The Arizona Gauntlet

Sheriff Joe ArpaioArizona Governor Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 last week. That was anticipated. This legislation actually expands existing practices that police and immigration authorities use to racially profile immigrants. Authorities now may interpret as they see fit the “behaviors and physical postures” of Latin@s to determine if they are “illegal.” Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles describes authorities’ ability to demand documents as “Nazism.” The right wing’s fanatic glee –on and off Fox– has darkened the already toxic cloud at the border.

In response to this, things are getting hot fast. Immigrant rights groups, student and community organizations, and progressives in the Southwest and elsewhere in the country are talking about creating strategies and building united fronts to respond to the situation in Arizona in a big way. It’s the fight around Proposition187 again.

Meanwhile, undocumented working people from México and Central América continue to risk their lives in crossing the Sonoran Desert of Occupied América, as did my friend Moises* last month. His story is Stephen King material.


Moises came by two weeks ago to our community center that serves campesinos on the North Coast of Santa Cruz County. He needed food. He’d been to Guanajuato to see family and because he didn’t want to miss the annual fiesta in his village. Moises has picked brussel sprouts, green onions and artichokes and driven a tractor for ten years on ranches of the North Coast of Santa Cruz County. He’s thirty now. He’s also fifteen pounds lighter than when I saw him a couple months before. It was obvious that his trek back from México had been hell, but I didn’t realize why until he told me he’d come back the cheap way.  

He had paid $1,300 to be driven on a sand road to somewhere north of Sonoita at night, and dropped off hours later in the middle of god-knows-where in the Sonoran desert. ICE helicopters don’t fly over that forbidden part of the desert as much he said, and $1,300 was definitely cheaper than the $3,600 coyotes are getting to haul people to safe houses in LA and Phoenix. But the lower price includes a vicious tax. $1,300 takes immigrants to an area where the deadliest path north begins: El Camino de la Muerte.

rattle snakeMoises figured his chances were pretty fair he would still be alive after walking 200 miles of sand for five days and six nights. He’d done it before. So he put in with a group of 80 men, women, and children who climbed into vans outside of Sonoita and were then driven several hours before arriving at a desert drop off. Undoubtedly, many were going for the first time. My friend suggests that some played down the risks of the desert, and he knew that some might not make it. Maybe an older woman. Or a couple of kids. Or a drunk.

There are various threats in this life-and-death crapshoot. Common sense says you should never cross the desert if even a little bit sick. Otherwise, you will get sicker and your likelihood of survival drops. Water is more important than food. The odds of death by dehydration are figured by the hours of exposure to high temperatures. Bodies do better when it’s below 90 degrees, or when there’s cloud cover. Over 100 degrees it gets dicey. In summer the heat easily goes beyond 115, even reaching as high as 130, in the shade. It’s hard to steel your mind to danger after a few hours of this, but without your wits, you can’t survive the desert. Winter and late spring are certainly better seasons for the trek, but in the Southwest the weather can change in 24 hours, in any season. When Moises came across in March it got hot.  

How do you increase your odds of survival? In a word, water. But water is heavy. You have to gauge how much you can carry and how often to drink during the one hundred plus hours of walking. Food is lighter than water, but supplies are kept to an absolute minimum. Many immigrants learn to “bulk up” before starting out.  

Then there are snakes. High boots to protect your legs are out of the question. Not because of the cost: no one can walk two hundred miles in heavy boots. Those who try often end up with horrible open and bleeding blisters. Desperate with pain, they’ll strip off the boots and attempt going it in socks, or barefoot. Which is impossible.  

Disregarding the importance of moonlight on the desert is unforgivable. Without at least some moon or very bright stars, one cannot see either snakes or cholla, whose barbed spines are best pulled out with pliers. The bite of a diamondback rattlesnake can kill, and avoiding all snakes is critical. Many people’s bones have been left on the desert forever from encounters with these pit vipers. Without heavy boots for protection? In the end, nobody thinks about the proteins in snake venom that have hemotoxins that break down cells and tissues, and anticoagulants and neurotoxins that can cause circulatory arrest or respiratory paralysis. Science isn’t the issue. It’s getting to Phoenix alive that matters.  

Who knows how many immigrants have died walking the desert? In the middle of the Sonoran Desert, for one hundred miles in any direction there are no human settlements. Of the eighty immigrants in the group Moises traveled with, most made it. But a few didn’t. Some got sick and gave up after physical weakness brought them to the ground. He heard that two died of dehydration. Typically, those too weak to continue are cared for by a family member or close fellow traveler until they are forced to weigh whether to continue or face the same end.  

Winter and early spring are the chosen seasons for crossing. Daytime temperatures are far less punishing. But without sufficient food to produce internal body warmth, the cold of winter nights can be deadly. Children eat less than adults, but they must have enough calories to simply stay alive. Their smaller bodies heat up more quickly, but in the cold they lose warmth rapidly. Take a coat? Some do, but the experienced know that the weight of warm clothing is better sacrificed for its equivalent weight in water. Water is life.

Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus

Moises did make it all the way north, as do most immigrants. In hindsight he says that it’s crazy to come this way, but he also says, “pues sí vale la pena aguantar la chinga de la caminata en el desierto. Y en el fondo el precio es mucho mejor que $3,600.” He admits that there were hours when he wondered if he and everyone else walking weren’t crazy, and asked himself why so many keep doing it. Then he smiles and says, “Debes intentarlo una vez.”

Another friend, Gabriela*, recently traveled by car to México with her husband, Vicente*, and their three daughters. They spent two weeks in Vicente’s home town in Sonora, and there was a great fiesta after their youngest was baptized. Upon their return, Gabriela swore she would never again cross at Nogales. “Next time we’ll cross at Tijuana or Mexicali, regardless the greater distance.” Gabriela and Vicente are documented and all of their three children were born in the US. They know to be prepared for a potentially dehumanizing routine anytime coming into Arizona, but this time it was hellish. Gabriela says that on Highway 93 from Nogales to Tucson, immigration vans and state police were selectively stopping cars every half-mile. They’d never seen this before. Countless Mexican@s were pulled over, taken out of their cars and questioned. Some were in handcuffs.  

Both Gabriela and Vicente have had US citizenship for some years, but that never changed their race, nor diminished the racism they’ve experienced. Delays at border crossing are typical, but this time on Highway 93 going north it went on for hours. And this was before Governor Brewer signed SB 1070.

Gabriela imagines that these scenes on the Arizona / México border will continue or increase, and that right wing crackpots and politicians will consider open season on Mexican@s and other Latin@s. While she’s glad to be back in Santa Cruz, she shudders recalling what she and her family experienced in Arizona. 

So what to do? In the buzz are many suggestions:

  • Declare Arizona / México border Ground Zero for the fight against racist violence and repression of Latin@ immigrants.
  • Build an anti-SB 1070 coalition led by working class immigrants.
  • Push lawmakers to declare Minutemen and other violent anti-immigrant groups as outlaw organizations.
  • Demand that the Mexican government protect their people from violence by US authorities and violent racists.
  • Consider immigrant rights as an overarching theme for the US Social Forum.
  • Intensify pressure on and demand answers from President Obama.
  • Demand that Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano end state policies supported by federal government.
  • Issue regular press statements and update community and pro-immigrant groups’ actions opposing Arizona Senate Bill 1070.
  • Urge churches and city councils to issue public statements opposing SB 1070 and federal support thereof.
  • Organize a boycott of Arizona tourism.
  • Boycott the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. Brother Dave Zirin has given us all the reason in the world to boycott this team. See his recent column at Edge of Sports.
  • Create a student/labor/anti-war/left/socialist pro-immigrant front through USSF.
  • Coordinate caravans to Arizona from around the country (after a strategy for action is agreed upon/created of course!)

Enthusiasm is growing in this fight, which is all good. There is rage.

The point now is to take action against all that this extremist, racist bill represents. It looks like war down there, and things may get worse for anyone’s health on the border.  

*Moises, Gabriela, and Vicente are pseudonyms

Bruce Hobson is a member of Freedom Road who connected with 1968 student movement in Mexico City where (he) began to learn about revolutionary politics, and has been involved for a long time in independent health programs in México and Central America. Bruce now works on north coast of Santa Cruz County with non-profit that supports farmworkers.

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