A thin blanket lies crumpled on the ground in the Arizona desert. I am with fellow Unitarian Universalists walking along on a trail known to be used by migrants from Mexico. Our guide was part of a group that attempts to save lives by leaving water along the migrant trails.
This blanket cannot have given sufficient warmth in the cold desert winter night. Was it used to wrap a small child? Why was it left on the ground? Was the owner apprehended by Border Patrol? Did the migrant with a smuggler (a “coyote”) succeed in evading the heavy security? Perhaps his or her lifeless body was somewhere nearby.
Last year 252 migrants died in the Sonoran desert. That is the most ever.
Earlier in the day we had gone to Nogales on the Mexican side of the border and visited with migrants who had not eluded capture. I helped serve a meal at the simple “comedor” (dining room) run by a Jesuit ministry. On a typical day they serve one hundred to three hundred meals to migrants who have been deported in the previous few days.
Their stories reveal the human reality that statistics and abstractions obscure. All of the stories sting; the stories of the children break your heart. Flor, 12, was at the comedor with her mother and younger brother. Flor has lived in the U.S. for eleven years and speaks fluent English. Flor, her parents and her younger brother had returned to Mexico to be with her grandfather in his final days. Her grandmother in Mexico has cancer. On their way “home” back to the U.S., the family was captured in the desert. Her father was separated from them and taken to a different city. They have no idea where he is. This is no accident. It is policy. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) separates families as a matter of course.
Down the street from the comedor is a simple bus station. The owner lets captured migrants gather there and offers half price tickets to any who wish to return to their homes. Some hope to raise the money. The vast majority will try to cross the border again—for some it will be their fourth or fifth try.
A couple of blocks away the Catholics who run the comedor maintain a couple of apartments for women. I cannot imagine a pregnant woman or a woman with a small child trying to cross that desert. One small girl, who had been living in Atlanta, implores us to take her with us back to the U.S. so she can go home.
I must have spoken with a dozen migrants. One thing struck me and haunts me. Not a single one of these people, not one, spoke of coming to America to have a better life for himself or herself. There was simply no personal ambition in this group. They risk death crossing the desert, and each one of them knows that hundreds die each year, for their families. They are risking their lives to feed children or to send money home to wives, children, and parents living in squalid poverty. Some are risking their lives to rejoin their families in the U.S.
We Americans who are so driven by the ideology of personal success have difficulty understanding that personal ambition is utterly absent from these migrants. No sane ambitious person would attempt to cross today. Southern Arizona is like a war zone swarming with thousands of law enforcement officials using high tech equipment. The desert and the ICE can deter people whose motivations are personal greed. There is no stopping a father trying to feed his family or a mother trying to rejoin her children. They would rather die than stop trying. And many of them will die.
I do not pretend to have all the answers on this human crisis. I understand that thoughtful people of good will are going to differ on what our public policy should look like.
But I do know this: what I saw happening to migrants on our southern border made me deeply ashamed of my country. The vast majority of Americans of whatever political persuasion would feel the same shame if they witnessed what is being done in our name. Even those who believe our border should be sealed and that enforcement should be vigorous cannot condone the way we are treating people. We heard story after story of brutality by ICE—of water bottles dumped out, of medicines thrown away, of children taken from their parents. We heard of private, for-profit prisons springing up everywhere. We heard people tell of being thrown into these detention centers for months. We heard of slips of paper with family phone numbers being thrown away so that migrants cannot call anyone.
What has happened to our freedom loving country, a country that has been a leader in advocating human rights, when we allow this to be done in our name? What has happened to us when we look the other way? We Americans are not dying in the desert, but we are being brutalized by the fear, the anger, the violence, and the injustice. It is taking a terrible toll on our souls.
Leaders from every single faith tradition are speaking out against what we are doing: Catholics, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims. I am proud of what our Unitarian Universalist congregations in Arizona are doing. But their heroic efforts are not nearly enough. This is a moral crisis for America.
I hope the owner of that tattered blanket is safe. I fear the worst. And I fear for us.