Encountering the migrant

A recent photo shows me standing in front of a saguaro cactus, my arms spread in imitation. Ah, southern Arizona in March, when flowers bloom and birds are passing through. For me the Sonoran Desert is a great place to hike.

The number of illegal migrants crossing our southern borders, trekking the desert I hikeincreased between February and March (the same months retirees from the North migrate to Arizona.) Trump would have us imagine those coming from the south as invaders, most of them drug dealers, criminals.

On TV this morning camera footage out of Mexico showed a large group making camp at a city playground. Children play on swing sets while women sort through piles of donated clothing, searching for items that will fit their families.

These women and children are among the Honduran asylum seekers Trump would have us fear.

For those of us who have options, it’s hard to empathize with people who don’t. Hard to comprehend the fears that drive women and men to pack a few belongings, gather their children, and make a dangerous journey across arid land by foot.

Last week, during the flight home from Tucson, I read Crossing with the Virgin: stories from the migrant trail. Though published eight years ago, the book is still relevant. Three Samaritans, humanitarian volunteers from southern Arizona, write of their experiences. They patrol desert roads and trails searching for migrants who need water, food, and/or medical care. There’s a protocol, rules about what they can and cannot do. For example, they cannot offer a ride. If border patrol personnel are at the scene, the aid workers must ask permission to offer water or food.

Aid volunteers understand migrants not as criminals but as human beings desperate to survive. Migrants leave their homes not for adventure but because home has become a perilous place or because there is no work. Danger awaits them on their journey: dehydration, hunger, bandits who steal their money.

And border patrols. Some personnel are kind, some hostile. Homeland Security buses are parked out in the desert. Even in February and March the afternoon heat on a bus can be suffocating. Once the bus is filled, it carries shackled migrants to detention, where they are locked in a 20X20-foot cell until they appear before a judge.

Reading this book has made me uncomfortable. Can I return to Arizona, hike in the desert, and return to the comfort of a rented apartment, all the while choosing to be blind to the human tragedy taking place within a few miles?

The fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination has been marked with photos. One stands out: I am a man on picket signs carried by protestors of the Memphis sanitation strike.

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It’s easier to consider migrants as law breakers than as humanity caught in a crisis. Yet photos call out to us: I am a man; I am a woman; I am a child.

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