report back from the border

This summer I took a month off of this urban farming pursuit and went down to the Arizona/Mexico border to work with a humanitarian aid organization called No More Deaths who’s mission is to end the deaths and suffering of folks migrating to the United States. The organization is completely initiated and run by dedicated local volunteers and visiting volunteers from around the country. It’s work is based on the ideal of Civil Initiative, the belief that communities must organize and take power to uphold humanitarian rights when states or nations cannot or refuse to do so. Every day members of the group hike trails, drop off hundreds of gallons of water and food in remote parts of the desert, and are available on encounter with migrants to provide medical attention. No More Deaths also staffs a desert medical aid tent and Resource Centers in the border towns of Nogales and Agua Prieta. (for more info about the work and mission of NMD check out the July blog post or visit their website:

A complex political and human tragedy is unfolding on our border. It is devastating and confusing to witness even just a slice of it. Every year hundreds of thousands of Mexican and Central Americans set out on a life-threatening journey across mountainous, desert terrain in order to meet family and find work in the U.S. Every year hundreds of these migrants get lost, injured, raped or attacked along the way. They die from hyperthermia, hypothermia, other illness or acts of violence. In the desert on a summer day, temperatures can soar to 120 degrees and flash rainstorms can produce instant rivers. Ironically on the same day that one migrant might die of hyperthermia–dehydration and heat-exposure, another could die in the same terrain from hypothermia–exposure to cold and wet. I arrived in July and there had been 51 recorded deaths in the month of June alone. The statistic would double or triple if it included the bodies of people who had perished in places so remote that they were never found.

The Sonoran desert is heart-wrenchingly beautiful at times. The sky is so broad and clear, the mountains peppered with flowering cacti and craggy canyons shaded by silver oaks. Living in it for one month and hiking across its wild topography gave me a vivid sense of just how treacherous this migration is. I had to drink water constantly and if I ran out towards the end of a hike I quickly lost energy and got a headache. Medical experts have evaluated that the average adult needs to drink 17 litters of water a day in these conditions to stay healthy, making it practically impossible to carry enough water to maintain proper hydration for even one day. Depending on their route and their luck, migrants are walking between 4 and 10 days. We were counseled to assume that any migrant that we met on the trails would be either moderately or severely dehydrated.

The Sonoran desert is not flat. The mountain ranges and canyons are not only physically difficult to traverse, but also very confusing to navigate. This is not like hiking in a national park or a national wilderness where trails lead you from one point to another. This is a land of cow trails and mirages. A foot-path might seem clear and certain at one moment and then suddenly peter out into nothing.

Our days were long, hot and challenging but we had topo maps, GPS (we still got lost regularly), cell phones, hiking gear, plenty of water, food, dry socks, and a truck waiting for us at a pre-determined pick up point. We hiked during the day and took time to rest. I was always relieved to jump in the back of the truck and let my body relax during the drive back to camp where we slept on cots above the reach of rattle snakes, tarantulas and fire ants. Migrants generally have none of these luxuries during their crossing. They usually hide in low protected places during the day and hike at night, moving briskly in the dark over rocky, prickly terrain and if they cannot keep up with their group because of an injury or illness or general physical fitness they may be left behind. They generally do not have adequate supplies of food, water or clothes. Add to this, the emotional condition of being hunted by The Border Patrol and in some cases ranchers or vigilante groups.

The Border Patrol regularly uses the tactic of flying a helicopter low to the ground over a group of migrants. In response to the chaos, fear, and dust that is lifted as the helicopter descends, groups scatter. Some members may be caught and others typically get lost and possibly injured. Once separated from a guide or ‘coyote’, a migrant is without orientation, alone in a maze of unfamiliar geography and therefore at great risk of dying alone as they search for water, and help. Often at their time of death, migrants are actually searching for the BP, knowing that apprehension is by far their best option.

Many of the casualties of the desert happen in this manner. Most of the migrants that i met related a similar story of being ‘buzzed’ by a BP helicopter and separated from their group. The BP also employs dogs to track down migrants. One day when I was cooking lunch at camp two men wandered in seeking medical attention. One of them was wearing pants that had been reduced to shredded cloth hanging on his legs. Underneath you could see a bleeding wound on his knee. When we sat him down in the medical tent to tend to injuries and hear stories, we learned that in addition to being scattered by a helicopter their were agents on the ground and as they ran to escape he had been attacked and bitten by one of their dogs. These men like many other migrants who have been hiking for days, had atrocious blisters covering the entire pads of their feet.

The Border has always been a complex and dangerous territory for U.S. bound migrants but the current accelerated iteration of the tragedy can be linked to a Clinton-era initiative called Operation Gatekeeper: a strategy to seal off popular border-crossing points using a combination of new border fences, increased border personnel, surveillance and other military technology. The idea was that if Border enforcement could effectively clamp down on immigration in and around major urban areas, the migration trends would shift towards dangerous stretches of deserts, where safe passage would be extremely difficult. The articulated tactic behind Operation Gatekeeper was “prevention through deterrence”: the Sonoran desert, with its hostile climate and mountainous topography, would be so challenging to cross and news of an increasing death toll, would act as a deterrent for prospective migrants who, in the face of danger, would simply decide to stay home.

Operation Gatekeeper did succeed in making immigration exponentially more expensive for the migrant (not to mention the cost of increased enforcement on the U.S. tax payer) in both monetary terms; the cost and the need to hire human smugglers increased, and in human terms; the death toll soared and has continued to rise each year for the last 15 years. But it did not temper the flow of attempted immigration because it ignored the root cause of the increasing economic disparity between North and Central America. At this point immigrant labor has become structurally embedded in the economy and is relatively immune to changes in immigration policy. Operation Gatekeeper also converted a circular migration pattern, one where many migrants came to work for a season and then returned home in between jobs, into a more permanent one in which migrants prolonged there stay to avoid the hazards of another crossing.

Suffice it to say it is pretty disgusting to imagine our government authorizing, funding, and implementing this kind of terror and violence. Why is this happening ?

Why do Mexican’s and Central American’s migrate? For many reasons I’m sure, but one answer to that question is that Mexican’s, especially northern Mexicans, have always migrated back and forth. The southern United States was once part of Mexico and even after lines were drawn across the region the border was perceived more fluidly. Another answer is that the economic disparity between North America and Central America is growing every year. Were Mexicans, Guatemalans, Nicarauguans, Salvadoreans, etc.. able to find decent work in their countries of origin would they risk death and separation from family just to arrive in a place where they will likely face humiliation, alienation and occupy the bottom rung of the U.S. class structure?

This is not an issue of comparative national, economic aptitude, as many North Americans might like to believe. This is not merely the fate of one disorganized, inept country ailing next to a vigorous and fair competitor. This is a matter of strategic imperialism in an era of globalization, neo-liberal economics and free-trade agreements.

I read a great article in the Nation magazine July issue called The Retreat to Subistence , which explains how The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) spelled the dismantling of the Mexican small farm economy, upon which millions of Mexicans relied. The agreement’s designers espoused “the doctrine of “comparative advantage”, the idea that in global trade each country should take advantage of its natural strengths. Mexico’s advantage was its cheap and plentiful labor force; however, even though corn had evolved in Mexico and had been grown there for thousands of years, the negotiators (of NAFTA) agreed that the United States had the comparative advantage in corn production”. Of course this advantage was based on the destructive practices and deceptive accounting of U.S. Industrial agriculture (a system of consolidated farms, hybrid corn and synthetic fertilizer, dependent upon a steady supply of cheap fossil fuels and heavy government subsidies)

“Soon after NAFTA was signed, tariffs on corn from the U.S. were eliminated and US corn began flooding Mexico.” Not only was the production of U.S. corn subsidized, but it was also further subsidized for export. This dump of U.S. corn on Mexico depressed the price that Mexican farmers could receive for their crop by 50% over 10 years. Simultaneously the Mexican Government dropped programs and agencies that had administered price supports, offered storage infrastructure and otherwise supported small farmers since the revolution.

In the early 90’s an estimated 15 million Mexican people were small farmers, often poor corn producers. Now they are largely unable to subsist from their agricultural production. Beyond corn producers, transporters, processors and workers in other attached industries, an approximate 22 million people, also lost their livelihoods. The design here was to move poor people out of the rural country, making them more available for urban industrial labor and then to throw Mexico open to free trade in order to develop an export economy. In short, this was a massive political manipulation of indigenous, land-based, corn culture. The projection that NAFTA export industries would generate enough jobs for displaced farmers was quickly proved wrong. Severing millions, not only from their livelihoods, but their land and culture, has let loose a flood of social ailments, in which Mexico is currently drowning.

Dispossessed farmers, pushed towards ballooning cities with not near enough jobs to support them, account for around half of the Mexicans who immigrate illegally to the U.S. each year. Examined in this context migration can be understood as a glaring symptom of the break down of local food sovereignty.

While NAFTA (and its successor CAFTA) aim to create smooth, wide channels for the movement of raw material and consumer goods, corporate capital and the wealthier nations in the equation have stake in prohibiting the free movement of people. It is no coincidence that Operation Gatekeeper was introduced at the same time as the passage of NAFTA; yet they were never openly associated as counterweights. NAFTA was advertised both in Mexico and the U.S. as a set of agreements that would decrease migration by providing Mexico with a proliferation of industrial jobs in foreign owned factories (maquilas) and developing Mexico’s export economy. However, the fact that political fervor to seal the border fomented into action simultaneously to the inception of NAFTA, is one of the many pieces of evidence that governments, corporate interests and economic analysts understood that the reverse effect would occur. ‘Free’ flow of capital, arbitered by lopsided agreements, and the aparatus to police the movement of people (labor) are two sides of the same coin.

The fact is that our corporate, capitalist, economy in its current organization is dependent on cheap, politically marginalized labor, which the infusion of immigrants supplies. It follows that those who control capital are dependent on generating racist sentiment towards “illegal aliens”. They have a deeply vested interest in the fear-mongering, the political theater of claims to defend national security, and the specter of unleashed violence flooding upwards from Mexico.

In the foreword to a book titled ‘Operation Gatekeeper’, Mike Davis explains the function of orchestrating a terrifying experience for the migrant in the desert:
“The Border is often compared to a dam: defending the fat suburbs of the American Dream from a deluge of Third World misery. This, of course, misunderstands the role of a dam, which is not to prevent the flow of water but to control and ration its supply. To the despair of pundits on both sides who would prefer to see a more orderly system of gaastarbeiter migration strictly controlled by economic demand, the Border is a heavy investment in the laws of chaos: the Brownian motion of hundreds of thousands of job-and-dignity seekers modulated by nocturnal pursuit and detention camps. Realists of course, understand that a cheap labor flux without the necessary quotient of fear and uncertainty imposed by illegality might cease to be cheap labor.”

One day, out on a hike with a small group of volunteers through a dry creek bed, a rancher’s dog noticed us and barked so loudly that he caught the attention of his owner who was a few hundred yards away. In the distance we could see the silhouette of the rancher watching us from atop a hill. Soon after, stopped to eat lunch under the shade of a tree, we saw a BP agent rushing down the creek bed towards us. His sense of urgency slackened completely when he saw the color of our skin (white) and our clothes. When he approached he said he “got a call and had to come down and make sure we weren’t ‘aliens’” and then he asked if we had seen any. It seemed utterly absurd at that moment to hear a migrant referred to as an ‘alien’, of course a careless abbreviation of the equally absurd, culturally accepted term “illegal alien”. The institutional/governmental use of this term is in itself a human rights violation, which effectively serves to dehumanize migrants. In this paradigm of racist nonsense, aliens are growing our nations produce, processing our meat, constructing and maintaining our buildings, cleaning our houses and cooking our food. Aliens are an inextricable part of our economic framework. We would not function very well on this part of earth without aliens.

In addition to securing a disinherited and pliable labor force for a diverse range of corporate industry, Border Control itself is a significant industry. A perfect hybrid of the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex, gross quantities of our tax dollars are funneled directly towards private prison corporations and military defense contractors. Greedy corporate interests are driving the militarization of the border and are satiated by its ever-increasing resemblance to a war zone.

In his campaign rhetoric, Obama committed to looking squarely at the humanitarian impacts of Free-Trade agreements, but his administration continues to accelerate the war on our Border. Just last month he signed a bill authorizing 6 billion additional dollars to be spent on border enforcement, and he continues to avoid any conversation about the root cause of this issue.

Technically the border extends for 50 miles on either side of the line but practically, the border is a more pervasive wall, which permeates the social fabric of all the nations involved. It is, as stated by Mike Davis, “a state sanctioned system of violence: physical, environmental, economic and cultural.” Its principal historical function(….) has been the reproduction of agricultural and industrial peonage…” In a 2008 New York Times article, the author identifies us as “nation of immigrants holding another nation of immigrants in bondage, exploiting its labor while ignoring its suffering, condemning its lawlessness while sealing off a path to living lawfully.”

A few nights ago I met a woman from Guadalajara, Mexico here in San Francisco. A mother of three, she joined her husband a few years ago in the States after they evaluated that it was becoming increasingly risky for him to cross and re-cross the border each year between work and family. During the few hours that we spoke, she gave me a lot of context for the difficult decisions that she and her family were constantly making in order to stay together and take care of each other. She explained how they could not return home when her mother was dying because she might risk being separated from her children indefinitely. Only one of her three children was born in the United States and therefore is the only member of the family who has US citizenship and is not at risk of being deported. Her other kids are doing well in school, speak English and Spanish fluently and are becoming excellent bicycle mechanics. She said that for now they are comfortable American kids but she knows that the day that they want to go to college and are not permitted to they will feel the ‘golpe’ (the hit). She says that it is so much easier to survive in the United States but that at the same time, racism, fear of deportation, and the inability to visit home, give her the sensation that she is living in a jail.

People who work with No More Deaths, and other immigrant’s right’s organizations identify this as the Civil Rights movement of the 21st century. At some point we will look back on what is currently taking place with the shame and abhorrence upon which we regard our treatment of African Americans in the 20th century. Our manipulation of the lives and labor of citizens of Central America is a complex and labyrinthine slavery both economic and physical.

I was compelled to go down to the Border because I recognize that migration is a strong thread that weaves through the history of national and global food systems. I think it is important for us to keep in mind as we work to regenerate the small-scale, sustainable farm economy here in the states, that our nations imperialism continues to systematically eliminate millions of people’s opportunities to a dignified land-based, community-supported life.

We know that government is held captive by Capitalism and that Capitalism depends on social dysfunction as its fuel. So we have to work beyond them, but how do we do it?

I don’t know exactly. But I do know that working with No More Deaths was inspiring and refreshing, for the most part, because the group organizes around the principle of Civil Initiative. Instead of depending on government plans or international enforcement, Civil Initiative focuses on community powers and voluntary effort. The central concern of Civil Initiative is to do justice (not only resist injustice) rather than to petition others to do it. This is an empowering idea to act on and maybe the only real root of a solution.