For the past five days, our group has been trekking through the southern most point of the Continental Divide Trail, headed towards the Mexican border. After days of meticulous planning for our trek with food prep and a water caching system, we felt thoroughly prepared for the journey in the harsh Chihuahuan desert. Along the way, we engaged in conversation about what the same journey might look like for the migrants coming from the opposite direction, with very limited resources. This comparison underscored the considerable privilege our group holds in the same space.
A catalyst for these conversations was the ethnographic book The Land of Open Graves by Jason De León. Maddie spent time reading us part of the book that described in detail the journey that a number of migrants took through the desert to demonstrate the human impact of immigration policy. We were immediately stuck by how the day-by-day format of the story resembled our own journals we have been keeping, yet the nature of the content was so drastically different. We heard the jarring stories of a boy who died of dehydration while attempting to reunite with a family member, a father who had failed to cross 8 days previously but was determined to attempt again to reach his daughter, and a young mother trying to get back to her children in the U.S. who was sexually assaulted along the way. We were devastated to learn that 90% of women making the journey across the border face sexual violence. Hearing these stories of struggle in an attempt for a better life, we were struck with the realization that the only thing our experiences had in common was the physical landscape.
It’s easy to wonder why migrants would elect to take this life-threatening route through the desert instead of entering though the more busy, urban ports of entry. This was not an accident, but a calculated plan by American immigration policymakers to decrease the number of migrants who survive the journey across the border. A phrase that was introduced into Border Patrol strategy in 1994 was “prevention through deterrence.” One of the consequences of this motto was the increased Border Patrol presence in urban areas, like El Paso. While this was justified with claims that it would discourage migrants from entering the U.S. all together, in reality, it pushed more people to take the dangerous journey through the desert instead. By forcing migrants to travel in these conditions, it strips them of their agency and absolves Border Patrol of any blame over resulting casualties to the desert. The prickly cacti that blankets the desert ground, the venomous scorpions and wild javelinas that are native to the land, and the absence of water sources for hundreds of miles work together to make surviving the journey nearly impossible without the proper resources. These factors do the work for Border Patrol in prevention through death as a form of deterrence. Additionally, Border Patrol will monitor migrants on their journey through the desert and will strategically wait to capture them when they are at their weakest.
The strategy of “prevention through deterrence” is a prime example of how immigration policy refuses to acknowledge the humanity of people born outside of U.S. borders. A disturbing example of a life-threatening policy is that is it a felony in the U.S. to leave water for migrants in the desert. This is not deterrence, it is a death sentence. Not only do we turn a blind eye to the lives being silently lost in the desert, as Americans we fund our border security to hunt fellow humans. It is clear that deterrence is not a realistic strategy. At the end of a multiple-month journey through Central America, migrants will not be deterred by any form of border security. A young mother with children that are living in the U.S. will not be deterred by any form of border security. Acting as if this is not the case is being complicit in human rights violations in this area of the country.
Our group has been able to experience the desert in a beautiful way for the purpose of recreation simply because of the side of the border we were born on. We have been struggling with this idea as we learn to hold two truths — that we can enjoy walking towards the border that some people lose their lives running from. It is time to deeply re-examine our country’s approach towards immigration policy; our prioritization of every single person’s humanity, regardless of where they were born, should permeate through every line.