Skip to site content

Desert Trip Offers Unique Perspective on Immigration

I collected a rock in the Tucson sector of the Sonoran Desert, near the small town of Arivaca.
I was in the desert with Sandra, a member of Southside Presbyterian, who is also a part of the Samaritans, a humanitarian aid organization that provides life-saving water and food for migrants crossing the desert.

I got the full tour, learning about the harsh realities of the desert. We were collecting rocks for Migrant Sunday at Southside Presbyterian, the annual commemoration of those who died in the desert.

I was tasked with writing the names, or “desconocido” or “desconocida” (“unknown” in Spanish), on the rocks we collected. It was a deeply moving experience.

I sat outside my house with a bucket, a rag and a hose, carefully cleaning each rock.

I felt the amount of time I took with each rock was a small token of respect I could give to those who lost their lives in the desert.

When I first sat down to label the rocks, the first name I saw was Mireya. Then, I saw her age – 22. She was 22 when she died in the desert. It’s hard to describe how I felt when I saw that number. It was like a stab in the gut. I am 22.

I wondered about what compelled her to leave her homeland, to leave her family, to risk her life crossing the desert.

I wondered what kind of shoes she was wearing. Hundreds of pairs of shoes are found and collected from the desert. I asked myself who she left behind.

Indeed, it is one thing to study immigration, to study what causes migration and reflect on the desperation that drives people here.

It is another to witness it in such a personal way, to look at a rock that represents a real person who died. A person named Mireya.

As I reflected, I couldn’t help but marvel at my privilege, my education, the choices and mobility I have.

I thought about my family and the luck we have to be able to have consistent work and food on the table.

In all likelihood, Mireya didn’t have the choices I do. If she did, why would she have risked it all?

So, on Migrant Sunday we commemorated all 182 people who died since last October.

The majority of these people are indeed unknown because the desert devours the bodies very quickly.

But Mireya, Galindo, Oscar, Elsa and Rigoberto (all names of people whose bodies were identified) connect me to the unknowns, to the statistics.

Their names connect me to the torturous deaths, less than 50 miles away from where I live.

In my experience here in Tucson, I have seen the other side of those who have crossed through the desert. I know many who made the journey successfully. They are the lucky ones.

Southside Presbyterian is unique in sharing space with a day laborers’ center. The focus is on creating a system of employer-employee accountability for men that otherwise may be denied a fair wage or any wage at all for their hard labor.

Lately, I have been casually asking them how they got to the U.S. More often than not, I hear “por el desierto” (through the desert).

It seems so nonchalant when they say it. But then I remember the landscape of the desert. The scorching sun. I remember Mireya.

All of this begs the question: What are we doing to honor her? And the other 181 people? When people do make it through the desert, how do we treat them? How do we treat the stranger in our society?

As a person of privilege and more important as a Christian, how can I best honor Mireya, a woman who could be “mi companera” (my friend)? A woman who could have had a full and long life like me, but instead died a cruel, lonely death.

In Matthew 25, Jesus commands us to care for the stranger because Jesus is found in the face of the stranger. There is no greater stranger in U.S. society than the undocumented immigrant.

Today, I challenge you to learn more about immigration. To study all the angles. No matter your political background or views, think about the other side. We all have a lot to learn.

I challenge you to learn about our national, state and local policies that affect immigrants.

I challenge you to get to know immigrants in your own community, no matter where they are from or how they got there.

Most of all, I challenge you to never forget Mireya. And the more than 2,500 who have died in our desert over the past 20 years as a result of our nation’s border policies. May their struggle not be in vain.

Amy Beth Willis is a young adult volunteer (YAV) through the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Tucson, serving at Southside Presbyterian Church. You can read more about her experience here. A version of this article first appeared in the December 2013 edition of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship e-newsletter and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: “Gospel Without Borders,” EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and immigration, features John Fife, pastor emeritus of Southside Presbyterian Church.