Confronting Unjust Immigration and Border Policies in the Arizona Desert


“There is nowhere on Earth like the place where we work. It is beautiful beyond telling: harsh, vast, mountainous, remote, rugged, unforgiving, every cliché you can think of and more. I have been humbled countless times by the incredible selflessness and courage of the people that I have met there, and I have been driven nearly out of my head with rage at the utterly heartless economic and political system that drives people to such lengths in order to provide for their families.”
– No More Deaths Volunteer

This Spring Break, eight Harvard Law students and clinicians travelled to the U.S.-Mexico border to do humanitarian work with No More Deaths.

When we signed up, we knew the operation was contentious. We glossed over the details with our parents and felt the need to justify the work we would be doing to our law school friends. For, border policy has been framed as a security issue, and has largely been unopposed even by pro-immigration groups as most people view current enforcement policies as the necessary means to that end.

We therefore didn’t believe that this trip had to implicate our stance on immigration. Providing humanitarian aid was a moral decision, not a political one – no one should have to die of dehydration or starvation in the desert. However, the realities of the desert made it difficult to engage in humanitarian work without confronting our own political beliefs relating to what can only be described as an extreme crisis at the border.

What we found at the border was vastly different from the narrative we’ve heard in the media and in politics. The desert separating Mexico and the U.S. is a warzone and thousands of migrants have died in the last decade trying to cross it. During our week there we witnessed the terror border patrol inflicts on both migrants and residents. We saw the water bottles we put out slashed and our own tracks closely monitored. On the trail we found shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe, abandoned backpacks, and tattered shoes, left behind by those embarking on a journey to save their lives or the lives of those they love. Rather than meeting drug-mules and criminals, we found the trails walked by families, hopeful victims, and people trying to return to their true home.

Immigration and Border Policy

The U.S. border has not always been this way. In fact, migration to the land that is now the United States has occurred for thousands of years. However, starting in the late-1800s, racially-selective immigration policies began to be written into law.

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, increasing the size of Border Patrol, toughening laws against migrant smuggling, and providing for the construction of a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. These border policies were then coupled with the criminalization of migration and vastly expanded deportation of migrants in the U.S. without papers. Thus began a process where the United States began to physically seal the border at the most common crossing points, forcing people to migrate, or re-migrate, through the desert.

However, having witnessed border practices on the ground, it is clear that the actual objective of border patrol and border policies is not in any sense to stop illegal immigration, but rather to manage and control immigration. The goal is to make entering the country without papers extremely dangerous, traumatizing, and expensive for individuals who choose to do so, but still possible. It is to ensure that when immigrants do come, the threat of deportation will mean something very serious.

But, why? Many immigration groups point to two groups of interests served by current immigration and border policies. On the one hand, the U.S. economy is dependent on the exploitation of undocumented labor. The threat of deportation provides American employers and big corporations with a vast and disposable pool of labor that is kept vulnerable and therefore easy to exploit. This in turn helps drive down wages for American-citizen workers. On the other hand, the criminalization of migration and securitization of the border transfers billions of tax dollars to border security and private prison corporations, as migrants are imprisoned and detained. Strong and wealthy private prison and arms lobbies in Washington and in border states have helped keep changes to border policy out of the immigration debate.

Ultimately, as stated succinctly by a border activist: “the atrocious suffering that happens on the border every day is not an accident. It is the predictable and intentional result of policies implemented at every level of government on both sides of the border.”

Our experiences with No More Deaths on the border

It was the injustice of many of these policies that led the two of us to seek this experience with No More Deaths in the Arizona desert.

No More Deaths was started in 2004 by faith based activists, many of whom were formerly leaders of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. No More Deaths aims to “end death and suffering on the U.S.-Mexico border through civil initiative: the conviction that people of conscience must work openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights.” The organization maintains transparency, under the conviction that the humanitarian aid they give to migrants is legal. No More Death’s track record in court verifies this assertion.

Our main tasks in the desert were to put food and water out for migrants, provide medical aid, and hike the trails in the region to attempt to monitor border patrol practices and map out new routes for the humanitarian aid teams. After just one day in the desert, the necessity of such aid was apparent – the dry heat is relentless, the terrain is steep and treacherous, and the plants and animals seem to exist for the sole purpose of harming everything that crosses their path. As we hiked we became hungry, thirsty, beat up, and scared, even though we had a safe camp to return to. Despite our sleeping bags, sweaters, and blankets, we often woke up shivering in the frigid desert night. Trekking dozens of miles in these conditions, without reliable food, water, or warmth, abandoned or at the mercy of manipulative guides, seemed like an impossible journey that only the desperate and courageous would embark on.

Our personal encounters on the trip illuminated the migrant experience for us. On one hike, a group found an abandoned, half eaten meal of beans and canned sausages, apparently left just moments beforehand. Migrants often have to abandon their possessions and each other to avoid apprehension by Border Patrol, who use helicopters, drones, and advanced surveillance equipment to search for migrants. On our hikes we saw Border Patrol marching up and down trails with assault rifles and watched as their trucks sped by with dog-kennel sized holding-cells. Surveillance towers reminiscent of a dystopic super-state loomed over the terrain. The imbalance of power on the border is remarkable, undermining any rhetoric suggesting that Border Patrol is somehow at a disadvantage.

Although we didn’t meet any travelers on the trail, we felt and saw their presence. Food and water we left out on Monday had been consumed by Wednesday, and fresh trash appeared along popular trails. Our seasoned guides colored the landscape with stories of their own encounters. Through their years of collected experience they had met a myriad of folks – men, women, and children – with unique and inspiring stories of hardship and endurance. They had treated a wide range of medical emergencies, rescued the waning, and recovered the fallen. Migrants had told them about how they had been attacked by bandits, had been separated from their group and wandered the desert lost and alone for days, and had been chased by dogs unleashed on them by Border Patrol. Without aid from groups like No More Deaths, many more would fall mercy to the desert, and many more would die.

One night as we sat around the campfire, a volunteer shared that on her hike that day she found a bible that contained a personal poem entitled “Cansado de Camino”—Tired of the Walk. The exhaustion we felt at the end of each day couldn’t approach that felt by those who walk for days and weeks at a time. Those making the trip must have powerful forces pushing them forward. Their courage is unparalleled.

Toward the end of our trip we visited the medical camp, where volunteers had built a shrine to honor the thousands of people lost on this journey. The shoes, wallets, clothing, rosaries, and bags looked like the items we found scattered on our hikes. The white crosses bore the question “?Cuantos mas?” How many more will we allow to die in the desert?

Operation Streamline

We concluded our week by witnessing migrants’ experiences with the justice system, sitting in on an “Operating Streamline” hearing.

Operation Streamline began in Texas in 2005 and now operates in seven border cities. The process aims to “streamline” the punishment of migrants illegally crossing into the U.S. through mass-court proceedings. Judges routinely convict up to seventy people in under two hours. Though lawyers are contracted to represented migrants, they spend 20 minutes getting to know their clients the same day as their criminal hearing. All migrants are encouraged to accept a plea bargain that charges them with the misdemeanor of “illegal entry,” which carries with it a punishment of 30 to 180 days of jail-time, usually in private prisons. Following their criminal sentences, migrants will enter immigration removal proceedings and be deported. Now that they have a federal criminal record, they may not be eligible for any “path to citizenship” or asylum claims.

With this background, and our own personal experiences studying criminal law, we entered Arizona’s Federal District Court in Tucson. The courtroom was majestic and formal-looking, ironic in contrast to the sham criminal proceedings we would witness. In the courthouse were seated rows and rows of Latino men and women. They sat shackled and handcuffed.

They were called up 8 at a time.

Most “Operation Streamline” defendants are charged by the government prosecutors with two charges: the misdemeanor of illegal entry, and the felony of illegal reentry. By accepting the government’s plea bargain, migrants will only be charged with the misdemeanor.

All pled guilty. When asked if they would like to say anything further to the judge, many defendants said “lo siento” and “disculpame por entrar en los Estados Unidos ilegalmente”: “I’m sorry” and “forgive me for entering the U.S. illegally”. Neither the prosecutor nor migrants’ attorneys spoke throughout the hearing. With a nod, the judge accepted the plea agreements and defendants were led shackled out of the courthouse.

There are so many things wrong with these proceedings. The mass-process of these hearings has serious due process implications. The quality of legal representation also almost assures that migrants will not be given the opportunity to present valid defenses to illegal entry such as refugee, asylum, or derivative citizenship claims. There is also a clear lack of understanding by the migrants around the entire process, as well as the criminal consequences of migration. One migrant described how he turned himself into Border Patrol in the desert because his wife had just had a miscarriage and he wanted to go home as quickly as possible. At the hearing, the judge listened, but proceeded to sentence him to 60-days in prison before he could be deported back home.

The irrationality of punishing migrants for crossing the border is most distressing considering migrants’ very human and largely involuntary reasons for crossing into the United States. Some cross to find jobs, especially since trade-treaties like NAFTA and CAFTA have destroyed the agricultural and manufacturing industries south of the border. Many others are now crossing to escape the violence and conflict raging through Mexico and Central and South America. For, migration patterns often map onto international events and disasters. A cursory overview of situations in migrants’ home countries makes apparent the U.S.’ significant role in many of the factors that push people to cross the border.

In addition, in the age of mass deportations of long-time residents under the Obama administration, many migrants now re-cross because the U.S. is the only home they know. They cross because that is where their families are. This story by a migrant is symptomatic of many of the people now crossing through the deadly Sonoran desert:

“I’ve lived in the states for eighteen years. I’ve never been in any trouble. Six months ago I got pulled over: The policeman said that I didn’t use my turn signal. They sent me to a detention facility. They dropped me off across the border with nothing. I had nowhere to go. I hadn’t been there in so long. I left with a group that night. My whole life is here [in the U.S.]. There is nothing for me in this world if I can’t make it back. If I die I die. This is my only chance.”

Ultimately, current U.S. border policies manifest pervasive xenophobia. We have justified inhumane and stringent border practices and immigration policies by vilifying the character of those entering the U.S. Mainstream society has dehumanized migrants in many of the same ways it dehumanized the Chinese migrants in the 19th century, the Japanese during World War II, and blacks throughout this country’s history. Ostensibly reasonable yet essentially self-serving justifications for such extreme policies, such as “security” and “stability,” bear an eerie resemblance to the reasons underlying the U.S.’ most shameful discriminatory policies. Beneath the rhetoric lies racism and ethnocentrism that should have no place in the twenty-first century.

The treatment of migrants and immigrants by Border Patrol, the justice system, employers, and the private prison industries is an issue everyone interested in social justice in this country should be engaging with. It is a race issue, a labor issue, a criminal justice issue, and a human rights issue. However, the dialogue around immigration and border policy continues to be framed by those with powerful interests in maintaining the status quo. Only an equally powerful and committed social movement that leaves no marginalized group behind can successfully create a more just society for all Americans.

We are committed to being part of this movement, and we hope that you will join us.

No More Deaths has volunteer opportunities available throughout the summer. Visit to apply, or to see other ways the organization is working to impact border policy.

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