Disappeared into the desert

Margaree Little is a Rhode Island activist working with No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, a group that provides aid to migrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border. Here, she recounts her recent experiences in Tuscon, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico.

I ARRIVED last Friday evening, September 18; other volunteers who arrived early enough in the day attended the court proceedings at the Tucson courthouse. There, they witnessed the new "streamlining" process, in which as many as 100 immigrants stand before a judge, with one attorney to every seven or eight people.

The attorneys get about 15-20 minutes with each client before the proceedings begin, and a volunteer who attended the proceedings told me one attorney didn't even realize that one of the people he was representing was a minor until midway through the process.

The volunteers who had been out in the desert the week before, dropping off water bottles and food and providing emergency medical care to immigrants who had been walking for days, told stories of finding hundreds of water bottles slashed by the Border Patrol, and food cans opened and dumped on the ground to spoil.

In Nogales--I crossed the border into Mexico without even showing my passport--I am working with a group of Jesuit volunteers who run an emergency shelter and soup kitchen for people who have just been deported. My job is to interview people about abuses they have experienced in U.S. custody and try to coordinate with legal representatives in Tucson to get people's possessions returned to them.

U.S. immigration confiscates money, medicine (including vitamins from one woman I met who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she was apprehended), phone numbers and other belongings, and doesn't return them to people when they are deported.

Most of the migrants I have met are from Southern Mexico; some are from Honduras. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement's inception in 1994, 19 million Mexicans have fallen into poverty. More than 1 million small farmers have been forced off their land because of the lifting of restrictions on cheaper U.S.-subsidized agricultural products. The end result of U.S. trade policy: millions are forced to abandon their land and their homes in order to survive.

Here on the border, Operation Gatekeeper of 1994 and Operation Safeguard of 1995 have meant increased militarization of the border--military contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as Blackwater, have won billions of dollars in contracts from the U.S. government to provide "information technology services" to the Department of Homeland Security. The same Israeli company contracted to build the apartheid wall in Palestine has won a contract to construct part of the wall here.

All of this can't stop immigrants, but it does push them into increasingly deadly parts of the borderlands. The official count of people who have died in the Sonoran desert this summer is 189--and most people say that for every one documented death there are five to 10 more people who have simply disappeared into the desert.