I remember an expanse of scrubland with massive saguaro cacti stretching out to a ridge in the distance. The sun was setting, and the evening light crept over the rocky outcrop before me. From behind the cacti, ragged-looking men suddenly appeared as shadowy figures, silhouetted by the sun. It was time to go. Fast.
I was wiping sleep from my eyes, half in a dream, peering out the back window of my family’s Chevy Carryall. I think the men carried machetes. That’s how I remember them. But the memory is hazy. We didn’t wait long enough to exchange greetings. My parents sped off in short order. We had been down this road before. My father had already been kidnapped once, dragged off with tire irons around his wrists after stopping on the roadside to pick up wood. (He was saved by kind Mexican police.)
The year was 1975, and I was 7 years old. It was all very, very frightening.
My parents had stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere to rest on the nine-hour trek from San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, to Laredo, Texas. My brother and I were resting in the back of the Carryall, which vaguely resembled today’s SUVs, only it was bigger and slower. My parents had studied Mexican art at Instituto Allende for six months. My brother and I were along for the ride. We were headed back to Long Island, chased out of San Miguel by bandits with bullet belts wrapped around their shoulders.
It suddenly struck me the other day: I had crossed Mexico as a child. Not on foot, as so many child refugees fleeing narco-trade violence in Central America and South America do today. I was tucked safely in the back of a car. But I had been there — in the scrublands — and experienced their ethereal beauty and lurking danger. To this day I can still taste the parched air. Central Mexico is an unforgiving land, utterly foreign to most Americans.
On foot, dehydration and exhaustion take their toll all too quickly. Death comes easily. My parents carried several cooler-size water jugs in a compartment under the bed they had fashioned out of plywood in the back of our vehicle and two oversized cans of gasoline bolted to the outside.
Despite the myriad risks of traveling across Mexico, hundreds of thousands come each year, fleeing Central and South America, seeking refuge from gang warfare and endemic poverty. In 2017 alone, some 294,000 asylum seekers fled to Belize, Mexico and the U.S., according to the United Nations. Most come with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the few provisions they can carry.
If they escape the bandits, smugglers, venomous snakes and stifling heat of Mexico and somehow evade the U.S. Border Patrol and cross into the United States, their journey hasn’t ended. They might cross from Mexico into Arizona or California, meaning they must survive the Sonoran Desert, a swath of hellish landscape measuring more than 160,000 square miles that stretches across both sides of the border. Temperatures there sometimes soar above 120 degrees in summer.
At this point, migrants are fatigued beyond measure, on their last legs — ready to die. Tens of thousands do. In Pima County, Ariz., alone, the remains of close to 3,000 migrants have been found in the desert since 2000, according to “PBS NewsHour.”
That’s why I was infuriated recently by the trial of Scott Warren, a 36-year-old teacher from Arizona who volunteers for the faith-based, nonprofit organization No More Deaths (No Más Muertes), which provides food and water to the men, women and children who stream from Mexico into southern Arizona. Volunteers leave water jugs in the desert and offer meals at way stations, which migrants learn of through word of mouth.
Warren was charged with aiding and abetting two migrants in their attempt to cross into the U.S. in January 2018 because, allegedly, he was seen pointing as he spoke with them. According to the Border Patrol, pointing would indicate that Warren gave them directions to avoid detection by officials, which would be a crime, and so he was arrested. At his recent trial, which began May 29 and resulted in a mistrial last week, he faced 20 years in prison if convicted.
Warren’s arrest came only hours after No More Deaths posted videos of Border Patrol agents emptying the group’s water jugs on the ground. One agent was seen kicking jugs down a hill. The Washington Post and New York Times reported all of it.
This story should anger all of us. Offering humanitarian aid to migrants on the verge of death is never a crime under international law, according to the U.N. Never.
As a nation, we should never deny basic sustenance to dying migrants — to refugees. This is, however, who we have become under President Trump. His inhumane policies on migrants led us here. If we don’t correct course soon, I fear we will permanently lose our collective soul.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.