by Mary Beth Coudal
September 15, 2010, Scottsdale, Arizona--Above the water barrels, the blue flags may be torn or full of bullet holes. Yet every week the workers for Humane Borders fill some of the 100 water stations under these flags.
Their work, they emphasize, is legal. Their purpose? To save the lives of men, women, children, teens, and all migrants who are traveling from Mexico into the United States through the Arizona desert, where temperatures can reach 160 degrees.
The goal of Humane Borders is to end the number of deaths in the desert. The majority of these deaths is caused by dehydration. This year so far, the number of deaths totals more than 150. This is the usual number for an entire year and fewer migrants, the Humane Borders workers estimate, are attempting the journey. On a bulletin board at the Humane Borders office, hundreds of thumbtacks mark the locations of people's bodies found in the Arizona desert.
More than 70 community developers of The United Methodist Church traveled from Scottsdale to several water stations, borderlands, and the offices of Humane Borders in Tucson on the first day of the "Let's Get Radical: Transforming Our Lives, Transforming Our Communities" training event on immigration.
Pastor Tonia Rios of the Baldwin Park United Methodist Church and a couple of other community developers had been across this border before. In 1982, Pastor Rios ran in the desert as helicopters circled overhead; her dying sister huddled underneath a blanket nearby in a racing truck.
Tonia and her two sisters had traveled through Mexico from El Salvador seeking care for the younger sister. They were running for safety from the civil war in El Salvador.Once across the desert, Tonia and her sisters sought refuge in the first church they came upon. It was Ash Wednesday.
As they settled back into their pews, ashes still on their foreheads, a man in a row behind Tonia asked if she was an American citizen. When Tonia did not answer, she and her sisters were jailed for 23 days. Every day, they feared they would be killed. Instead, she received a work permit.
Her sister continued to require serious medical attention, but eventually got better. Today Pastor Rios is a community developer who ministers to the Latino and Hispanic communities and the marginalized at Fe, Comida y Arte (Faith, Food, and Art) at the Baldwin United Methodist Church in Baldwin Park, California.
Tonia's story is one among many that brought community developers to tears and to new understandings of the unraveling story of immigration along the United States/Mexico border. Tonia told her story to other community developers as several Humane Borders volunteers drove for miles and miles along dusty roads to reach the far-flung water stations. The volunteers said the barrels have to be replaced frequently after being vandalized by extremists with guns.
"Almost all of us [Humane Borders volunteers] are Christian," Karl Tucker said. "We subscribe to the kind of Christianity that says we have to take action on our faith."
When asked how Humane Borders determines a useful place for the water stations, Karl replied, "There's no science to telling us where a good place is." The Humane Borders volunteers move them periodically in the hope of reaching thirsty people wherever they are.
Orientation from BAJI
Before the community developers left for Tucson, they learned from Gerald Lenoir, the director of BAJI, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the context for immigration. He said, "We [the black community] are impacted by the same things that immigrants are impacted by--racial profiling, the banning of ethnic studies, ballots against affirmative action."
Mr. Lenoir asked the community developers to think about systemic change. "With NAFTA's unequal agricultural subsidies, we have these massive subsidies to the huge farms in the US, and we flood Mexico markets with corn and grain. We are undercutting the prices so that Mexican farmers can't compete. Over three million households have been thrown off the land in Mexico. The Mexican economy cannot absorb that many. Capital and property can cross borders, but people cannot. They're labeled 'illegal,'" Mr. Lenoir said.
"Over five thousand bodies have been found in the desert since the mid-1990s. Today, there are killings of migrants by high-speed chases through the desert. Also, there is harassment of people in Native American nations who live along the border. For centuries the Native Americans have crossed lines freely.… These are human rights issues. We all have a stake in supporting human rights."
The community developers learned about human rights, like access to water, which may sound simple, yet many community developers found the issues complex, extreme, emotional, and intense.
The community developers were warned. "You will feel that intensity--as intense as the 102-degree Arizona heat. People are suffering," Mr. Lenoir said. "This is a global problem that's coming home to us because of what we do--our economic and foreign policy, our support for unjust regimes in the world. It's not a problem of immigration--it's an attack on all people of color."
The torn blue flags flap as they have for the past ten years since the founding of Humane Borders began pointing the way to clean water for the thirsty. "This is good water. This is God's water," said Pastor Rios as she patted the Humane Borders water station.
Date posted: Sep 15, 2010