by Marc Figueras, for the UWC-USA newspaper
followed by notes by Rick
After all the preparations for what was going to be a unforgettable experience in Mexico, Bart, Ditha, Gal, Hickson, Holly, Kwun Kui, Louisa, Nicole, Rayah, Rave, Zipporah and I finally departed at 6 a.m. in the cold of Montezuma’s mornings, destination Agua Prieta, Mexico. We were led by Adriana, Naomi, Rick and their kids, Ada and Broadus. We were accompanied by Logan Bunting-Mock, a hilarious photographer from North Carolina. The bus ride was long and not very exciting in general except for the balloons we could see through the windows of the bus when we passed by Albuquerque. The food was greatly appreciated and very Mexican. Pretty much what we ate every day was rice, tortillas, and beans. We were staying at a community center in this small town. On the first night there, we had empanadas for dinner, prepared by a local family. The father of the family worked in a maquila and lived in a house with no electricity or running water with his wife and two kids. Their house was made of cement blocks and consisted of a dormitory, a bathroom and a small kitchen, all lit by candles. They were very kind and generous and I think the opportunity to talk to them that night was unique for us and for them.
On the next day we woke up early to visit the border in the Sonoran desert. We were accompanied by an organization called Agua por la Vida (Water for Life), which maintains and refills water tanks for migrants on the Mexican side of the border. Around 600 migrants die every year in the desert, mainly because they get lost in the desert or because of dehydration. It was shocking to see the 4-meter-tall wall built by the U.S. to separate them from their neighboring state. We also visited the office of Just Trade coffee in Agua Prieta, where we learned about the processing, the different kinds of coffee and the main issues in the trade. Their coffee is produced in Chiapas, Veracruz and Haiti and most of it is sold in American universities. One of the most interesting activities was working with drug and alcohol addicts in a rehabilitation center called CRREDA in Agua Prieta. We painted the walls of one of the girls’ dormitories and built a new floor for the community space of this center. Some of them were as young as 15 years old but I was surprised to hear them talking so openly about their addictions with us.
I think the most striking experience was volunteering at the Migrant Resource Center. The following account was written by Rick Mobbs, and I think it greatly reflects how shocking this particular experience was for most of us.
….the returning migrants—the returned migrants—straggled into the Agua Prieta Migrant Resource Center in ones and twos, threes, fives, sevens. Weary, dirty, bruised, aching, sad, some in shock, some tearful, all were tired to the bone. These were migrant workers captured in the Arizona desert by the U.S. Border Patrol. They were arrested, booked, processed and held for varying lengths of time. The coyotes, their hired guides, tell their groups to run if confronted, describing the Border Patrol agents as sadistic fiends. These migrants had been caught, and perhaps a lucky thing too, as the desert brings horrible deaths to hundreds and hundreds of migrants every year. Tonight my group of UWC-USA students was? staffing the Center. We had the 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift. The regular staffers gave us a half hour briefing and went home, leaving us alone to deal with whomever and whatever showed up.
Our job was to watch for these people and help them if we were able. In their condition they were easy prey for predators, robbers, and rapists. The returning migrants were easy to distinguish from the other pedestrians walking back and forth through the border crossing. We recognized them by their lack of shoelaces. Shoelaces are confiscated by the Border Patrol. We recognized them by their dulled affect and the way they clustered together as they walked, as if for protection and safety. We counted and noted for the record the ones who passed by our open doors without turning, and we waved inside the ones too hungry, scared, sick, exhausted, or defeated to walk farther. For most it was the first time in many days that they could feel safe, hear civil words, tell their stories and be recognized as human beings. Most were cowed, ill from desert exposure and exhaustion, bruised, cut and scraped by stumbling about and falling in the desert at night. We gave them places to sit, brought them steaming coffee, burritos, sandwiches and pastries made by church groups or donated by individuals. We supplied phone cards for them to use to call their families, their husbands and wives, their parents.
The first group of tall/short, light-skinned/dark-skinned, men/women and a child of maybe 9 or 10, arrived penniless and pesoless. They had been robbed twice in the desert by men with guns before being picked up and jailed by the Border Patrol. Between 10 p.m. Friday and 1 a.m. Saturday, 30 or so people straggled in. We lost count of the number who passed on by without stopping. This flow of returnees went on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and this is a relatively small town border crossing. Another man, in his 40’s, thin, so thin and pinched, came in just as we were closing. His group had been robbed by men with pistols before they even got to the border. Fifteen of them were made to lie down and were systematically robbed of all their valuables. This man had been across before and knew to take only a few dollars, but others in the group were carrying $300 with them. He said the coyote set them up but wouldn’t admit it, and afterwards everyone walked across with him anyway. After walking two nights and sleeping in the day to avoid being seen, they were spotted by a helicopter and arrested by the Border Patrol. I asked him where he was trying to go. He said, “Texas”. I asked if anything good had ever happened in Texas. He smiled and said, “My wife.”
Three other women were also in the Center, part of another group picked up in the desert. One of those women had sent her three year old son through the border with fake papers, in the care of a couple with legal documents and with a plan to rendezvous in Phoenix. When she was picked up and returned to Mexico, she lost contact with the couple with her baby and, in any case, didn’t have another $2,500 to pay to have the baby brought back through the border and returned to her. She stayed in the Center until we locked up at 1:30 a.m., at which point we gave her a ride to a cheap hotel on a dusty, unpaved section of Avenida 1 near Calle 7. She didn’t know how she was going to reach her baby. Before getting out of the car she cried and asked us if we would find the child in Phoenix. She had the address. I told her I would meet her the next day at noon with Naomi or Adriana Botero, the vice-president of UWC-USA, who was a member of our group and a native Spanish speaker.
On the way home, in a lull in the conversation about the woman, I said, “Yes, but what would Jesus do?” The kids fell absolutely silent until they realized I was kidding. The laughter broke the spell of despair. But the question resonated with me and maybe with them. Thoughts of the woman and the child were with me all night.