He asked us to call the border patrol. After three days in the harsh Sonoran Desert, having been left behind by five other undocumented migrants when he injured his leg, the teenage boy had had enough. He wanted to go home – back to Mexico.
No More Deaths' base camp is located in the Tucson sector of the Arizona desert. The death rate is high but inexact. In 2010, 253 confirmed deaths occurred there. (Photo: Robert Parham)
We arrived Saturday morning at the camp of No More Deaths, a faith-based humanitarian group. Some 11 miles from the border in southern Arizona outside the sprawling community of Arivaca, we found a site of tents, tires, plastic chairs, a motor home, crates of water bottles, trash cans, litter. We found a makeshift shrine of white wooden crosses with Spanish names and discarded shoes, torn clothing, backpacks – all picked up on the trails by volunteers seeking to be Good Samaritans.
The camp appeared deserted. Then out of the corner of my eye, I caught some movement in the dusty scrub brush. At first, I thought the figure in dark clothing might be a camp volunteer. He was not.
He nervously walked up and said, in Spanish, that he wanted to call the border patrol.
While we waited for a border patrol agent, the young man gave us permission to interview him (without showing his face). Miguel De La Torre, an Illiff School of Theology ethics professor and columnist for EthicsDaily.com, translated. Cliff Vaughn, EthicsDaily.com's media producer, documented the event.
The migrant said he was 17 years old and named Juan Pedro. He had tried once before to cross the border, and now he was trying again. He hoped to find work – any type of work. Before he crossed, he had sought a blessing at a church, asking the Virgin Mary to protect him, to give him a path and to keep him from falling into evil hands. When he began to tear up in the interview, his emotional and physical exhaustion were even more evident.
Within an hour, a green-clad agent pulled up in a border patrol SUV. He frisked Juan Pedro, placed him in the back seat of his vehicle and took him to a deportation center.
Juan Pedro became one of more than 200,000 undocumented migrants who will be deported this year from the Tucson sector of the border.
The night before, Gene Lefebvre and John Fife, retired Presbyterian ministers and leaders of No More Deaths, briefed us on the border and their organization's mission.
Lefebvre noted that the death rate in the desert is high but inexact. In 2010, 253 confirmed deaths occurred in the Tucson sector. Four times that many bodies – or higher – are never found.
The desert, we learned, efficiently disposes of the dead.
Fife, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church-USA, spoke about what happens to too many migrants, especially in the summer. They experience distress – walking at night often without food and water. They become dehydrated, then disoriented, and then they die. In the desert.
If you walk the trails, as we did near Lake Arivaca, such numbers and such a sequence are believable. The land is unforgiving – the ground is rocky, the bushes have thorns, the cacti puncture skin, the hills are steep and the soil is loose. A wrong step means a twisted ankle, a broken bone, a bruised hip. A path with multiple options can lead to those who fall behind getting lost. The temperatures soar in the summer and drop to freezing in the winter. Moving at night, without light, makes everything beyond treacherous.
Now mix in fear – fear of drug runners and bandits who prey on migrants, fear of the border patrol with its drones, dogs, helicopters and reported abuse of power in some instances.
When we left camp Sunday morning to drive to the border, we passed through a border patrol checkpoint some 20 miles inside the United States. The checkpoint – with multiple armed guards – had a large observation tower. We were required to stop and answer a single question as an agent looked inside our vehicle: "Are you an American citizen?"
Upon our return from Mexico, well up Interstate 19 inside the United States, we were again stopped and asked, "Are you an American citizen?"
Checkpoints, security officials peering into Mexico from hilltops, and the border fence with its lights, cameras and barbed wire, are factors that cause human rights advocates to speak about U.S. militarization of the border.
Crossing the border town of Nogales into Mexico, without even having our passports checked, we went to a Mexican government office where deported migrants could rest and call their families.
We interviewed a man (who had been deported four times) and then a young woman. Both said they had entered the United States hoping to find work in order to look after their families.
Even after all this, more unsettling than questions about U.S. government policy is whether the American church has cut the Parable of the Good Samaritan out of its Bible.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.