THE BLOG
05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Accidental Outlaw: Volunteering at the US/Mexico Border

Part 3: The inevitability of being earnest

(Click here to read Part 1 or Part 2)

I went on patrol with Tonia and Kate the following day. Since there was no radio in the truck, Tonia regaled us with a myriad of 90s rap while en route to our trailhead. Just before we reached our destination, Kate spotted someone literally on the opposite mountain. Squint as I might, I could see no one. We drove over and sure enough, there was a 30ish, teddy-bear of a man lying under a lone tree. He sat up as we approached and despite being badly dehydrated and sick from drinking dirty water, he remained sitting up the entire time we were with him.

His name was Miguel and he was from Oaxaca. This was his first attempt to cross the border. He'd been with a group of about twenty, Kate translated, all strangers to him. Two days ago, he'd woken up completely alone in the desert. His "coyote," someone paid to lead migrants across the desert, had let him sleep through the group's departure, presumably because he'd been walking too slowly. Coyotes are notorious for speeding up the pace and leaving the injured behind to die, they aren't illegally running people across the border out of charity after all.

Miguel had stumbled through the desert alone since being left, but was now too tired and too disoriented to continue. He was so desperate to be found that when he came across this little trafficked road, he decided to stay put and hope someone came along before it was too late. We asked him why he'd drank the dirty "tank" water, which was so contaminated by cow feces that it was covered in a frighteningly luminous green algae. He explained that the coyote had cautioned them against drinking from the water bottles they found because they were left by Border Patrol to track them. No More Deaths dates their water jugs in order to monitor how frequently the trails are being used and how quickly the water supply needs to be replenished. The coyotes were spreading rumors that the dates were tracking codes and the messages of "Buena Suerte" were simply decoys. That news was more than a little disheartening considering all the schlepping of water jugs we were doing. And that those in need weren't getting the water they needed, of course.

It would have been so easy for us to help Miguel complete his journey, just put him into our truck and drive him the 40 or so miles to the nearest rest stop or into Tucson even. Seriously, who would notice if we helped just this one man? But, obviously, it isn't just one man. Kate took the time to detail each of Miguel's options which were basically as follows: 1) Take our food and water and continue on alone, 2) Go to the hospital and then be deported or 3) Call the Border Patrol to be deported immediately. Kate removed his shoes, cleaned his feet and tended to his blisters. He said he felt much better after a little food and water and decided he didn't need to go to the hospital. Tonia and I drove up the nearest hill and called the Border Patrol. Even though it was at his request, I still felt a little like I was ratting out a friend.

This man would potentially spend a few nights in a holding cell while he was being processed, but since it was his first illegal crossing attempt, he wouldn't receive jail time. After he was processed, he would be bused to the border and left there. Alone again. His family over 1,200 miles away in Oaxaca. With nothing and weak from the failed attempt, he would have to make the difficult decision whether to attempt another crossing or to make his way back home instead. We'll never know the specifics of why he chose to cross in the first place, but obviously conditions at home were poor enough that he was willing to risk his life for a chance at something better. If he chose to try again and was caught crossing a second time, he could face jail time.

Miguel munched on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and actually seemed quite relaxed as we waited for the Border Patrol to arrive. However, as soon as the paddy wagon pulled into view, fear flashed across his face. Miguel straightened his collar and began to get himself up. He thanked us again and though his body language was that of an adult, his eyes seemed childlike, imploring and frightened.

The Border Patrol officers were cordial and professional as they patted him down. They confiscated his only belonging, his backpack, before loading him into the back of the wagon. He hesitated ever so slightly as he stepped into the wagon. The back of some paddy wagons are apparently unpadded and without seat belts so after a ride along the bumpy and uneven border roads, many migrants leave the wagons more battered and bruised than when they entered.

I suddenly felt an unfamiliar lump in my throat, if I had been a weaker person I might have burst into tears in this moment. I found it much harder to watch this man suffer the indignity of deportation with such dignity than to have watched the man yesterday be carried away in the caring hands of the medics. Sometimes I wish I was strong enough to allow myself such weakness, but instead I think I mocked Kate for welling up.

Later on that day, as we marched through the desert, we entertained each other by literally telling our life stories. It was mid-way through Tonia's teen years that Kate came to a halt. She was standing in front of a tree with a bra hanging from it. I joked it was like a Hugh Hefner Christmas Tree. Kate wasn't amused, then she explained that this was probably a "Victory Tree." Men hung the undergarments of their rape victims on nearby trees to boast of their conquests. A woman was raped here.

That night I understood and if I'm honest, even appreciated, the safe space discussion. There were 206 migrant deaths in Arizona alone last year. But those are only the bodies they've recovered. For the entire border region, yearly estimated death counts can range from the 300s (around one per day) to the 800s (over two per day) because the desert is a vast and unforgiving place where someone can all too easily go undiscovered.

One of the few bodies ever found by No More Deaths volunteers was that of a 14-year-old girl. We visited Joselina's shrine on my last day in the desert. It was estimated that Joselina had managed to survive alone for two weeks after being separated from her group because she had happened across a small oasis of water. Unfortunately, she was in a particularly rarely traveled part of the desert so by the time the No More Deaths volunteers discovered the oasis, it was too late for Joselina.

We also no doubt passed many migrants that week who we didn't see, because they didn't want to be seen. It's uncomfortable to think that we were being watched by frightened eyes as we marched through the desert happily screaming the lyrics to "Shoop." How different our experience in the desert was from theirs because we had been born north of this border. I refuse to feel guilty for being born a white North American, (I maintain, that wouldn't be particularly productive, right?) but I am certainly now far more aware of exactly what a privilege it is.

The rest of my days in the desert were amazing and eye-opening, replete with a helicopter rescue, but even now, months later, I don't know how this experience fits into my life. The week I was there, this bizarre little crew, in this one tiny part of the desert, found at least one person in need every day. I now see that these 18 seemingly random anarchists and hippies, who operate effectively without hierarchy or ego, motivated only by a willingness to help, are truly humanitarians. And while I still hope never to find myself on the wrong side of the law, I do fervently believe that humanitarian aid should never be a crime.

For more information or to volunteer with this group please visit: NoMoreDeaths.org.

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