Although our political leaders are completely paralyzed in terms of immigration reform, there are important local efforts taking place. Here are several examples that I recently observed in the states of Arizona and Sonora, Mex.
This trip started next to the border wall that separates Douglas, Ariz., from Agua Prieta, Mex., an enormous wall that must have made some contractor millions. It’s a bloody area, however. On January 12, 2007, a Border Patrol officer named Nicholas Corbett shot 22-year-old Francisco Javier Dominguez and was tried twice for murder in federal court, but both trials ended with hung juries. In May 2011, a 19 year U.S. citizen named Carlos Lamadrid was shot to death while attempting to cross the wall and return to Mexico. In 2003, 20 people died of dehydration attempting to cross.
Although the wall is enormous, it’s largely futile. Drug dealers can easily catapult drugs across with mortar-like devices. In addition, one member of our group watched a young man scramble quickly over the wall on an earlier visit.
Further to the east, this “pedestrian” wall is replaced by what is called a “vehicle” wall, one that will stop vehicles but through which a person can easily walk. As a result, border crossings aren’t stopped; they’re simply funneled away from Douglas and Agua Prieta, which just makes them more dangerous. In fact, there were 463 known deaths along the border in 2013, the highest number since 2005 when there were 492, even though the numbers of those crossing has declined dramatically. This is because walls like the one we were seeing are pushing the crossers into more dangerous areas.
That evening we crossed the border to Agua Prieta, a city that has ballooned from about 30,000 in 1980 to more than 100,000 now, much larger than Douglas at about 18,000. When migrants are deported, they are met at the border by a representative of the Mexican Consulate and then basically just turned loose. The Migrant Resource Center here — a small office largely staffed by volunteers — provides food, water, first aid if needed, clothing and part of the cost of a ticket to the migrant’s hometown. The Red Cross has assisted with phone service so that they can try to call their families. The goal is to give the migrant some temporary aid but, most importantly, to encourage him or her to return home and stay there.
After seeing the wall, we had dinner at the La Sagrada Familia church with four migrants who had just been deported. They receive dinner and breakfast, a bed for one night plus some money for transportation home, then they have to move on to their home towns.
We had breakfast Friday morning at a church named Lily of the Valley where the Pastor, Rodolfo Ángel Navarette and his wife, Elena explained their plans to develop training programs for young people so they can find work and avoid both the drug business as well as the temptation to cross the border. Above us, the ceiling panels seemed ready to collapse. The challenge for Rodolfo and Elena is to raise money for essential improvements to the building while also funding the day-to-day emergencies. With only 50 church members, this is a slow process. For example, it will cost $5,000 to upgrade the electrical systems to meet the city requirements to have a youth center, a staggering sum for this tiny church.
Across the street is Café Justo or Just Coffee (www.justcoffee.org), a coffee business started by Daniel Cifuentes who buys coffee from farmers in Chiapas and Nayarit; He and his six employees then roast, package and market it. These seven workers provide a market for more than 100 farm families or perhaps as many as 500 or 600 people in southern Mexico who grow this coffee. Cifuentes pays $2.40 to 2.60 per pound compared to 60 to 90 cents on the open market and about $1.00 via Fair Trade. This is a small but vibrant example of developing local economies as an alternative to crossing the border into the United States. By the way, the coffee is superb. Buy some.
We then visited a community garden — fresh vegetables and fruit are very expensive in Agua Prieta — and a training center where people can learn skills like carpentry and sewing.
These small programs are all knitted together via a cross border program called Douglas-Prieta and the strategy is simple — find alternatives to migration. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, programs like this are much more effective than our massively overstaffed border security system but they are small and have to struggle for donations.
Saturday morning we were in the tiny town of Arivaca, Ariz., (pop. approx. 1,000) about an hour south of Tucson by car (3-4 days on foot for the migrant) and 11 miles north of the Mexican border, meeting with No More Deaths, a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson that has been providing aid like food, water and basic medical care for the last 10 years. Our delegation brought 100 blister packets containing bandages, mole skin, gauze, new socks and other basic needs and we then drove south to Byrd Camp, a collection of trailers and tents named for Byrd Baylor, a well-known author of children’s books who is a long-time supporter of immigrants here. A team of mostly volunteers from all over the U.S. — They have even had volunteers from Germany — maintains a medical clinic here and also distributes water along the trails that migrants use. The wind was howling and it was a chilly day but you could imagine struggling across these steep, rolling hills in the blazing heat of summer. In fact, as I write this, the temperature is 102 degrees in Arivaca. Historically this area is where most of the border crossing deaths have occurred.
This is what you see all along the border — small organizations, usually religiously based, that are trying to bring human decency to a brutal physical environment and a tragic human situation. They struggle to survive in the shadow of our multi-billion dollar interdiction effort and the indifference of the Mexican government but they’re not waiting for Congress to act.
Morgan Smith is a former Colorado legislator and Commissioner of Agriculture who travels to the border at least once a month to document and assist a variety of humanitarian programs there. He can be reached at Morganfirstname.lastname@example.org.