“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.