Over Saint Louis University’s spring break, I piled into a huge white van at 6:00 am with camping gear in tow to join a group of 12 SLU students and staff for a spring break immersion trip to the US/Mexico border at Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. The drive was long; it took two and a half days of driving to arrive in Nogales. But the choice to drive those 1,500 miles had been made carefully and intentionally. As we crossed the country, sleeping in a different place each night, we contemplated the reality of migrants and immigrants who don’t have set places to rest their heads on grueling journeys toward the hope of a new and safe home.
Over the course of the week, we encountered many groups of people and heard a wide array of stories and perspectives: from a Colombian man living in sanctuary at a Franciscan retreat center in Las Cruces, to a Nogales Border Patrol agent from Haiti, to migrants at Kino Border Initiative’s comedor who were on their way into the US from Central America or who had just been deported to Mexico, we listened and learned about immigration and the vast and varied ways it shapes life in the borderlands. I could write ten pages detailing all we experienced that week, but I’d like to write on a specific moment that has rung inside my head since it happened.
On our second day at the border, Kino Border Initiative’s Education Coordinator Katie Sharar took us on a desert hike in Arivaca, Arizona, a town of about 700 people located 11 miles from the Mexican border and 35 miles from the Nogales port of entry. She explained to us the intricacies of this tiny town, noting the oddity of the groups that make up its small population. Arivaca is populated by roughly five groups: ranchers (and their employees), retired people and snowbirds who move south in the winter, a small group of anarchist humanitarians running a small non-profit, militiamen intent on using citizen strength to “secure the border”, and Border Patrol agents. The group that ties these seemingly-disparate groups together is an often invisible one: the migrants who cross through the desert at Arivaca in hopes of making it safely into the US. The lives of all the people in Arivaca are affected by or oriented towards the migrants in different ways. Ranchers bemoan the damage done to their property by migrants passing through their land, and militiamen hunt for signs of passing migrants despite CBP’s protests. Humanitarian groups and other residents spend time procuring services and aid for migrants, setting out water stations on their property if nothing else. And the migrants pass through, as quietly and inconspicuously as they can, toward the life they seek.
Katie drove us to a wildlife reserve in Arivaca, a small park through which it is common for residents to hike; a long-haired old man passed us, walking a golden retriever. It is also a spot through which migrants often pass. Katie brought us to this spot for a short desert hike, so that we might experience for ourselves the terrains that migrants cross, the conditions they endure, and the remnants they leave behind.
The day’s weather was unusual: despite being mid-March, it had recently rained and was still overcast and chilly. We waded through a creek that almost never existed this time of year, and we all bundled up in raincoats and sweatshirts. Katie reminded us over and over that these conditions were out of the ordinary and that usually, people traveling at this time of year would be faced with long, dry stretches of heat. We passed items strewn about beneath trees: backpacks with broken straps, empty bottles of water and cans of beans. T-shirts, bras. Unmistakable signs of life. We stopped for a long moment in a shady spot, holding in our silence the memory of the people who had left those things behind - praying that they were safe now, wherever they might be.
As we pushed out of the trees into a large clearing, Katie stopped us to tell us about the surveillance in the area. She explained that the small mountains just west of us were often inhabited by scouts; usually US citizens working with drug cartels, these scouts use binoculars to watch for groups of migrants crossing the desert at the same time as drug mules the scouts are affiliated with. Then, the scouts call Border Patrol to alert them of the migrants, effectively distracting CBP and allowing mules the safety to pass. She also told us that we had very likely come across CBP’s radar by then; in many areas, subterranean weight-based sensors are planted in the ground, so that when people step over them, CBP is alerted. To synthesize what we had learned about this strong surveillance, Katie pointed northwest, where all we could see was fog. Though it was invisible to us, Baboquivari Peak stood tall about 30 miles away, a mountain located in the nearby Tohono O’odham Nation.
“The mountain peak is tall and narrow, almost like a thumb. It’s usually easily visible,” she told us. “Migrants are told to follow it to safety. Someone crossing on a cloudy day like today would be lost.”
We reflected on the cruel reality that, in order to see the peak that signals the direction of safety, a migrant group must stand in the middle of a large clearing, exposing themselves to the eyes of scouts and Border Patrol. In order to orient themselves, to plan their next move, they must put themselves at grave risk of detention or deportation.
Katie stood, hands on hips, and said something that would continue to ring in my head for the rest of the trip and beyond: “This spot doesn’t look like much, but this is the center of everything.”
Where is the “center” of immigration issues in the United States today? Is it there, in Arivaca, on that shrubby plain, surrounded by the discarded items of migrants en route? Is it at Paso del Norte, under the bridge that connects El Paso to Juarez, where thousands of migrants huddle together, freezing and hungry? Is it in the White House, where the administration routinely dehumanizes and criminalizes migrants?
Or is it possible that there is no real “center” to immigration discussions in our country? Could the center, somehow, be everywhere? Could it be equally important everywhere to stand alongside migrants and immigrants, to use our voices to amplify theirs, no matter where they are?
I think often, even weeks after returning from the border, of that haunting, simple observation of Katie’s. The center of everything is today, and it is wherever we are. Wherever we can stand up for justice, there is the center. Wherever we can support our neighbors, our family members in humanity, there is the center. Wherever we can love without condition, there is the center of everything.