The 15 of us left the southern Arizona resort before sunrise to avoid as much of the desert heat as possible. It was 10am, our well rested and perfectly hydrated group had been hiking a trail used by migrants illegally crossing into the United States for a little more than an hour. The heat was unbearable and the Jumping Cholla cacti were even worse. Though the term “migrant trail” was being used to describe our path, there was never an actual trail in sight. We were on our hands and knees making our way through a thick grove of desert brush when our guide stopped abruptly to show us the spot where he had found the remains of two unknown migrants who had perished. The spot had been marked with wooden crosses bearing the inscription “Desconocido 2009.”
Our guide was quick with his wit and sharp with his tongue, especially when the conversation turned towards his own political views. Seven years ago, he and his wife had moved to a retirement community about eighty miles north of the U.S/Mexico border in Arizona. They were part of a small group of retirees that drove around the desert three days a week filling water barrels and looking for migrants that were lost or injured. When this group encountered someone they were given the option to either call for medical attention, which also meant calling Border Patrol or they would receive some water, maybe some supplies and pointed north.
The hike was part of a day long US-Mexico Border Delegation trip arranged by the Arizona nonprofit, Border Links and was the finale of a week long conference for refugee and immigrant service providers and advocates working in the U.S. It had been a tough week, it was the peak of the Unaccompanied Child Migrant crisis, reports had the number of children detained at the border upwards of 60,000, and we were all scrambling to provide the kids with the best emergency response services while simultaneously learning just how desperate the situation was.
As refugee service providers, our group was accustom to hearing people recount some of the most horrific experiences humanity has to offer; human rights violations, human trafficking and survivors of torture are terms used in our daily vocabulary. We have all gone through a process of hardening ourselves in order to preform our jobs without sobbing uncontrollably when we listen to the stories of our clients. Yet, there were several moments during the week when not one person, in a room of more than a hundred people, was left with a dry eye.
As our group huddled around the two wooden crosses, our guide asked where we were from and why we were on this hike. We told him a little about the conference and that the organization we worked for had just begun the process of opening temporary housing for minors from Central America awaiting their deportation trials.
He thanked us for our work, “Glad to hear someone is fighting for those kids.”
He paused for a second, leaned into his walking stick and bowed his head, he continued, “They’ve got kids in cages down there at the border, it’s really something.”
We began hiking again, a few minutes passed before we stopped again at a spot where there were at least twenty or so empty backpacks and some tattered and discarded clothing in a pile on the ground.
“This is called a lay, because this is where they lay down anything that might identify them as an illegal migrant,” he explained, “They change into their most “American looking” clothes and ditch their backpacks to try and blend in with the locals.”
Earlier that morning we spent an hour in his house as he and his wife showed us their collection of items found at and around these “lays”, including rosaries, eyelash curlers, notebooks filled with important English phrases, phone numbers of contacts they had in the states and guide books on legal rights in the U.S. They showed us embroidered pieces of fabric that were used as knapsacks to carry small amounts of food, the variety of brightly colored traditional designs were representative of the many countries and tribes from which the migrants fled. They showed us examples of makeshift water jugs camouflaged so they would not produce a reflection when the sunlight hit the container, accidentally alerting someone of their presence. They also had a small collection of shoes.
The shoes from their collection ranged from baby size to adult male, his wife explained that most of the migrants they came across had no socks and shoes that were very badly worn, or, sometimes, no shoes at all. It took only a few moments of walking for me to really start thinking about these shoes. I had on really great hiking boots, but the first Jumping Cholla cactus I passed stung me right through my expensive boots. At no point during this experience had I not felt an overwhelming sense of empathy, but the thought of making this journey without good shoes or any shoes at all was almost too much to bear.
In the five years our guide had been combing the desert for lost migrants, he had found the remains of six people: two women, three men and one teenage boy. In the last thirteen years over two thousand bodies have been found in the desert. Very few children have been found, though it is certain some have lost their lives in the struggle to make it, their little bodies decompose too quickly to be found. The reality is, there is no way to know how many people have actually died during their journey. The brutal desert sun and the animals fighting for their own survival make finding human remains a difficult race against time.
My colleagues and I had spent the whole week learning the back stories of why people choose to make this journey. We learned of the economic hardships and deadly violence migrants are faced with before making the decision to flee. We had heard stories of kids as young a seven making their way up from Central America, it was a miracle for them to make it to the U.S border. We knew the numbers and the statistics, and we knew how difficult it was for illegal immigrants to make lives for themselves here in the states.
I knew all of these things, but it was not until I was standing over that memorial in the hot desert sun on an invisible trail, which was by all accounts, the easiest part of the migrant journey, was I able to understand how awful it must feel to chose between attempting the journey and maybe dying or staying put and dying for sure.