A travelogue entry about border jumpers and Chaya’s experience doing relief work on the US/ Mexico frontier —
On that side is Naco, Mexico, on this side is is me, America. There is a fence between us.
“How long is that fence?” I asked my friend, Al, who traveled be RV for 15 years after retirement before buying a plot of land and building an adobe home one tick away from Mexico.
“I have noticed it 35 miles down the road, so I guess it is at least that long.”
The fence is part of Arizona’s Operation Safeguard, part of a mission to physically divide the 1,950 mile border that the US shares with Mexico with a series of long fences.
A gaggle of border patrol agents fumble about in the brush in between me and Mexico — fondling bushes, looking for misplaced Mexicans. Apparently.
I looked back out into the field at a border control truck driving slowly off-road through some shrub land, peaking under bushes, searching for border jumpers running the gauntlet of fences, motion detectors, aerial surveillance cameras, and an entire army of border patrol agents.
“The border is three miles out that way,” Al told me as he pointed out the large picture window of his cubistic, new age adobe home. We were sitting at his breakfast table with a clear view of Mexico in the distance. Al’s travels, very literally, lead him to the last stop in the USA. I can understand why he settled here: he reached the end of the road, there was simple no place else to go.
Al arrived at the last stop of the USA a few years ago, looked around, and 30 minutes after his arrival, he bought a lot and committed to building a house upon it. But his house, which sits in the little gathering of Palominas, is also the first stop in the USA for any sly border jumper from Mexico.
“Do border jumpers ever come through here?” I asked, watching a Border Patrol truck canvas a trail out in the distance. If anybody did jump the border here, they would be in Al’s backyard within an hour.
He answered in the affirmative, and told a story of how three beleaguered Mexicans once stumbled upon his home one day while he was out doing yard work. Their coyote had given them the slip and left them with nothing more than some poor geographical information: “They thought they were in California,” Al continued.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“I sat them down on a dirt pile, gave them some water, and called border patrol. They were in pretty bad shape.”
Al then began explaining how it is common for border jumpers to come through this area. “Over there by the San Pedro River under the cottonwood trees there is a trail that they use, it is well worn and three feet wide in some sections.”
After we finished our pancakes and toasted muffins, Chaya and I promptly went out to walk on that trail — to walk towards Mexico. It was not too difficult to find, it really was well worn and wide. Many border jumpers had, apparently, come through here — regardless of the fence.
I have no idea how many border patrol trucks drive through this area every hour. It is many. I have no idea how any migrant could slip through this real life game of Frogger, and come out on the other side of the road unscathed. Then again, I did not observe any border patrol agents doing much of anything besides driving around at a moderate pace through the fields on the near side of the fence.
Even with the giant wall and high density of border patrol vehicles, there are also motion sensors and aerial cameras with their sights set south. Almost directly above Al’s home perpetually floats a small, stationary blimp.
“We are told it is for border control purposes,” Al explained.
Our friend from Maine, through whom we were invited into Al’s home, then told us a story of how she got a little lost one day by the river that goes towards the border. Seemingly, she must have tripped a censor, because a helicopter manifested itself out of nowhere and made a beeline straight for her. But after doing a loop over her head, it retreated.
Apparently, a lost older white woman is not cause enough for alarm.
Chaya and I walked down the path that went towards Mexico merrily. I asked her to tell me the story of Chanukah, and she launched into the tale of guerrilla warfare, demolished synagogues, and an auspiciously long lasting pot of oil.
“Hold on!” I suddenly barked at her in a sudden horse whisper.
I heard voices that were not from my wife. We stopped suddenly in the trail’s center. We both listened with the intent to provenience the voices. There were two of them, and they both seemed male. We could not determine the language being spoken, nor make out any words, but we were able to ascertain that they were coming from the bushes on our left hand side on the bank of the river:
We were either in the presence of a couple of copulaters or border jumpers. I can think of few other reasons why a couple of people would be hiding out in the bushes near a dried up river a mile from Mexico.
We continued walking nearer to were we heard the voices, and they ceased at our approach. I looked at Chaya, Chaya looked at me. I expected her to be frightened, she wasn’t.
We walked passed the bushes with Chaya rubber necking it in an attempt to catch sight of any itinerants hiding out on the first leg of a long journey in the “land of opportunity.”
I was more interested in finding copulaters.
But Chaya has far more experience down on these borderlands than I.
Working on the borderlands
“I was in the middle of nowhere, around a 15 minute drive from Arivaca, on Byrd Baylor’s ranch land,” Chay began telling me the tale of when she was a volunteer for No More Deaths on the Mexico border lands.
She would walk the paths through the desert in areas most frequented by border jumpers and leave jugs of life saving water behind for anyone who may need them.
Chaya told me of how she would camp out on a borderland ranch, wake up around 5:30, eat donated (dumpstered) cereal and milk, split into two groups between two trucks, look over the maps, and go out into the hot desert sun, leaving water jugs in her wake.
Her gear consisted of snack bags, a first aid kit, and two galleon jugs of water which she marked, “Agua pura,” to make it know that the contents were, in fact, palatable. Her objective was offering bodily assistance to any migrant she could find who may need it.
Chaya said that the locations where they would leave the water were ones that they had not been recently and where they knew people were walking from the group’s collective experience. The organization would also have scouts who would look for foot paths which go to and from Mexico. The purpose of the group is not to encourage illegal immigration but to limit the suffering and save the lives of those who attempt the journey.
“The idea is to go out there when the weather is the hottest, when the most people are dying,” Chaya continued.
As she would walk along the migrant trails, she would yell, “Somos las amigas de inglesia!” — “We are church friends!” — in an attempt to not frighten off anyone who may otherwise be in need of medical assistance. “I yelled that because it would be the most believable thing for us to say, a migrant worker would be most likely to understand that.”
“It’s really an organization set up to prevent deaths,” Chaya continued, as she explained how they were mostly out there looking for migrants who were injured en route and needed medical help. In the past 13 years, 5,000 migrant deaths have been recorded in the US/ Mexico borderlands.
When they would find a group of border jumpers they would give them water and food, and, if they needed medical assistance, patch them up or send them off to a hospital. They would also call border patrol for any weary, sick, or otherwise disheartened migrants who were ready to just give up their mission and go home.
She told me about how she met a Mexican migrant with cactus spines stuck in his rear who had just take too much suffering on the long road into the USA, and wanted to return to Mexico.
I asked if the border jumpers seem scared or suspicious of her intentions. Chaya replied in the affirmative, citing that she had noticed a few groups of migrants who fled at the sight of her group.
I asked about contact could be made in such a sensitive situation. How could you get the migrants to trust you on first sight? How could you trust them?
Chaya then explained that many of the migrants that she encountered needed help — they had been abandoned by their coyotes or were otherwise not in very good shape. It was the migrants who had already given up hope and needed assistance from somebody that would most likely make contact with her group.
She then told me how she met a group of eight to ten border jumpers along a trail: “We had been yelling and they heard us yelling, and we didn’t look like border patrol,” was her simple explanation of how contact was made. “They looked tired, but were otherwise fine,” Chaya continued, “we gave them water, we gave them food. One guy had a hurt ankle, and one of the girls wrapped it for him.”
“Did they seem scared of you?” I asked.
She again answered in the affirmative.
Chaya also worked at an aid station on the Mexican side of the border at the crossing point at Nogalas and Agua Prieta, which is just across border from the US town of Douglas. These were common deportation sinks, migrants who were returned to Mexico by border patrol were dropped off at these aid stations.
Here, Chaya would help prepare meals and supply water for the weary migrants, and care for their blisters. “The Mexicans ran operation and we did what we were told,” Chaya explained the dynamics of the deportation centers on the border,”We wrapped a lot of blisters.” Serious medical issues were taken to hospital.
Chaya would also give out little cards that had free places around the border for the deported migrants to stay at, and, basically, listened to a lot of stories that did not end happily. “They were really sad,” she spoke of the returned migrants, “because they had just spent their life savings to get across the border and they got busted.”
Photo from Wikipedia Mexico Border fence
“How did they get to the border?” I asked, knowing that the distances involved to traverse Mexico are vast, and the road is often not very friendly towards prospective migrants.
“Some hopped trains, some road in trucks, the Central American ones really had the hardest time because they were not suppose to be Mexico to begin with. So they already snuck across an entire country [before attempting to sneak into another].”
But mostly, people walked. “Some said they were walking a long time, like a couple of weeks,” Chaya spoke of the attempted pedestrian crossings of the northern border.
I remembered a friend from El Salvador’s story about his illegal migration to the USA. He was flown out of El Salvador to Mexico, stuffed inside of a truck for a 30 hour ride, walked across the Sonoran Desert for three days, and then was stuffed into another trunk for the 36 hour ride to Boston. It was not until riding in a van in Maine that he was apprehended. He traveled a long way just to get caught.
Read more at, The Ballad of El Salvadoreno
I then asked Chaya why she, herself, felt compelled to go out into the burning desert and risk her own well being to deliver care to people immigrating to her country illegally.
“For me it was fun working there, there were young people from all over States, and I love being in the desert.” She continued to tell me about how she learned a lot about desert living. “And I felt like we were doing good work, it was activism where, instead of doing a symbolic action, we took things into our own hands. Rather than writing letters saying that water shoud be left at border crossings, we just go do it.”
Chaya concluded, “Many of the people living down there, like the ranchers, they feel as if we need a stronger immigration policy but if someone came up to there house needing water they would give it to them.”
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Read more on Vagabond Journey about immigration
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