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U.S./Mexico Border Encounter Episode 2: Voices

May 13, 2010

Encounter with migrants crossing desert (photo taken with their permission)

Across four recent days at the Arizona/Mexico border at ground zero of America’s immigration divide I encountered stories of pain and hope amidst a deeply broken system (see my photos).  It is a U.S. world I’ve never witnessed — migrants (and, yes, drug traffickers too) crossing the vast desert wilderness seeking to elude buzzing Border Patrol trucks, checkpoints, helicopters,  ATV’s, observation drones, and horse patrols.  We passed parked deportation buses, met migrants just sent back across to Mexico, and even encountered a tragic and brave group of six passing through the desert.  Listen to the voices of those inside this frontier for America and the church’s struggle for what kind of people we will become.


“We are human”  — Sign carried by one marcher among the 7,000 we saw in downtown Tucson protesting the state’s new immigration law

7,000 march against law in Tucson

“I have to present a passport when I go to a foreign country.  Why should we treat them any differently?” — An Anglo tourist during a vibrant give-and-take with our team on a hotel veranda overlooking Tucson at night

“I don’t care [about the new law].  Me and my brother have papers” — A Hispanic parking lot attendant.  Not only Anglos support the new law


The wall in Nogales. Left Mexico, right U.S.

“I am returning to Sacramento to my wife and three children” — A Mexican-American father we met walking his way across the U.S. desert ten miles from the border during our drive with a Samaritan Patrol member.  He and five others were sitting under a tree resting after 18 hours of walking.  One 20-year old girl was three months pregnant.  The Sacramento man spoke excellent English.  His story is not unusual:  He and his wife have lived in Sacramento for 20 years.  Their children were born in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens.  He works, pays taxes.  But there is no pathway to citizenship for him and his wife.  He had not seen his mother in southern Mexico for 10 years, and had gone to see her.  Kathryn, our Samaritan Patrol guide, said they walk 10-20 miles each day.  If all goes well, it is four days to Tucson.  But the “coyote” they hired to take them across had abandoned them and they had no idea which direction to go.  Kathryn said later, “They ran over to us even though we weren’t going to give them a ride,” which is illegal.  “They responded to our kindness.  It keeps them going.”  The rest of the trip and in the days since, I have wondered about their fate

“He abandoned us last night” — Another of the six migrants we met, speaking of the “coyote” smuggler they hired.  The vast majority of those who make it are led by coyotes who are paid as much as $3,000.  Coyotes used to be local, but trafficking has become an industry with an apparent intensifying relationship to criminal groups.  The migrants we met are poor and desperate, and there are many stories of being exploited

“Why did I forget the bandages?” — Our pilgrimage guide Max Cisneros, tearing up at a migrant hospitality center on the Mexico side, as he held the foot of a just-deported man who peeled off his sock to reveal a gaping wound.  Nearby, another migrant said he crossed the desert with a friend who died of a heart attack in the desert after taking some medicine to keep him awake

Max with cross remembing a border death

“I saw a skeleton in the desert.  I’m not going back” — Mexican man who had just been deported after being captured by the U.S. Border Patrol

“I am trying again in a few hours” —Another migrant.  He had already crossed twice, was captured twice, and was going again, trying to get to Utah.  The willingness to take life-endangering risks revealed a deep desperation

“I’d rather die to find a new life with my child than to die here” — From a letter found in Mexico, written by a young mother before she walked with her baby across the border to find her boyfriend in the U.S.  Her death was the first Max discovered in the desert.  The baby also died

Border Patrol at wall

“We’re just a band-aid out here.  It has to change on a political and social level.  It mostly has to do with an attitude change” — Our Samaritan Patrol guide Kathryn Ferguson, co-author of Crossing With the Virgin: Stories From the Migrant Trail.  There are fifty Samaritans, all volunteers, who cross the desert daily in three vehicles to provide medical, food, and water help.  They meet weekly, share what they see, and advocate for change

“9/11  was huge in changing the climate.  The milieu of fear is far deeper” — Kathryn Ferguson

“Churches are maintaining their members.  Numbers are declining.  They are not open to new ways” — One desert minister, speaking of the resistance of churches to desert ministry


“Immigrants take jobs from poor native-born Americans, depress native-born Americans’ wages, and cause higher unemployment” — Myth #3” according to the Houston Coalition for Immigration Reform, co-founded by African-American pastor Harvey Clemons after a profound awakening at a 2008 gathering of U.S. peace and justice leaders hosted by the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” — Migrant Shrine at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, quoting Hebrews 13:2

Desert terrain migrants cross

“The question is not purely legal but what kind of America do we want?” — My Duke companion Edgardo Emeric Colon, faculty member and Director of the Hispanic House of Studies, during the vibrant hotel veranda debate with our new Anglo friends

“Neither Mexican or American.   The church should be like that – something new”  — One of our traveling companions during the truck drive back from the border

“Don’t be obscene!” — An elderly Mexican woman at a supermarket, scolding Max.  We had just eaten delicious Mexican “gorditas” and Max commented out loud, “Those gorditas are really delicious!”  Problem was, Max didn’t realize none of us were around him, only the elderly woman, and “gordita” is also a term of endearment for an attractive woman who is “heavy-set”

“God doesn’t speak to me.  But He does give me messages”  — Max, speaking of the call he heard from God at age 70 to “stop looking out his window to see what others will do” and go into the desert to provide water to migrants.  At the end of our four-day journey Max kept muttering,  “I need to bring more supplies.”  This at age 80

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. gann permalink
    May 14, 2010 4:30 am

    Thank you for sharing with us, Chris. I have only just begun to listen to what God might be saying to me about the role the Spirit has for me in working for justice for our neighbors to the south. pray for me

  2. October 21, 2011 11:05 am

    This is a matter that this great country of ours must address in a mature and humanitarian way and not run away from it by dismissing it with the broad stroke of stereo types and prejudice . A song writer said that’s the reason why I sing. May believers prayerfully listen to the song of these newest of immigrates and respond appropriately and godly.
    Thank you Chris

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