Brian Traut and I met while both living in the Casa Maria Catholic Worker. He is actively involved with groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and undoubtedly the tallest protest-sign carrier. In 2016 he traveled to the American Southwest–a land of desert beauty and strongly debated border activity. Here, he shares his experience as a volunteer with the nonprofit, No More Deaths.
I had never seen a cacti in my 26 years, had never known a dry heat, so the comparison of the green rolling hills of Wisconsin that gave way to white blankets every year and the dead sands of the Sonoran desert exhilarated me. We sped down I-10 as the ground was swept up into dirt devils around us, everything was so light and temporary. Some kind of forced stillborn motion.
I was moving down to the desert to join an organization that aided people travelling across the Mexican- U.S. border located in the Sonoran Desert. I began as a one-month volunteer with No More Deaths and ended up staying 9 months.
No More Deaths is one of many humanitarian aid groups that acknowledges unjust social behavior occurring in the Sonoran desert and seeks to stop it by attacking the immediate problem. They generally invite month-long volunteers to go to the border and help them take care of camp or go on water drops. They also offer week-long spring break trips and are always looking for monetary or other donations that could be used to supply aid for those who want to live to the best of their abilities. If you would like more information, check out their website.
No More Deaths provided housing in Tucson, but the camp we were based at sits outside of Arivaca, an hour south and just 15 minutes from the border. The Arivaca region has a higher elevation than most of the state—the temperature is cooler, the land occupied by grass and mesquite trees. This area was cattle-rancher territory, state-owned public land that permeated individual properties allowed herds of cattle to meander the area. They were slow and stupid and cute.
To the west of camp is Baboquivari, a peak that looked like a thumb and was sometimes nicknamed as such. Baboquivari marked the boundary of the reservation and to the Tohono O’odham people it is the site of humans’ beginnings.
Why I Volunteered with No More Deaths
I didn’t entirely move down South because I believed in humanitarian aid.
It started as an excuse to get out of Milwaukee. I wanted to live somewhere other than Wisconsin, but having thought through my possibilities I couldn’t conceivably relocate just to relocate. I needed a place to move where I could participate in a politics that I believed in.
I wanted to leave the country, but the only possibility that would let me would be teaching English for Disney or other corporations that have invested money into the education and infrastructure of other countries just so that those populations would be easier to exploit.
The Peace Corps seemed too condescending and I didn’t want to have to go back to school, even if it meant going to school in Brazil or Germany where out-of-country students were invited to learn through financial incentives. At the time I was involved in the IWW and a few of my fellow workers and other political friends had told me about No More Deaths. I didn’t have any definitive moment that sealed my decision, I just kind of ran out of alternatives.
The Border-Crossing Journey
It takes roughly a month to travel through Mexico. This estimate is broad and encompasses many different experiences of many different passages. Mexico’s immigration laws are similar to the U.S. and they crack down on Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, and Honduran immigrants as hard as the U.S. So when a person travels through Mexico without papers, they take the discrete routes.
Travelling on foot warrants safety from the police throughout the Lacandon Jungle in the South, but people are more subject to assault by gangs and thieves. If a traveler is left unharmed by gangs, if they are not kidnapped for ransom, if they are not murdered, then the closer North they go with less of an option for traveling by foot. Many take La Bestia, Mexico’s trains of death. Here travelers risk decapitation as well as assaults from gangs or assaults from police.
For women, the voyage holds additional violence. Women are significantly more likely to experience sexual assault while travelling than men and, often, that violence results in death. This violence comes from police, from gangs, from coyotes, and even from other travelers. Out of all my time in the desert, I only met three female travelers. Two of them were with another man, the other was by herself. I don’t feel capable of sharing their stories adequately.
The last leg of the trip is the desert. The US–Mexican border was not always as militarized as it is today. Up until the last twenty or so years migration across the border was neither penalized as severely nor as difficult a feat.
The history of the border is lengthy, but what is especially important to know is how the desert is used as a weapon and a deterrent for migration into the U.S. There are walls on the border, the talk of walls do not come from people who have witnessed the monstrosity that cuts open towns like Nogales.
These walls do stop, however. They stop because it is more cost-efficient for the U.S. government to let people die in the middle of the desert than to prevent them from crossing in the first place.
Border Patrol often scours the desert by SUV, by ATV, by foot, but mostly by helicopter. They have numerous sensors planted on the U.S. side of the border that when triggered send a distress signal which is usually replied with a helicopter. Helicopters aren’t meant to detain people. They hover the area intending to scare the group, forcing the travelers to scatter.
Travelers are only actually strong when in a group. A single traveler who has never been through the desert has minimal chance of survival and the Border Patrol knows this. Travelers may eventually turn themselves in, desperate, with death so near, but No More Deaths has encountered bodies with 911 dialed into their phone. For some people, death by desert is a better risk than the return back.
I’m sitting at a long bench. Four long benches put together lying underneath a makeshift tent, patched here and tied there. A group of travelers have just arrived and to be at our utmost humble servitude equivalent to a five-star hotel, the group of No More Deaths volunteers scrambled to make the best rice and beans that Saint Lawrence himself would have been humbled by. “Gracias a Dio” the man across from me looks up at the tarp ceiling.
Some of the men at the table are overwrought with emotion shocked by their own survival and prostrating themselves between mouthfuls of rice and beans, this is their first time. Others are relaxed, some are smiling, some are straight-faced, replenishing themselves as though they’ve had a rough workout; they’ve made this trek before.
After we eat I go to the dish pit—three tubs surrounded by dirty dishes underneath a tarp. I ask a newcomer how long they’ve been walking in my broken Spanish. He tells me seven days. This is the minimum it takes to cross this stretch of the Sonoran Desert. This only happens if one has a guide or a group who knows the way, no one gets too dehydrated or gets hurt, and the Border Patrol don’t scatter the group with their scare tactics.
There’s a man from El Salvador here. He lived in the U.S. for almost 40 years, acquired a business selling used cars, started a family, participated in the community, and helped the police. He was an informant resulting in twenty arrests…including his own. The police department either could not distinguish him between their targets or chose to discard him with all the other undocumented people they sought out. He was deported back to a country that he has not known since he was a child, that was in civil war, and that has continued since under the control of various gangs. He made the trip back.
Interactions with Border Patrol
They’re following us now. I’m driving one of our two trucks with several other volunteers crammed in. They pass us but after a hundred yards the green and white Border Patrol pulls over and waits for us. They are very well acquainted with our trucks and know what we are up to. They know we drop water on trails, they know migrants stop at our water drops, whether or not they know where our drops are is something that is always unclear.
We decide to keep going, splitting up at our planned route and continuing with the day’s schedule. The Border Patrol tails my truck. We turn a few more bends, lose sight of them after a couple of hills, but there are very few forks in the road and this SUV is still behind us after ten minutes and five miles. There’s a small lookout to the left of us and I decide to stop again. They creep up. They stop.
We get out of the truck, intending to stretch our legs and maybe talk it out with them if they choose to pester us. They creep farther and after a hundred feet accelerate to a more normal speed. They’re probably just bored, but after having been in the desert for a couple of months I know that the less Border Patrol knows about, the safer some people will be. I walk up the road a little ways and see them sitting and waiting for us. I head back to the truck and we turn around, take a different route.
One drop we went on required a couple of miles hiking down into deep washes, up and around rocky hills, and general exposure to the Arizona sun. We stopped for a breather at least once before we reached our destination, unloaded our backpacks, breathed again, and then headed back with a downhill gusto. We crossed a fence and encountered a man in a green uniform, aviator shades, and what looked like a keffiyeh wrapped around his neck. He was wielding a shotgun at the ready.
Our group stumbled a little, but before we had too much time to react the Border Patrol agent spoke up.
“You all see anybody come through here?”
Without replying the man marched past us, shotgun poised across his chest. We proceeded down our trail and come across two blankets lain out next to some provisions. For some reason we hadn’t seen this on the way to our drop. Either we had gone too high or too low or maybe even because this picnic was a very recent event. It didn’t matter.
The weight of the situation silenced us. We were here to help those who demanded a life of quality. Granted our actions are limited by the laws of this country as well as our financial capabilities, but we were there to relieve those who fought for their survival. The border patrol agent who stormed past us, on the other hand, was looking to end their lives, by his own hands if necessary.
Day to Day Routine for No More Deaths Volunteers
Most days camp ran with a simple routine. We would wake up as early as necessary. If we were planning long hikes, then we would wake up around 6-7am. More relaxed days, usually involving chores or smaller water drops, we would sleep in until the sun woke us.
Every day we would breakfast—each person would volunteer to labor in whatever way was needed, potatoes, eggs, wash dishes, coffee, and when there was no more need for helping hands the extra help would lounge around the kitchen making morning small talk, playing guitar, or reading underneath the dining tent.
After breakfast was made, we would break out the maps for the drops we planned the night before. A checklist ensured that the GPS had the right waypoints marked in it, extra batteries, directions, and an analysis of usage: which water drops had previously been used and how much, whether animals had gotten to the water gallons, whether they had been vandalized.
Fortunately, a slashed gallon was rare. Several of our communities had run campaigns in the years prior publicizing video footage of Border Patrol kicking or slashing gallons as well as white supremacist groups that threatened travelers, and although these campaigns diminished sabotage they did not prevent them entirely.
After we pulled the maps, we checked the trucks, made sure we had proper levels across the board, tires were at a good psi, and lug nuts were secure. Then we loaded up the waters, the beans, the trail food, socks and blankets. We rounded up our bags and our lunches and piled in the truck. We traveled the washed-out dirt roads for as far as we could and then would hike until we reached the drop points. Sometimes our hikes were a mile sometimes just a few feet.
From time to time our camp would be a party. Larger groups would show up, play the guitar with us, play cards, make wise cracks about our food, or our lightning-quick reactions to the office phone. Most of our time was spent chatting. Chatting and avoiding the goddamn sun.
The people that we would help would always look to repay us. They either tried to cook for us or clean or give us advice; anything to give back. One night after dinner, a larger party that walked into camp the night before popped up from the picnic tables and—in their flip-flops and change of clothes found in the ropa tent—they grabbed the rakes and tools they could find and set to organizing our camp. They smoothed out the desert dust, organized the rocks, and moved away clutter. What came as a result was a soccer field that we played on for the rest of the night. It’s not easy kicking a ball around in flip-flops, but it didn’t matter.
No one wants to be a charity case. Survivors don’t deserve pity, they deserve respect and dignity.
2017 Border Patrol Raid
In the summer of 2017, Byrd Camp was raided by the border patrol. No More Death’s official relationship with the Border Patrol has always been open and complacent. They do not lie, nor do they wish to make enemies with the Border Patrol. The last raid had occurred almost ten years prior to the 2017 raid.
The break that Border Patrol gave to humanitarian aid groups is often due to community support and a global political acknowledgement. Many organizations including People Helping People seek to bring communities together to help those in need. With community help, Border Patrol was forced to relax their position and allow No More Deaths do what they proposed to do.
These new raids are due to Trump giving Homeland Security a fresh breath of xenophobic air, and because of them, several lives were forced into severe hardship. What’s more, since 2005 newer protocols regarding deportation, e.g. Operation Streamline, have been implemented. It has become a felony to cross the border illegally.
This falls under the rhetoric that connects the term “immigrants” with “illegal” and “criminal.” Someone who is not a U.S. citizen that crosses the border will be sentenced to at least 6 months in prison in order for them to be labelled as something dangerous. The only sentence hearing that occurs is a quick questionnaire: “Are you a U.S. citizen?” Judges in the Tucson area have been known to brag about sentencing 70 people to prison within 30 minutes under these conditions. After their time is up, they are then deported and any chance of acquiring a visa is revoked.
“Being Content is a Privilege”
The desert is harsh and unforgiving. Our government has used it against people that only want to live fruitful lives, e.g. Prevention through Deterrence. This isn’t to say that the American Dream is the means of living those lives, but rather that many people who have been displaced by the Coca-Cola company or other NAFTA-era initiatives often get reminded constantly that there is something better in America. In most cases what is better is just a little bit more money. Something that provides contentment because even being content is a privilege and a luxury in this world we were born into.
No More Deaths is an active organization that could use your financial, physical, and social support. Consider donating or contacting today.