Death, Extinction and Colonialism At the Arizona Border Wall

“A humanitarian crisis of this scale should dominate the headlines, but it’s hard for average Americans to relate to these human rights abuses, whether it’s a poor Honduran mother or a protester defending their ancestral homeland. These migrants have long been dismissed as criminals and drug mules. They are so heavily dehumanized in American society that, for many, it is easier to pretend the 10,000 preventable deaths of migrants are those of criminals, rather than people risking their lives for a chance to craft a safer life for themselves and their families.”

O’odham activist ‘V’ was driving down an isolated stretch of backroad through the Tohono O’odham Nation when a sun-worn Hispanic man ran out in front of her vehicle. V slammed on the brakes and the man approached her vehicle, desperately begged her for water. He was crossing the border and lost his way in the wilderness. Had he not encountered V, he may have died alone and afraid. He was so thirsty that he struggled to swallow. After gulping down as much water as V could offer, he asked her to call Border Patrol to pick him up. His traveling group moved on without him and so his journey was over.

The borderland between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora is among the most treacherous crossings on the planet. It is a harrowing journey for impoverished migrants, often fleeing violence, political turmoil, and economic instability in their home countries.

The rugged terrain hides countless bodies of migrating men, women, and children. In the past two decades, about 2900 remains were found in Arizona along the border and more than 10,000 along the entire US-Mexico border. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights tracks migrants who disappeared while crossing the border. They have 3000 open cases, most of which are in Arizona (Trevizo).

The No More Death camps, in which volunteers provide basic medical care, food, and water to passing migrants, are regularly raided by federal authorities. In the past two months, there have been two nighttime raids, often descending on the camp with ATVs, helicopters, countless marked and unmarked vehicles, and even an armored tank (Carranza). The Border Patrol’s attempts to criminalize humanitarian aid is a centerpiece of their mission.

President Donald Trump’s border wall has increased militarization in communities along the border and overwhelmed fragile desert ecosystems, as well as trampled the tribal sovereignty of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a reservation extending into Mexico which the border wall has cut in two.

Pastor Mike Wilson saw the deadly gauntlet migrants faced when passing through O’odham ancestral lands from his congregation in Sells, Arizona. One of the deadliest migrant corridors in the country was Baboquivari Valley, on the border of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Following his religious beliefs and O’odham convictions, in 2002 he began trekking into the valley to leave water jugs throughout the valley for passing migrants.

Baboquivari Peak, according to Tohono O’odham spirituality, is the center of the universe (“Baboquivari Peak Wilderness”). The creator of their people, I’itoi, lives in a cave under the mountain. But the Baboquivari Valley also represents a graveyard for migrants, as daytime temperatures can climb well into the hundreds of degrees in the warmer months with little shade from the piercing sun. There are nearly no natural water sources in the area, and one needs a minimum of a gallon of water per day when hiking in the desert (“Hiking Frequently Asked Questions”). For his simple humanitarian action, Pastor Mike faced condemnation by the Presbyterian Church, Border Patrol, and even the tribal government, who called him a terrorist.

As Pastor Mike explained in a 2017 interview with Ecologies of Migrant Care; “Most of those migrant deaths in the Tohono O’odham Nation are indigenous people from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Chiapas. “So you have brown-skinned people dying in the Tohono O’odham Nation and brown-skinned people in the United States knowing that they are dying, acknowledging that they are dying because there is a police department that is recovering human remains and doing nothing… and the left here in Tucson saying nothing. So now the left is complicit in migrant deaths because silence is not a neutral position, silence is a moral position, to do nothing says a lot about you.”

The Tohono O’odham Reservation extends from southern Arizona into Sonora, Mexico. The new border wall cutting through Indigenous land without permission makes it difficult for the Tohono O’odham people to visit family members and cultural sites across the border. According to tribal leaders, the construction crews have destroyed ancient burial sites and killed countless saguaro cactus, which are otherwise strictly protected under Arizona law (Romero).

State and federal regulations have repeatedly been trampled over to allow President Trump to reach his goal of 500 miles of border wall by the end of 2020. The administration used a 2005 law that allowed them to bypass federal requirements that otherwise would have halted the wall, including the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (Eilperin and Miroff).

The Tohono O’odham people have thrived in the Sonoran desert for thousands of years. Their ancestors, the Hohokam, built vast irrigation canals to grow crops like squash, beans, corn, tobacco, and cotton. They also gathered food from the native plants of the Sonoran Desert, including mesquite pods and saguaro fruit. The Hohokam were both master engineers of the harsh desert and expert planners who migrated out of the desert during the hottest months (“Tohono O’odham History”).

Following O’odham principles, one must protect the land and protect each other. The militarization of the desert, the criminalization of humanitarian aid, and infringement on tribal sovereignty has led some O’odham to fight back. According to these activists, their protests, letters, and petitions fell on deaf ears; any attempts at using the due process of law were futile. With no other recourse, activists feel that they have no choice but to physically stop the construction whenever they can, even when facing lengthy prison sentences for doing so.

During one such protest, officials arrested and detained activist Amber Ortega and another woman. Authorities held them at a private prison allegedly without phone call privileges or the opportunity to speak to a lawyer (Devereaux). In just one generation, Ortega has witnessed the occupation, militarization, and ecological degradation of her ancestral lands. The hardest part of returning home, she says, is seeing the increasing violence within her community.

“I can recall a time when there was no border patrol present [on the reservation] and humanitarian aid was offered freely without condemnation. In my generation, I have seen the occupation of border patrol. I have been witness to the harassment and intimidation at the hands of border patrol. At my village, we are small, but we always made sure to communicate with one another if something was wrong… [Where I come from,] you honor the land and honor your people. And as people, we migrate, travel, and help one another,” Amber explained to a sizable crowd at an anti-border rally in Tucson, Arizona.

Ortega’s ancestors are buried in Quitobaquito Springs, an area now inaccessible to visitors, and which served as the site of her arrest. The spring is one of the largest watering holes in the region and, as such, nearly every ethnic group that passed through this land in the previous 500 years has had a connection with the springs (Fillman). The spring has supported human life in the region for at least 16,000 years and provides essential drinking water to wildlife. The waters are home to several endangered species and are one of the few remaining homes of wild Sonoyta Mud Turtles and Quitobaquito Pupfish. The construction of the border wall has contributed to the steady decline of Quitobaquito Springs, which has experienced less and less water flow since the 1970s. The border wall construction is also partly responsible for the steady decline of Quitobaquito springs, which has seen less water flow since the 1970s (Prendergast).

What used to be a vibrant spring is now mostly covered in cracked mudflats. O’odham’s anti-border groups and some ecologists claim that the decrease is due to Border Patrol draining the spring to use the water to construct the wall. Contractors use the sacred waters of Quitobaquito to mix concrete and spray the dirt roads to minimize dust.

Furthermore, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Biological Diversity, the wall’s construction and related infrastructure jeopardizes 93 threatened, endangered, or candidate species (“No Border Wall”). Jaguars and ocelots, very few of which remain in America’s deserts, trek through these lands on their migrations. In many areas, the wall will end their migration. This is another catastrophic blow to fragile, endangered wildlife.

As the current administration waived federal requirements in a rush to fulfill nationalistic campaign promises, sacred Quitobaquito Springs may be forever desecrated before any officials are able to analyze the potential ecological and archaeological impacts of the border wall. It is the Tohono O’odham who will pay the price for the government’s reckless apathy.

“When I was little, my mom and dad used to take us out to [Quitobaquito Springs]. We’d take the backroads, get over there and this was this huge beautiful spring in the middle of nowhere. It’s this oasis… big lily pads that would sit in that water… I didn’t appreciate it back then when I was a child. But now, I see the devastation that has occurred…. We have ancestors that are buried out there…. We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us,” said Lisa, a member of the O’odham Anti-Border Collective.

A humanitarian crisis of this scale should dominate the headlines, but it’s hard for average Americans to relate to these human rights abuses, whether it’s a poor Honduran mother or a protester defending their ancestral homeland. These migrants have long been dismissed as criminals and drug mules. They are so heavily dehumanized in American society that, for many, it is easier to pretend the 10,000 preventable deaths of migrants are those of criminals, rather than people risking their lives for a chance to craft a safer life for themselves and their families.

Raisa Nastukova


He Left Our Town for a Better Place

Our family doctor slammed the death certificate onto the table and threw his pen across the nurse’s desk. He couldn’t believe this good man, my father, had died of a brain aneurysm. The dangers this man had been through to escape being caught, tortured, and killed, was right out of a prison breakout movie; but it was a blood clot that ultimately killed him. 

This doctor had enjoyed many talks with my dad. He too was from another country, he from India and my Dad from Hungary. One who came freely, and the other as an immigrant who escaped communist rule. Both men often compared notes of their assimilation into this free world.

Dad brought so much of his heritage and life in Budapest to the USA, to Pennsylvania, to Bradford. Hands that once held a tennis racket in Budapest did the same in the United States. Dad, a fan of József Asbóth and István Gulyás, both previous winners of the National Hungarian Championships, showed his love of the sport by starting a tennis league in our rural town. He organized teams and tournaments to be played at the local community park. Dad set up the advertising, brackets, and rules. Trophies were awarded to the best in singles and doubles in various age groups. He brought his expertise from his playing days in Hungary.

Hands that once held a paintbrush in Budapest continued to do so in America. Dad was an Impressionist painter and an admirer of sculptor and painter Michael Angelo. Dad expressed his love of painting by establishing an art center so that children and adults alike could learn the fundamentals of sculpting and painting. Several nights a week he taught drawing and painting classes, emphasizing how to work with edges, spaces, light and shadow, and perspective. He brought his knowledge from his education at the University of Budapest where he studied fine art. His artwork also appeared on many Zippo Lighters and in a booklet about industries in Bradford. 

Hands that tended to grapevines back in the old country were the same hands which grew grapes in his yard. Dad grew Furmint, the most commonly grown grape in Hungary’s wine region, Tokaj. In Bradford, Dad planted Concord and Seyval Blanc grapevines. He gave vine clippings from his orchard to the townspeople so they too could produce grapes, which some turned into a winemaking project. Bradford had the perfect climate for grapes, but one had to follow dad’s rule of thumb: two nights of frost and then harvest. He brought his skill as a viticulturist in Budapest.

Hands that cooked lecso in his mother’s kitchen continued to do so in his American kitchen. Most people in town had eaten his beloved dish of sausage, hot peppers, and potatoes, swimming in a tomato sauce, to be sopped up with a thick slice of Italian bread. This dish could be served mild or spicy, enough to make one sweat. He brought his culinary recipes for others to taste.

Hands that held ski poles in the mountains of Hungary, in the Mátra and Bükk region, part of the Carpathian Mountains, held poles at the local ski slopes around our hometown. Dad brought his love of skiing to his family as we cross country skied at the Red House side of Allegany State Park or downhill skied at Bova, a tow rope slope half hour from home. No fancy clothes. No fancy boots or skis. We skied with simple clothing and rudimentary equipment as he did back in Hungary. 

Hands that grew roses and vegetables in Budapest continued using those gardening skills in Pennsylvania. Morning glories wrapped around clothesline poles, sunflowers edged on fences, cucumbers and lettuce and tomatoes filled the rows allotted in the square garden. Onions, radishes and peppers, white, red and green, flaunted their colors like the Hungarian flag. Dad was a master gardener and many neighbors stopped by to admire his handiwork.

Hands that cradled a prayer card the night he escaped are the same hands that held that religious card every Christmas Eve Mass in remembrance of his escape to freedom, the anniversary of crossing into Austria and his eventual voyage to America. Our local newspaper interviewed Dad and printed several articles about his 1956 escape from Hungary. He frequently spoke at schools and community groups, describing his life in a communist country and his flight from it. His message: appreciate your freedom and democratic society.

The doctor flipped over the certificate and scribbled his signature on the document. A respectable man, now gone, who brought his Hungarian legacy with him and left a part of it in this small town, with his friends, colleagues, and family. A good person is someone who leaves this world a better place. And he did. Dad touched two worlds, two countries, combining his love of both. And though his hands were physically small, they held immense talent, love, strength, and respect which he shared with others.

Ann Hultberg

The Borders We Build in Our Minds

Most, if not all of us, go about our day-to-day lives making decisions based on a thought process. This thought process might be built upon the thoughts of things we know and are familiar with, or simply thoughts of what makes us comfortable. 

We often give these thoughts life, and using them as bricks and stones, we build walls in our minds that eventually become borders. The difficulty with these mental borders is that they cannot be crushed easily; it takes time to bring them down, sometimes a week, maybe a month, but often a lifetime. 

The power of mental borders also lies in our constant internalization of how true or untrue they are. What do I think of myself as I start each day? How do people perceive me as I interact with them during the day? And how and what do I think of as an immigrant in America, I have asked myself these questions and grappled with many mental borders. When you travel across physical borders such as countries and continents, you often find yourself traveling across mental borders. You start to ask simple questions with complex answers. “Where is home?” “Who am I in this new land to which I immigrated?” “How do I live my life in this new country that I have to learn to call home?” As I reflect on the day’s activities, when I lie in bed at night in the privacy of my thoughts? What questions am I constantly asking myself without even realizing how those questions make me feel about myself?

One of the biggest mental borders is built upon the expectations of life in a new country. When I leave the home that I have known for most of my life, what awaits me in this new country? We often construct our expectations along preconceptions—the stories, experiences, and biases of others who have been there before us and have either succeeded or failed—what we forget, however, is that each journey is different and every single border demands a different approach. 

Before I moved to America, I learned that the expectation of life in a new country is usually connected to a certain definition of success in that country. In my mind, moving to America meant limitless opportunities to pursue various interests and possibilities, which translated into avenues for success. While success in this case meant the traditional higher education level or socioeconomic status, it also meant the ability to open my mind up to possibilities I could not have previously imagined. I could experience the life I had seen on the media by traveling, meeting new people, and gaining unique experiences.

However, when I moved to America, I learned that success could be defined in different ways. For an African immigrant, it could mean the ability to provide financial support to family left behind in one’s country. It could also mean the ability to help other recent arrivals of immigrants to get their life started in America. I found that it really comes down to each person’s unique perspective on life and what success means on an individual level. Many times, however, our definitions of success are influenced by our families, friends, or communities.

The pressure that comes with achieving these definitions of success becomes a mental border itself. As immigrants, we tend to have thoughts and self-talk that affect our self-perception. If I set a goal to buy a home within 15 years of living in America and find that I have not achieved this goal within this timeframe, I might tell myself I am unsuccessful. If I have many financial obligations and have not sent financial support to family members back home, I might think I am unsuccessful—I need to work harder and to support my family. If most of my friends have gone back to school for graduate degrees, I might feel the pressure to go back to school as well. If my family is expecting an achievement of me that I have not yet accomplished, I might convince myself that I am not doing something right.

By focusing on the pressure that comes with these mental borders, we tend to lose ourselves to our thoughts. We start to compare our achievements to those of others and start to think we are not working as hard or as fast as we should. We start to place ourselves in the timelines of other people’s lives and use this as a standard for what we need to achieve. Without understanding the unique sets of experiences along each person’s journey, we might make uninformed conclusions and build borders that should not exist in our minds.

Rather than inspiring us, this process might cause demotivation. We might make decisions out of the need to fulfill expectations set by the people around us. When I enroll in a graduate program to appease my family, but not fully out of my own interest, I might get frustrated when I realize how uninterested I am a few months in. Similarly, when I pursue a career that no one else in my family has pursued, I might feel like I am not pursuing the right career. 

This becomes even more apparent when we realize that there are only a few immigrants who might be pursuing our interests or career tracks. When I get to a point in my career where I am the only immigrant at my workplace or in my position, I might, for a second, question whether I belong. And even when I convince myself that I belong in this specific position, it might take me a while to fully come to terms with it—after all, I am the only immigrant who has treaded this path. 

I might desire to find another immigrant with whom to connect. One with whom I can have a conversation about the burden of financially providing for my family back home. I might desire to find a fellow immigrant with whom I can share my concerns about succeeding in my role so that I can inspire fellow African immigrants in my community. And most of all, I might just desire to find another immigrant who has mental borders like mine, or perhaps, strikingly different. It may not even have to be a fellow immigrant, but someone who would understand the mental borders I am struggling with.

While these mental borders are difficult to transcend, I think that it helps to have a thought process built on unlearning and relearning thought patterns and attitudes. This also comes down to educating ourselves about the different mental borders that the people around us deal with. For example, it helps me to understand that my parents might be worried about me pursuing a specific career because they have not interacted with anyone in that career. As such, they might be worried about the prospects of success in a career to which they have had little exposure. Likewise, if my parents understand the depth of my interest in a specific career, they might appreciate just how excited I am about pursuing this career.

It also helps to understand that the immigrant journey is constantly evolving, and what worked today might not work tomorrow. By learning to be comfortable where it might seem uncomfortable, we can understand our strengths and limitations, and focus on the opportunities we can utilize to transcend these mental borders we deal with. While we certainly cannot avoid mental borders, we can learn ways to slowly chip away at the bricks and stones that form these borders.

Timothy Musoke