Reflections from the Arizona-Mexico Border

An International Student’s Perspective on Border Issues

Since Boston is, at its nearest point, more than 1,800 miles away from the Arizona-Mexico border, it is often easy to forget the effects of illegal immigration into the United States. Features and commentary on the illegal Mexican immigrants and their long journeys in the desert do not adequately reflect the true experiences of these people. However, a week-long visit during spring break to the border towns of Sonora, Mexico and Arizona with 6 other MIT students was an eye-opening experience.

As an international student from Turkey, I would not have been able to surmise the full extent of this controversial issue. From our week on the border, we were able to experience the effects of U.S. and Mexican public opinion, changes to federal policies, and the real stories of deported immigrants.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, 1,138 people died crossing the border near Tucson between 1999 and 2007 — and the number is growing. In recent years, the United States enforced stricter border restrictions and the number of deaths increased dramatically as immigrants had to travel longer journeys in the desert to reach U.S. soil.

During part of the trip, we were able to volunteer for Humane Borders, an NGO based in Tucson, Ariz. Humane Borders offers humanitarian assistance through approximately 90 emergency water stations installed near the Mexico-Arizona border. Humane Borders has more than 10,000 volunteers and is not the only NGO focused on border crossings. The existing number of volunteers and organizations reflect American awareness of illegal immigration and the fact that American people care about the humanitarian aspect of the border issues.

However, there were some times when one could think otherwise. When we were maintaining the emergency water stations in the desert, we came across many vandalized stations. For example, people would open the valves and empty the water tanks so that immigrants could not get water. We even saw some tanks with bullet holes.

In downtown Tucson, we attended a trial at the federal courthouse. In Tucson, about 1,000 people are arrested by the Border Patrol every day, but only 70 of them make it to the courthouse due to capacity constraints. Illegal immigration suspects have their hands and ankles chained as if they would attack and hurt others.

Also, some on trial knew neither English nor Spanish. Though there was an English-Spanish translator present, suspects did not seem truly aware of their situation. For example, if a person enters the US for the first time and gets deported, in his second attempt to cross the border, he can be sentenced up to 6-months in prison.

Our first exposure to the Mexican public occurred when we visited Nogales, Mexico, 70 miles south of Tucson. We brought clothing donations with us for the Mexican Red Cross and migrant care center, and we distributed them to the immigrants, many of whom were deported that morning or the night before. Two days later, we visited Agua Prieta, a Mexican town 120 miles southeast of Tucson, and we were able to visit community centers, the Just Coffee cooperative, and a rehabilitation center for alcoholics.

There were many Mexican volunteers who devoted their lives to help the deported immigrants. The volunteers were well aware of the seriousness of the issue. For example, some were attending training sessions to help them connect with recently deported immigrants suffering depression. Volunteers recounted sad stories, including some about families separated for days and weeks at a time by the Border Patrol.

Volunteers also mentioned the collaboration between the Mexican police and gangs. Many gangs in Mexico collect money ($2000–$3000) to transport those wanting to cross the border. However, they often leave the immigrants alone in the desert if they get sick. Or they may just steal the money ­— leaving them stranded in the desert. Many illegal immigrants are scared to report these crimes to the police because a good number are themselves from South and Central America — also illegal immigrants in Mexico.

Though in the past, the government largely lacked the resources to reintegrate deported immigrants into society, more recently a number of government-led projects have popped up to fill this role. Grupo Beta was founded in 1990 to protect the welfare and health of immigrants.

An important resource center, the organization facilitates phone calls between relatives in the US and Mexico and provides a 50% subsidiary for bus tickets from the border back to hometowns in other parts of Mexico. Even though these are significant efforts, police and government are often still unable to build trust among the Mexican people, and people often are forced to find their own ways to protect themselves.

Listening to immigrants’ stories, however, proved most effective in seeking to understand the drive behind illegal immigration. People do not cross the border to stay in the US; they cross the border so that they can feed their families. Most of the time, they are innocent and hard-working individuals. Being put into prison for 6 months does not scare them because their children might otherwise die of hunger.

I met one immigrant from Puebla at the migrant care center in Nogales. He had been deported the night before and he was complaining about the treatment by the U.S. Border Patrol. He was insulted verbally and he received a small bottle of water and 3-packets of crackers to share with his 3 friends in the prison daily. However, his situation back home was so difficult that he could possibly try to cross the border another time.

Border crossing problems exist in many parts of the world. For example, Turkey is a transit country for many immigrants from Asia and Africa who are trying to get to Europe.

There is not one solution to this big problem. However, a better distribution of welfare around the globe would certainly help. If people can find jobs and sustenance in their hometowns or at least in their countries, they will be less likely to consider crossing the border and risking their lives.

A great example of this idea is local cooperatives like Just Coffee. As a Fair Trade-certified growers’ cooperative based in Mexico, it addresses one of the root causes of labor immigration by passing the profits directly to the farmers.

In Boston, we may not feel the direct effects of illegal immigration, but the problem does exist. We simply cannot continue to ignore it!

Cankutan Hasar is a member of the Class of 2010.