Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why We Walk

Reflections on the Migrant Trail

By Kathryn Rodríguez

I just returned from the 8th Annual Migrant Trail, a 75-mile walk from Sásabe, Sonora to Tucson, Arizona. The purpose of the Walk is to bear witness to the loss of life, the deaths of thousands of women, men and children on the US-México border by walking through the corridor where most human remains are recovered. Derechos Humanos has sponsored the Migrant Trail since the beginning, and I have been honored to walk every year.

Eight years ago, when a friend came to our weekly Derechos Humanos meeting with the idea for the Walk, I signed up to be part of the organizing committee. That first year, there were about thirty of us, and many of us had spent years working on the border.

Many of us have friends that have crossed the border here in Arizona, and some of us have known people who have died as a result. The idea of being in that space, of physically being present in an intentional way, was highly appealing to me.

It would be impossible for anyone who has never been a migrant to be able to understand what walking that trail feels. Besides the incredible amount of support that we have— water whenever we want it, support vehicles to carry our gear and anyone struggling to keep up, bandages and blister kits, and allies bringing meals out to us— we have the assurance that we will arrive safely.

[Primal Fear of Police]

Even stripping all of that from us, we exist free of the primal fear that I have seen in countless migrants. I once sat in a car with a woman so terrified that the smell of fear rolled off of her in long, powerful waves, and I finally understood what is meant when they say that animals can smell fear. I’ve talked to countless people who call to report a loved one missing, hearing fear lace every word they speak as they describe clothing and hair and eyes and teeth, hearing them desperately trying not to voice the fear that death will be the answer they are given.

Fear of law enforcement is something that is, for the most part, foreign to U.S. citizens — many of us assume that law enforcement is there to help us, and do not make conscious efforts to avoid any sort of detection or attention. I have learned, in my time at Derechos Humanos, the incredible lengths to which people must go to in order to live their lives. My privilege shames me when I think about this other reality, this sub-existence that we have carved out for the people that we so hypocritically depend on in this nation. I try to think about these things as we walk twelve to sixteen miles each day on the Walk.

There is something very cleansing about physical movement. The repetition of your heel, toe, heel, toe on the ground, and how that moves upward through your body. Many of us carry crosses bearing the names of individuals who have lost their lives on the Arizona border, and I try to think about how I can do justice to the ones I seek to honor. This year I walked with Alfonso Hernandez Ramirez, age 50, and Miguel Angel Rodriguez Ortiz, age 4. I thought about these two—a man in the prime of his life, most likely with a wife and children at home, and a little boy who would never have those things because he was never allowed to grow up.

[Migrants Dying on Border Are Not First Time Crossers]

I think about the fact that some of the migrants who die on the border are not first-time crossers who have traveled up from the south of México, but people who have been living for years in Phoenix or Chicago or Atlanta. Many view Arpaio’s crackdown on the immigrant communities as an unjust deportation, but it can also be a death sentence for those who struggle to return. Perhaps the officer who calls Border Patrol does not see it this way, but this is the reality. When a woman or man has lived here for fourteen years, gotten married, had children, bought a home or business and is then suddenly deported, where do we think they will go? Of course they will cross the border. Of course they will try to get home.

More and more of the stories I hear of relatives reporting loved ones missing are people who have created lives for themselves in this country, people who have become part of our communities.

We cannot forget, in denouncing the deaths on the border, to denounce the policies that send them to that unforgiving desert. Trade policies that have displaced agriculturally based workers from mostly Indigenous communities must be ended.

The militarization of the border must be halted, and the border wall removed. Deportations must no longer be permitted to tear families apart. Racial profiling and collaboration with Border Patrol must not be permitted, not just because it is unjust and unfair and racist, but because people are dying as a result.

After the first year of the Walk, we discussed doing it for a second year. It was a long, intentional discussion, and in the end we decided that we would only do it a second year if we were willing to commit to walking every year until the deaths stop.

To date, I have walked 600 miles to honor that promise. With every step we take, I hope that the hearts and minds of those who have turned hard hearts toward our migrant and immigrant sisters and brothers can be softened toward compassion and love, and I pray for the day that there are no deaths to denounce, no injustice to right, and for the day that we end the Migrant Trail.

Kathryn Rodríguez is the Program Director of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, based in Tucson, AZ.

These photographs were taken by Arnoldo García at the start of the 2010 Migrant Trail Walk.

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