On exhibit, found objects mark border crossers treacherous passage
By DEMETRIA MARTINEZ
Is it an art installation or an altar? At First Christian Church here a museum-quality display case holds, among other objects, the following: empty plastic water jugs, a backpack, a baby bottle, soap, Colgate toothpaste, a hairbrush, a sardine can, a sock and used AeroMexico tickets.
When Mexican migrants fan out across the treacherous Arizona desert border region, these are some of the things they carry. On foot a person might cover up to eight to 10 miles a day, especially if he or she doesnt have to carry a baby. So many try to beat the odds. The exhibit also holds a stroller and a Caribou bicycle, its tire tubes all shot to hell, punctured by cactus needles, on the trek through impossible terrain.
We find about a hundred bicycles a week, said the Rev. Robin Hoover, pastor at First Christian Church and founder of Humane Borders, which has maintained water stations for migrants, mostly on public lands, in the most desolate areas of Arizona for more than a year. The United States Border Patrol has pledged not to target the water stations, and it recently credited the availability of the large barrels of water with saving 33 lives in just one day.
The installation in the display case, put together by Maeve Hickey of Dublin, Ireland, is called Lost and Found: Remnants of a Desert Passage. She selected items from the hundreds that Humane Borders volunteers have collected on their frequent trips to haul water to the stations.
Standing before the glass case, Hoover explained that the Caribou bike was found about 23 miles north of the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
The stroller was found 21 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border at the Jim Corbett Water Station in Organ Pipe. Named after the deceased Sanctuary Movement founder, Jim Corbett station has dispensed the most water of all 14 stations Humane Borders maintains.
Weve even found babys cowboy boots with silver tips, said Hoover. He added that he doesnt know what fate, good or bad, befell the baby or the owner of the stroller.
Of the many personal hygiene items volunteers find at water stations: Migrants think theyve made it and now theyre going to freshen up, Hoover said.
In fact a lot of migrants have no idea where they are in relation to where they want to end up.
Hoover said most have their sights on Florida, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, New Jersey and anywhere in Texas. Depending on what point they started along Arizonas almost 300-mile border with Mexico, they press northward: through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, the Tohono OOdham Indian Reservation, and other, mostly public, lands.
Some groups have arranged ahead of time for rides that theyll meet up with in small towns, or at appointed spots along the highway. Smugglers called coyotes guide some groups for a price, often proffering false promises of a nearby city where a ride awaits to take them to their destinations. Still others imagine that Phoenix is just around the bend.
They push on.
Volunteers come across many socks. When feet swell and burrs and needles collect in socks, the socks are left behind. The most common metal item found, Hoover said, is a poor persons version of a Swiss Army knife with nail clippers, can opener and knife. It is used to cut needles out of clothes or the body. People also use the instrument to modify their clothing: to cut off sleeves and shorten pants in triple digit heat. Another item found: injectable xylocaine to deaden pain.
The Border Patrol has, in the past decade, successfully sealed off traditional urban points of entry, such as Juarez-El Paso; hence the large numbers attempting to cross the desert, which in Arizona is mostly under federal, state, tribal, county or corporate management. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have permitted Humane Borders to erect poles with flags at a number of animal watering troughs; the flags bear the symbol of the drinking gourd from the abolitionist movement -- with water pouring from the dipper.
Humane Borders provides water to address the immediate emergency. But its ultimate goal is, with other groups, to force changes in U.S. immigration policy -- to take death out of the migration equation, as Hoover puts it.
According to the Arizona Daily Star, since Jan. 1, at least 85 immigrants have died attempting to cross into the Border Patrols Tucson sector.
The length of the entire U.S.-Mexico border is almost 2,000 miles. Human rights groups estimate that at least one person a day dies trying to cross it.
Remarking on the display, Hoover said he was not sure why someone would carry used Aero-Mexico plane tickets although such documents are often found. Carrying it, an immigrant runs the risk of a border patrol agent using the plane ticket as evidence of country of origin, a basis for deportation. On the other hand, there is an advantage. Your name on your person can help identify your body should you die along the way.
Theres much beyond the display of things found in the desert, the things that migrants carry.
At Humane Borders church office, there are, among other items, a babys undershirt, business cards, a cologne bottle, wedding pictures, crucifixes, a doll, and Five Minutes of Prayers in the Home, a Spanish language booklet dated March 2002.
The desert holds letters lost or left behind. I love you, reads a handwritten letter in Spanish. I need you. I hope that very soon we can be together forever.
NCR columnist Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.
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National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002