexico border are battlegrounds for migrants who are fighting for their lives. These people flee their home fearing for their families safety, but they face new and insurmountable obstacles by choosing to leave. Hunger, heat, and dehydration can all threaten the lives of those who are attempting to seek asylum in the United States. Scott Warren is an activist with No More Deaths, an organization dedicated to providing aid to those crossing the border. According to their website, “No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona. We began in 2004 in the form of a coalition of community and faith groups, dedicated to stepping up efforts to stop the deaths of migrants in the desert and to achieving the enactment of a set of Faith-Based Principles for Immigration Reform. We later developed into an autonomous project. Since 2008 we have been an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.” They are attempting to curb the dangers that migrants face in the desert, protecting the sanctity of life in the context of an extremely controversial issue. Warren came to visit Hope this past week, and provided students with a unique insight into life at the border, and how the landscape itself is propagating the view that those attempting to enter the United States have less value than those already here.
In addition to being a humanitarian activist with No More Deaths, Warren is also facing criminal charges for his involvement in providing aid to illegal immigrants at the border. He was arrested in January of 2018 for providing shelter, food, and water to two migrant men. His arrest coincided with a report released by No More Deaths that provided proof of the Border Patrol destroying canisters of water left by the humanitarian group for migrants traveling across the desert. Many believe that Warren’s arrest is a retaliation for this report and hope that others will see the Border Patrol’s actions as a direct attack on humanitarian aid in the region. Warren’s trial also has a lot of gravitas in the national immigration debate. The final decision in his trial will set a precedent for those who provide help to immigrants in the future, and will also put a direct value on the life of immigrants in relation to their technically illegal activities.
Warren lives and does aid work primarily near the border town of Ajo, Arizona, which is surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. According to Warren, “In the Sonoran Desert, the temperature can reach 120 degrees during the day and plummet at night. Water is scarce. Tighter border policies have forced migrants into harsher and more remote territory, and many who attempt to traverse this landscape don’t survive. Along what’s become known as the Ajo corridor, dozens of bodies are found each year; many more are assumed to be undiscovered.” Beyond of its physical features, this area also holds a deep history of discrimination and oppression. Historically, Spanish colonial powers in this region tried to make the landscape look like their desired map in the early 1700s, and they established a line of defense near the current US-Mexico border. The United States’ defense of this boundary is not new for those native to the area; indigenous peoples have been dealing with an arbitrary boundary in the Sonoran for hundreds of years. Ajo, specifically, was originally a mining community that began to have a permanent population in the late 19th century. Incoming white settlers during this period imposed a caste system that placed themselves at the top, then Hispanics, then the indigenous peoples of the area. These groups were segregated in most aspects of their lives, indicating a long history of racism towards non-white people in the region.
Perhaps it is this oppressive history that has allowed the government to set up what Warren refers to as a “landscape of enforcement” in Ajo and the surrounding areas. According to Warren, the Arizona landscape and border national parks in this region have been deeply touched by migrants moving through the area, but National Parks Services has worked hard to hide their presence from those who visit. People are being chased and apprehended in the Sonoran Desert, but the physical evidence of their suffering is being hidden and removed. Warren says that this cover up of human struggle allows for the Border Patrol’s narrative of dangerous immigrants to persist. Border enforcement is additionally being normalized in southern Arizona through more border patrol presence, the regular smoothing of roads to look for footprints of migrants and relatively new border boundaries such as walls and fences, which reveal the dangerous attitudes of those guarding the border. As people become used to the habitual actions of the Border Patrol, enforcement becomes a part of the culture. These fences and walls that are being erected are put up in easy places to cross and to stop cars, so that people are deterred from migration due to the harshness of the desert. However, using deserts as a deterrent has some troubling consequences. It does not actually stop people from trying to cross the border, it just makes it a lot more dangerous for those who need to flee their countries. Essentially, it allows the government to use the desert to kill people and make them disappear, rather than having to do it themselves. This is made clear in how the Border Patrol uses scare tactics to strand people in the desert. For example, Warren recounts situations where Border Patrol will, “(fly) a helicopter lower over a group of people so that they drop their water.” The organization Humane Borders has been working tirelessly to map the recovered bodies of migrants in the desert, attempting to curb the Border Patrol’s efforts to silence migrants with the desert. They have been able to map 3,244 recoveries of human remains of migrants over the last 19 years. This is important because it humanizes those who have attempted to enter the United States through the desert. In Warren’s words, “These are people, these are people’s family members and friends.”
Warren’s trial and the surrounding tension has created fear amongst humanitarian volunteers and border residents in Ajo. However, there has also been a movement of those who are deeper in their convictions to provide food, water, and shelter to migrants who make the life-threatening trek across the desert. Additionally, new people are becoming involved in volunteering, so much so that No More Deaths cannot currently accept any more volunteers. The reality, however, is that borderlands residents have been providing aid for a long time, and they will continue to do so regardless of the political climate. They understand that people’s lives matter, no matter where they come from or where they are going.