I’m developing an immigration field course for Bellarmine University that will bring students several steps closer to these realities by taking them into the desert, the soup kitchens and the courtrooms where stories of immigration unfold. I took a trip with my teenage daughter in June to Nogales, Arizona, to gather information for this field school and help her better understand immigration issues.
I have seen photos and read descriptions of “the wall.” They are nothing compared to standing in its shadow, looking from Mexico into the U.S. Hard luck immigrant stories are broadcast daily. They resonate, but not like the words of Enrique, washing dishes in a soup kitchen and recounting his arrest in Las Vegas, deportation to Nogales and brutalization by Mexican police.
I have taught at a medical anthropology field school in Ecuador for 16 years and it has been a privilege to learn with compassionate and curious students and to share in the lives of people from the Amazon to the Andes. Student evaluations have convinced me that “learning by doing” can enhance or even alter a life course. It can also help one find a clearing in the discursive jungles that have grown up around issues affecting real human lives.
The migrant stories we are in search of are in the Tucson and Nogales area, on both sides of the border. We’ll volunteer at shelters, soup kitchens and other agencies engaged with migrant issues. We’ll meet with border patrol agents and consular officials responsible for carrying out immigration policies. Finally, we’ll engage in a conversation with the dead, in the form of remains being analyzed by forensic anthropologists at the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner.
I see this field course as a way to help students connect with the mission and values of the university, particularly as they relate to ethical leadership, social responsibility and intrinsic dignity. I would hope that, in the end, their lives in Louisville are extended in a way that Thomas Merton would applaud.
Candlewood Suites in Nogales, Arizona, was a much-welcomed respite from intense heat and many hours of driving. An air-conditioned room, two queen beds and water, all a world away from the parched and thorny earth outside. I was there to gather information for a field school for Bellarmine University, where I teach anthropology, and my teenage daughter was along to better understand immigration issues.
As we slept comfortably on the nights of June 23 and 24, the desert around us came alive with desperate, hopeful, and—ultimately in many cases—dispirited bodies. We know this because, on the afternoon of June 26 in the U.S. District Court in Tucson, we listened as a federal judge heard the cases of about 80 men and women who had crossed the border illegally and been apprehended. Most were caught between June 22 and June 25 around Nogales. Others were caught near Sasabe, to the west, or Lochiel and Douglas to the east.
Later we learned that in that same period further west and further east, heartbreaking tragedies were unfolding. Just over a week before, the body of 7-year-old Gurupreet Kaur was found in the desert of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The temperature there was estimated to have been 108 degrees the day she died.
On the evening of June 23, near McAllen, Texas, the bodies of a 20-year-old Guatemalan woman and her three children—two infants and a toddler—were discovered in an area known as Devil’s Corner. And on that same day, Salvadoran Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande. A photo of the two floating among weeds and Bud Light cans, with Valeria’s arm draped over her father’s neck, moved some to outrage, and others to a judgment of his poor parenting skills.
The prism through which we see and interpret these stories is surely clouded by economic and geographic distance from migrant realities, and in the worst cases by racism. The purpose of setting up a three-week field school at Bellarmine University is to take students more directly into situations where some people are suffering, some are responding with compassionate support and others are running the security and legal institutions that attempt to manage what are often chaotic and overwhelming circumstances.
Witnessing this has been a personal journey unlike any other I’ve taken.
Hope and heartbreak at the border
Migrants moving north, and others kicked back across the border after being caught, mix in the shelters and soup kitchens of Nogales, Mexico. Religious organizations, retirees and college students constitute a disparate band of do-gooders who help feed, clothe, medicate and console those whose dreams are cresting or crashing.
The Juan Bosco Shelter, family-run for more than three decades, offers temporary beds, meals and access to social services for immigrants. The shelter was spotless on June 24 when we entered for a tour. It’s not hard to imagine this as a place to call timeout; eat, sleep, maybe pray in the small chapel and feel like someone actually cares.
On the western edge of Nogales, El Comedor offers two meals a day to migrants. It is a project of the Kino Border Initiative, run by the Catholic Church. Volunteers from both sides of the border cook and serve meals and provide basic health care. On the day we volunteered, more than 100 people, many of them children, received a breakfast of scrambled eggs, beans, rice and tortillas. Some also sought medical care, while others shared their stories with nuns, priests and volunteers.
My daughter and I joined a regular volunteer to take food to the border checkpoint known as the DeConcini port of entry. We entered a dark room with a blanket over the door. Inside were several families, all waiting for asylum interviews. As we handed out food, we learned that they were deep on the list of those seeking a legal way into the U.S, with a wait that could take months.
The day following our visit, U.S. asylum officers, who are responsible for conducting the interviews, asked a federal appeals court to block the Trump administration from continuing its policy of forcing migrants to remain in Mexico while awaiting hearings in the U.S., arguing that it is “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation.”
Two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. In the Sonoran Desert, this molecule can be sadistic. Most of the year it is scarce to nonexistent, but during the brief monsoon season it can cascade down washes and gulches, taking property and life along the way. At a stop along the border wall east of Sasabe, we saw evidence of both: black gallon water jugs once scattered about the desert were piled up in a low spot on the Mexican side of the border wall, deposited by a flash flood that had scoured the landscape. In a single day, migrant lives can be threatened by too little or too much water.
Joel Smith, the operations manager for Humane Borders, took us past this spot during visits to water stations set up by his organization. Staffed almost entirely by volunteers, Humane Borders has a simple, humanitarian mission: “To save desperate people from a horrible death by dehydration and exposure.”
It does this by maintaining a series of 55-gallon plastic drums filled with water, all marked by tall, blue flags bearing a symbol of a water spigot. On each of the 49 drums is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose job is to communicate to illiterate migrants that this is life-giving water meant to sustain them on their journey.
On this particular water run with Joel, we traveled deep into the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. At one point, after following a 20-foot-plus wall of steel poles crowned with concertina wire, we reach a section that is nothing more than metal bars a few feet high. By stooping and scooting, one can be under it in seconds. Both sides of the fence are littered with evidence of the exodus: water bottles, empty food cans, pieces of clothing.
Beyond the wall, both north and south, the desert stretches like a grave admonition: You’d best not hang out here, in the land of snakes, scorpions and cacti. But that’s hardly a deterrent for someone intent on finding a better life. In May alone, the Border Patrol reported nearly 133,000 apprehensions on the southwest border.
Joel and Humane Borders maintain civil relations with law enforcement agencies and enter public and private lands only after consultation with the appropriate officials and landowners. They haul water to fill drums, check water quality, and often pick up trash along the way. They also help document the horrible toll exacted by the desert.
The “death map” on the organization’s website shows a red dot for each of over 3,000 known migrant deaths. The dots are so dense in southern Arizona that the core turns black unless you enlarge the map and allow the bodies to spread out. Each dot has a case number and a reported time and place of death.
Many, however, are listed as “unidentified.” This is where forensic anthropologists at the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner can help.
Interrogating the dead
There is a mother, somewhere, who is wondering. There is a father, perhaps in that same somewhere, who is certain he never told his son to take a turn onto E. District Street in Tucson, Arizona and lay his young bones on an examination table, before the eyes of forensic anthropologists.
This son-of-someone certainly laced up those white and blue Asics with a destination in mind. Who knows about the black hoodie; maybe it was protection against Sonoran sun, or just what was left of a pathetic few pieces of clothing available to anyone embarking on an illegal trek. Regardless, they were sitting beside his bones, part of a collection of evidence that might lead to answers for questions such as: Who is this person, whose hopes were material, but whose flesh melted into the sand before he could cross the hellish threshold of southern Arizona? What took his life; a poisonous snake, an intestinal riot or desiccation that assaulted and cracked all soft tissue until the organs faulted, one by one?
Was the second skull being examined at the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner his partner, spouse, brother?
And maybe there’s an existential question: Do these deaths resonate with anyone outside a few family members, friends and Samaritans who search for and try to identify these bodies?
The Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner is, in one sense, a highly technical laboratory for determining time and cause of death. It is also a spectrometer of the human condition. Dark stories of hope fading to struggle fading to death on one end, and of positive identification leading to a restoration of humanity on the other.
The forensic anthropologists said the number of unidentified remains stored in their facility just surpassed 1,000.
By the time migrants succumb to the elements or lack of water, they have often shed pieces of clothing, photos, or other items that could hint at who they are and from where they came. Oftentimes, only weathered and scattered bones are found. They are packaged with human-related items found in the vicinity, then given a number and a drawer in the medical examiner’s office.
Two forensic anthropologists working the day we visited said occasionally a cold case will thaw, maybe when someone starts looking for a father or brother who disappeared years ago. For example, they just identified a set of remains found in 2009 and were able to confirm for a family that their loved one died in the Sonoran Desert.
Immersing students in these settings helps them connect real people to what otherwise are faceless statistics. These dehumanized “others” are easy enough to leave in the shadows of anonymity. Unless you enter the space of their struggles and offer them a drink of water or a plate of beans, or feel the heat that tortured or killed them or hear their shackles as they approach the bench to plead “culpable.”
The immigration field school is planned for Bellarmine’s 2020 summer session. It will be a three-week experience, beginning with online instruction, then moving into the Tucson and Nogales area in Arizona. As planned, it will be listed as ANTH 241 in the summer class schedule found on one.bellarmine.edu.
By Dr. Frank Hutchins
Photos by Anna Hutchins
Frank Hutchins is a professor of Anthropology and program director of Sociology, Criminal Justice Studies and Anthropology at Bellarmine University. This story originally appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal and is reprinted with permission.