Necessary Journeys


Yesterday my friend C. crossed into Nogales to help deported immigrants deal with their staggering doses of bad luck. A river runner and wilderness guide, she possesses advanced first-aid skills that come in handy along the border.

While coyotes and drug runners circled the open-air humanitarian aid station looking for new recruits, C. wrapped ankle sprains and bandaged mangled feet. Homeland Security busses dumped loads of newly-captured migrants. Scared newcomers arrived from the south, gearing up for their first shots at el norte.

While she worked, C. listened to stories: Silvio Rodriguez Garcia (not his real name), a 56-year-old farmhand, gave up his attempt to cross when the blisters became too painful; a captured five year-old girl was refused cough medicine by the Border Patrol (“Get some in Mexico,” agents told the parents.). There were tales of rape, and of migrants forced at gunpoint to haul drugs.

C. also learned about “lateral repatriation” a recent Homeland Security innovation where migrants are deported to cities far distant from where they originally crossed— making it harder for them to reconnect with their group or their original smuggler. Many families are split up this way.

C. came back from Nogales bleary-eyed and angry. The migrants, she said, are hardly seen as human: “The coyotes call themselves polleros now: ‘chicken herders’. And if the migrants make it to this country they are called ‘aliens’. So when do they get to be people?” Before I could think of an answer, she crawled into the back of her pickup truck and fell asleep.

Today is better. It’s the third day of spring. We are walking in a rocky wash just east of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, about 10 miles north of the border. The morning is warm but not hot. A breeze tousles the new cottonwood leaves, and penstemons brighten the stream banks with splashes of magenta.

“This is the kind of place I would come to for a backpacking trip,” C. says. “Except that it’s like a war zone.”

The U.S.-Mexico border is very much like a war zone, with guard stations, helicopter patrols, electronic surveillance towers, and a 670-mile-long fence (price tag: $500 million). And lots of people die out here. Statistics on migrant deaths vary, so take your pick: Homeland Security recorded 1,058 deaths from 2001-2007; humanitarian groups put the number since 1994 at 5,000. Many more are not accounted for.

This has prompted growing numbers of outdoor-savvy types like C. to take their backpacks and their backcountry skills to the borderlands, where they hope to keep people alive.

Today we are ground-truthing a map of migrant trails put together by a group called No More Deaths. Our daypacks contain extra food, medical gear, clean socks, and several gallon jugs of water.

This hike will never make a Backpacker top-ten list. But for people like C., it offers distinct satisfactions: not just natural beauty or physical challenge, but a sense of purpose.

“I do this,” she says, “because it is not fair. If I were alone in the desert, I would want to know that somebody here cared.”

C. has guided for 20 years in Alaska and Grand Canyon, but insists that the migrants could out-walk her. “They go four miles an hour, all night. Three or four days without food ...”

People do what they have to, I say.

Alejandro is doing what he has to. He appears at the mouth of the side canyon silently, like a cloud shadow. Dressed in shredded black jeans, he carries a tiny daypack and a half-liter plastic water bottle with no top. His dark face is round and wary. He is limping.

Somos amigos, we say. Tenemos agua y comida. His face relaxes.

While we share food and water, we learn that Alejandro is 18 and has been walking for three days. He speaks no English, but has an aunt in a place called Delaware, where he hopes to find work. He has a wife in Mexico City, and a nine-month-old son named Ernesto.

When Alejandro’s right boot comes off, the sock is bloody. C. goes to work, bathing the foot, patching raw, thumb-sized blisters. The kid points to a nearby ridgeline, where his group waits; he is struggling to keep up. C. warns him about the checkpoints and shows him a map. It is 20 miles to Interstate 19, and 2,500 more to that place called Delaware. Alejandro nods gravely. C. gives him a hug before he walks away.

People do what they have to.