More than Just a Delegation

“Loving Creator, full of love and mercy, I want to ask you for my Migrant brothers and sisters. Have pity on them and protect them, as they suffer mistreatments and humiliations on their journeys, are labeled as dangerous, and marginalized for being foreigners. Make them be respected and valued for their dignity. Touch with Your goodness the many that seem them pass. Care for their families until they return to their homes, not with broken hearts but rather with hopes fulfilled. Let it be.” 
~ Prayer for the Migrant


The Sonora desert is a place of stark contrasts. One of the most lush and beautiful deserts in the world, this desert has also become one of the deadliest corridors for migrants as a direct result of increased border militarization over the past several decades. This past April, a small SOA Watch delegation traveled to the U.S./Mexico border to learn the stories of human suffering, as well as community responses to the humanitarian and U.S. foreign policy crisis that has been largely and intentionally ignored. Throughout our travels, we heard over and over again that Arizona is not the exception, but the rule, for nefarious policies of criminalization and militarization across the U.S. We have come to understand that Arizona is a testing ground – a laboratory for anti-human measures. We traveled seeking answers to questions on how to best organize for our first SOA Watch this October 7-10.

Before making our way to ambos Nogales, it was important for us to meet with groups in Phoenix, Tucson and Arivaca to understand the history of Arizona – first and foremost indigenous land – as well as the history of anti-immigrant legislation that has targeted, criminalized, incarcerated, deported and separated families for far too long. We listened intently as we learned of the importance of intentionality with connecting our traditional solidarity work to social justice issues at the border, which is key as we pave the way for our first convergence at the U.S./Mexico border in Nogales. We are not the first group, nor will we be the last group to organize a convergence at the border. Our energies in creating this space of convergence and resistance will be directed at uplifting the work of the broad network of humanitarian organizations and communities across both sides of the border, while centering the voices of those most impacted by the deadly border security and immigration policies.

Co-sponsored by the Alliance for Global Justice, we hosted a community event at the Global Justice Center, “The Many Borders of the United States: A Conversation on the Ever-evolving Landscape of U.S. Imperialism” to discuss the impact of militarized border policies on the Tohono O’odham Nation and migrants, the profits made by private contractors in militarizing the border, and the replication of the border policies to the southern border of Mexico under the Southern Border Plan. We are grateful to have counted on the participation of Nelly Jo David, a Tohono O’odham community and border advocate, law student and future lawyer; Isabel García, an organizer with Coalición de Derechos Humanos; Todd Miller, investigative journalist and author of Border Patrol Nation; and Eduardo García, independent journalist and SOA Watch Research Consultant.

Through Nelly’s powerful and heartbreaking testimony of the many violations that are committed by Border Patrol on Tohono O’odham land, we also learned of the virtual surveillance towers that are being built by private Israeli contractor Elbit Systems. Unless these anti-human projects are halted, at least 15 of those towers will be built on scared Tohono O’odham Nation land – the second largest reservation in the U.S. which has been geographically and culturally ripped apart by the creation of the U.S./Mexico border and devastated by the presence of Border Patrol Agents on their sovereign land.

At the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, an organization that helps families identify and find missing loved ones who were last seen attempting to the cross the border, we learned of the critical role Colibrí has in humanizing the disastrous effect of oppressive foreign policies in Latin America, as well as the impacts of the U.S. policy, specifically Prevention Through Deterrence. Developed in the early 1990’s, this policy essentially began channeling traditional migration routes through the desert on the premise that this route would be so hostile that no one would dare cross. Over 20 years later, we know that the deaths and disappearances of migrants have only increased. The desert has been transformed into the deadliest of weapons, and we must hold the U.S. accountable for these violations.

Equally inhumane is the system of injustice in U.S. courts. In operation for over 10 years now, Operation Streamline has been utilized as a legal mechanism to further criminalize, detain and deport migrants. Alongside No More Deaths, we bore witness to the horrors of Operation Streamline in Tucson. It was an emotional experience to see the unjust way in which migrants are shackled and packed into a courtroom – up to 70 at a time – to be sentenced to mandatory prison sentences at private detention centers before they are deported to their point of entry into the U.S. – not necessarily their country of origin. The cold “business as usual” attitude by judges, lawyers, interpreters, Border Patrol agents and U.S. Marshalls sent a clear message that migrants are seen as lesser-than-human. Who benefits? The private for-profit prison system. No More Deaths, alongside a coalition of groups have formed the End Operation Streamline Coalition to document what occurs here in hopes of ending this judicial atrocity.

If funneling migrants through the desert and the traumatic and dehumanizing way in which they are detained and deported was not enough, there is 24-hour surveillance by U.S. Border Patrol through the installation of checkpoints on all North-South routes located up to 100 miles inwards from the U.S. border. These checkpoints, known as a “constitution-free zone“, are used for policing, regardless of legal status. As a result of increased migration through the Sonora desert, the small rural community of Arivaca,  located just 11 miles North of the border, has come together as People Helping People to not only monitor Border Patrol at these checkpoints in an effort to denounce and do away with them, but to aid any migrant in need of food, shelter or medical assistance.

While in Arivaca, and guided by Paula Miller of No More Deaths, a volunteer-based humanitarian organization created in 2004 to put an end to migrant deaths in the desert, we walked through a small corridor of the desert as a small gesture of solidarity to our migrant brothers and sisters who risk their lives crossing every day. The experience, though it is no comparison to the intense journey riddled with obstacles ranging from bodily injuries, dehydration, exposure to the elements, and intentional displacement and disorientation created by Border Patrol agents hovering their helicopters over groups of migrants fighting for their lives. We left the dusty winds and heat of the desert with heavy hearts, but not before writing messages of encouragement on the plastic gallon jugs of water for migrants who might cross that same path – no están solos/you are not alone, bienvenidos amigos/welcome friends, and reciting a prayer for them.

Upon arriving in Nogales, we stayed at HEPAC (Home of Hope and Peace), a vibrant community center in the heart of Nogales, Sonora. Aside from providing meals and education for the children of Nogales, HEPAC is also a space of resilience and dignity for children and women alike as they assert their human rights and organize their community our small delegation was able to hear the testimonies women who have organized themselves to form labor unions migrant shelters and labor rights. We were also able to visit migrant shelters and a comedor, both programs of the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), where every day, recently deported migrants, as well as migrants preparing to make the treacherous cross into the U.S., receive warm meals and smiles from staff and volunteers. Moreover, KBI staff and volunteers have created a space of popular education and support for migrants, as well as direct services such as medical assistance, phone calls to family and clothing, in addition to providing temporary shelter for women and children.

We are grateful to the Tucson chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace for  inviting us to take part in the first bi-national solidarity seder in which the stories of exodus were centered around the lived experiences of migrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border. Despite being in front of the imposing border wall, we were able to share stories and a meal with fellow social justice advocates on both sides of the border, including members of the Border Patrol Victims Network, made up of families who have suffered human rights violations at the hands of Border Patrol Agents who continue to operate with impunity. Family members of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a Border Patrol Agent on October 10, 2012, were present with us. His family is still seeking justice, as are so many other families who have suffered human rights violations at the hands of Border Patrol Agents who operate with impunity. Sharing that space at the bi-national seder reminded us of why we need to continue to build a movement against U.S. militarization.

As a solidarity movement that began 26 years ago to close the School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC) and change oppressive U.S. policy in Latin America, our delegation saw first-hand how decades of training in low-intensity conflict south of our border has been utilized to terrorize and threaten lives of migrants and the Tohono O’odham communities. We have seen the connections between how the U.S. training of death squads and counterinsurgency tactics are now used at the U.S./Mexico border. Determined to do our part to uplift the work being done by the incredible organizations in the border region, and to continue pushing back against U.S. militarism in the border region, we returned to our communities with the resolve to educate and mobilize for the upcoming Convergence at the Border in Nogales.

It is true that Arizona is home to some of the most vicious attacks on migrant and indigenous communities. It is also true that in places where you see the most injustice, you also see the most beautiful and creative acts of strength, courage and resistance. This is a lesson we carry with us in our hearts. We hope to see you in Nogales.

Please contact María Luisa if you are interested in getting more involved in the Convergence at the Border. Also, if you are interested in supporting SOA Watch in making more delegations like this possible, consider donating to the Delegation Scholarship Fund.

in peace,

Kat & María Luisa

Click here to view more photos from our border delegation.