Published in Salon 1 December 2019.
The most unusual assignment, or “hitch,” the Americorps trail crew I was volunteering on in early spring 2012 was the trawling of the Sonoran Desert National Monument for meager supplies left behind by migrants. Eight of us total, six crew and two leaders, carried an oversized heavy-duty garbage bag in one arm and mechanical pickers in the other. More often than not, the lightweight aluminum pickers were useless as we bent over to pick up blankets, flimsy backpacks, and sturdy black plastic water jugs. On the first of the 11-day hitch, a woman from the Bureau of Land Management briefed us on the task and told us that migrants carried a backpack with one spare outfit on their journey north and changed once the four straight lanes of Interstate 8, cutting west-east across the brutal desert, came into view. They shed their backpacks, bedding, and empty water jugs as they approached the road towards the next leg of their trip.
Each morning, all eight of us crammed into a Chevy Suburban and drove from our campsite down a dirt road. We’d head east on I-8 to various dusty parking lots, from where our BLM escort would lead in a pick-up down more dirt roads to whatever tract of land we were to clean that day. One rendezvous point, outside a sagging two-story building surrounded by the abandoned fixtures of a ranch, served the same purpose for a couple of Minutemen, a self-styled militia patrolling the desert for migrants. We saw one guy a few times, a skinny, long-haired man in a leather motorcycle vest. He was outwardly friendly to us, grody white kids in study boots, trousers, and matching tan Southwest Conservation Corps shirts, but we weren’t keen to talk. He claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, to only be after drug traffickers. One morning, he and another minuteman stood over a young man in a blue hoodie with only a backpack at a weathered picnic table, partially shaded in the low morning sun, silent, still, and tired-looking as they awaited Border Patrol. He didn’t look at us, but I wondered what role the minutemen’s guns and German Shepherd played in his detainment.
The consensus amongst us was sympathetic to the migrants, saddened by the hitch, and angry with the federal government’s creation of a situation in which people felt their best option to a new life was to walk across a wildly unsafe desert. At first, some of the crew members protested the hitch feeling we were complicit in something against the migrants. Unenthused about trash duty, we put on the hard hats Conservation Corps rules required us to wear (given our usual assignments of building trails) and piled bag after bag of garbage into BLM truck beds anyway.
The desert landscapes of the United States inspire awe and fear with their scale, ruthlessness, and beauty. The Sonoran Desert National Monument’s 487,000 acres are stamped with several clusters of mountains and hills, between which flat, vast expanses offer no respite from the beating sun. The ground is a sandy pale brown and littered with coarse rocks, from which a variety of durable plants as unfriendly as the landscape grow in abundance. Cholla as tall as six feet attach spiky spheres the size of golf balls to the clothing of passersby. Blossoms the shape and color of flame sit atop thorny tentacles of ocotillo, the dead ones collapsed and desiccated like ropes. The barrel cactus’s shape and height would make a good spot to rest weary legs if not for the interlacing spikes encircling them. Looming above all these are the iconic saguaro, Carnegiea gigantea, dispersed like posts. These slow-growing cacti can reach 50 feet but take nearly a century for their first arms to emerge. I thought the upwardly curving sprouts of newer arms made them look like fighters, fists raised, poised to defend the expansive fan of roots no other cactus encroached upon.
The supplies plucked from the ground were often tucked under hardy plants without spikes, but these didn’t offer relief from the sun, either. The thin branches of palo verde and creosote don’t bother with broad leaves-lushness is an unaffordable luxury in the desert. Refuge from the heat and unrelenting sun could only be found in the dry creek beds, lined with mesquite and other scrubby trees to duck under, and it was in one of these washes I came upon a few bones. We had already been working for hours and the crew was scattered across a couple hundred yards, too far apart to talk but visible in yellow safety vests. A helicopter from one of the federal agencies claiming jurisdiction over the area had been circling throughout the day. I had been shuffling along with my eyes to the ground, tired of the assignment and drained of any wonderment at the landscape. I tried to tell myself maybe the bones were from a sheep, but they were human, undoubtedly. I stared at them for a minute, feeling grief for whatever unlucky person didn’t make it and doubly saddened they stayed unfound long enough for their arm bones to bleach in the sun. The BLM ranger radioed the matter up his chain of command and the helicopter droned overhead. Would any investigation result in a distant family’s peace of mind?
The reasons people flee their homes and head north are well documented, but to the average American they’re abstractions, vague consequences of the US’s ongoing covert and overt operations destabilizing governments and economies in South America. Although many Americans are victims of interpersonal violence borne of poverty and turbulence, most of us do not live in fear of paramilitaries of drug cartels. In 2007, Tom Kiefer began his photo project El Sueño Americano, documenting possessions discarded or confiscated at the border. Border Patrol officers seize belts and shoelaces on the grounds they could used as lethal weapons. Presumably non-hazardous items like birth control are considered nonessential personal property and thrown out. Kiefer’s photos of Bibles, wallets, plastic combs, and other cheap toiletries arranged in crowded matrices humanize en masse the owners stripped of their ordinary items-don’t we all brush our teeth, or pray, and keep our money in back pockets? No matter. The stories of violence, back home and en route to an uncertain future, fall deaf on the uncompassionate leaders of our supposedly Christian nation, no longer interested in tired, poor, huddled masses unless we need a scapegoat.
Finding the bones was heartbreaking but unsurprising. Beyond the lack of water, the lack of shelter, the lack of usable flora, and lack of shade, temperatures plunge at night and soar midday. At my crew’s campsite, translucent scorpions scurried around the empty cinderblock watering hole we built fires in at the start and end of each day. One night the wind tore across the open desert so powerfully I worried my tent poles would snap. At least I was in a tent, with study shoes and resources available to deal with any emergencies. Many of the blankets we found to protect against these merciless conditions were small and decorated with cartoon characters. Faded, once-cheerfully colored backpacks held children’s clothing perfect for playing with friends but offering no defence against the desert elements.
In all the water jugs we picked up, none of the desert’s most precious resource remained. A few months after we left, one specific video, not even half a minute long, emerged from a remote area of the Arizona desert even closer to the border. A hidden camera emplaced by No More Deaths caught a grinning Border Patrol officer gleefully kicking, as if on a chorus line, six one-gallon jugs, one by one, before continuing on her ostensible foot patrol of the border. She and her two onlooking colleagues seemed to delight in depriving migrants of something that could save their lives. Gratuitously sadistic, they didn’t even clean up, just left the overturned jugs behind-look at what you could have had. Numerous humanitarian organizations have documented militia and US Border Patrol’s long-standing habit of slashing water cans or pouring them out, and aid volunteers, often themselves desert residents who find dead migrants near their homes, face prosecution for leaving out supplies.
Whereas some of my crewmates were initially opposed to the hitch, I had felt it was pretty innocuous. Picking up trash around a National Monument certainly wasn’t going to hurt anyone. We didn’t pick up all detritus, though. On one of the first days walking through the desert, somebody found a rusted can befitting an antique store, but our BLM handler told us to leave things like old glass bottles and cans on the ground as archaeologists would want to identify and catalog them where they were found. The movements and supplies of people in previous centuries were of interest to researchers and assigned historical value. Meanwhile, we were disposing of evidence of our contemporaries, lest anyone be inconvenienced by the desperate visuals of US immigration policy.