While traveling through the Southwest this week, I had the privilege of experiencing glimpses of the work done by Humane Borders, Inc. The main office is located in South Tucson, Arizona, but the humanitarian work that they do requires that they travel many miles from town, near and around the border with Mexico. The day before, I’d met with Joel Smith, Operations Manager, for breakfast, and attended a volunteer meeting later in the day. I had the opportunity to meet Juanita Molina, the Executive Director, and many of the compassionate and passionate volunteers that do the hard work of providing water and basic supports to migrants as they cross the desert.
Well aware that I have readers who take issue with migrants crossing the border and living in the United States as undocumented persons, I offer this: regardless of where you stand on the issue of immigration, one thing is crystal clear: people seeking a better life for their families will continue to migrate here. They will take every risk to their lives to have the chance to improve the quality of life for their loved ones.
The efforts made by Humane Borders and their counterpart humanitarian groups is driven by a basic principle: to do what is morally right. Knowingly turning a blind eye to people dying of thirst in the desert is not an option. Founded in June 2000, their mission statement reads:
“Humane Borders, motivated by faith, offers humanitarian assistance to those in need through the deployment of emergency water stations on routes known to be used by migrants coming north through our desert. Our sole mission is to take death out of the immigration equation. Our water tanks are on a combination of private and public lands. In all cases we have permission to locate our water stations on these lands in writing from the landowners.”
The leaders at the organization have done incredible work in building relationships with the enforcement agencies that have their own set of rules to follow with regards to migrant activity, including the U.S. Border Patrol, Arizona Game and Fish Department, among others.
I spent a day on the road with Joel, who needed to check several water stations and change out flags. The blue flags are erected high so that those who are walking through the desert are able to locate the water stations. Even for those who don’t know of the stations, the flags can act as markers for those who may walk towards it seeking assistance. The travel is largely off road once out of town, and the routes are steep, pitted, narrow, and rocky. One must have a solid 4×4 vehicle and a good command of its handling to get to these remote locations. Consider, then, what it’s like to traverse the same routes on foot, with little resources to sustain oneself. Imagine the determination that drives a person forward in the face of these challenges.
I became privy to a wealth of knowledge on the history and culture of the region, and the nuances of engagement, thanks to my guide. After checking some water stations and swapping out a well-worn flag at one site, we continued on and reached the border fence. It is, frankly, a monstrosity, a huge blight on an otherwise gorgeous desert landscape. I look in the direction of Mexico, through the fence, and see open spaces and a wide range of cacti, plants, grasses, and birds. I turn my back to the fence and see the exact same scene, a virtual mirror image. In this place, it becomes ever more apparent how arbitrary the line is, how absurd the effort, for the fence does not do the job that it was designed for: it does not keep people from seeking a better life.
On the last portion of the run, where we needed to pick up some water barrels that needed to be swapped out from a site, we traveled up a steep incline and into view came a rugged outpost of sorts. This was the safe station set up by No More Deaths, another humanitarian group in the desert which works to stop the deaths of migrants in the desert. They are an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. I introduced myself to two young men who were organizing activities, and took a walk around the space. All the essentials were there for basic living supports.
As we drove across the desert, we spoke about other things as well, including our shared passion for photography. I noted how beautiful the scenery around us was, and how these are the spaces that I most enjoy wandering and taking photographs. Joel agreed wholeheartedly that though it is, indeed, a beautiful place, “It is also a lonely place to die.”
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