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Lenten Journey in the Sonoran

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A few years ago I was in the little town of El Bosque, up in the mountains of southern Mexico, about two hours north of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. I was traveling with the interfaith fair trade organization, Equal Exchange, and we were studying coffee and marketing for churches in the states. While there, I met the families of two young people, Daniel Hernández and Jasmine Díaz-Pérez. They would have been about 19 when I was there, and had just gotten engaged. Their parents were wonderful, hard working people, and their families had been growing corn and beans and coffee in that region for a hundred years.

However, in 1989 that changed. Before that time prices for coffee beans had been set by an "International Coffee Agreement," led by the U.S. We created the agreement back in the '60s as a way of providing poor farmers in Latin America with just enough income to keep them from joining rebel movements like Castro's in Cuba. But in 1989, Cuba was hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. pulled out of the Agreement, allowing coffee prices to swing wildly on the open market. Within three years prices paid to poor farmers had fallen to a 30-year low. According to World Bank numbers, more than 600,000 people lost their jobs and homes in Central America and Mexico.

In addition, after 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, allowing the U.S. to export cheap, subsidized corn into Mexico, their sales of corn also collapsed. Prices fell from an average of $5 a bushel in 1995 to $1.80 in 2000, and it wiped out tens of thousands of farmers.

With each hit, the Mexican countryside emptied out more young people creating abandoned ghost towns in its wake.

Some of those farmers were from Daniel's family, and the summer before we arrived, conditions had gotten so bad that many decided they had to leave. The options weren't good. They could join the rebels, migrate to sweat shops, grow cocaine or put together a delegation to make that terrifying journey north into the U.S. to find work. Typically if a group managed to get in they'd rent a room together, take turns sleeping and working, eat as little as possible, and send money back home. One day's work, picking vegetables in California, at below minimum wage, could feed a family of six in El Bosque for a week.

So, they chose six young men who would go north and risk the journey. One problem was that Daniel was one of those, and he and Jasmine had just gotten engaged, and they couldn't stand being apart. Maybe they could go together, they said, and both find jobs? Maybe they could afford a place of their own. Maybe they could finally get married. So the family relented and Jasmine was added to the group, and then they left.

They walked north along the westward side of the Sierra Madre Mountains, sometimes hitchhiking, but mainly walking, for almost three weeks. Then, exhausted and broke, they stopped at the town of Altar, Mexico, about 60 miles south of the border, where they hired a coyote, who, for a fee, smuggles people over the border.

There are several routes into the U.S. from Altar. The best is through Sasabe, because there's less sand and more shade. Another is shorter, but straight up north through the near-impassible Sonoran Desert. Jasmine and her family didn't have the $1500 the coyote charged, so he took what they had, and then led them through the Sonoran.

But he shouldn't have. They were too weak, the journey had been too long, and the heat was too evil. After three days they collapsed and couldn't travel. At about 100 miles southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, the coyote abandoned them. Daniel and two others struggled on ahead to search for help. They turned themselves in to border guards and led them back to the others.

When they got back they found everyone in critical condition, weak from dehydration. Two recovered within a few days. Two more were placed in intensive care but recovered. But young Jasmine, Daniel's fiancé, didn't make it. They tried to resuscitate her at the hospital, but she was already gone. Daniel survived but no one knows where he is. They say he ran screaming from the hospital when he got the news, and there's no word on what happened to him since. He never made it back home. He never contacted anyone about a job. He simply disappeared, in grief.

* * *

I don't know how to solve our complex story of immigration. I can't begin to work through the legal and historical issues that brought us to where we are today. What I do know is that Jasmine and Daniel are not our enemies. They didn't come here to hurt us, or take our jobs, or soak up our tax dollars. They came here because they were hungry, because they were desperate, and because they loved each other. Their lives were caught up in economic forces that were larger than they were, and over which they had no control.

And I know that little Jasmine died for our sins. She died so that we could continue to worship a market system that destroys families and crushes human beings far away, so that we can live well here at home -- a system that forces wages down so that we can drink cheap coffee and wear cheap shirts, and forces immigration up so that our farms and services can have cheap labor. Whatever we do in the next months about immigration, we should never, ever blame those who are drawn to the American dream and risk their lives trying to attain it.

And I know that whatever punishment God gives the coyote who abandoned them in the desert, at the end of the day, you and I are co-conspirators in the crime.

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