Playing Checkers in the Desert: A Reflection on Immigration, Life and Values

She pursed her lip; I squinted my eyes. She scratched her head as my heart raced; then she saw it.  It was a double jump in checkers and in one swift move Tonya took both of my kings and I was doomed. We laughed as if we were old friends and she had bested me for the one-hundredth time. Suddenly, a car door slammed and we heard a cry for assistance. We were pulled back to reality – no more games. A group of volunteers had returned from a patrol where they had found a dying man on the side of a road and medically evacuated him to our camp. We rushed to his aid.

Tonya and I were not old friends, though she affectionately made fun of me by calling me “flaca,” Spanish for skinny, and I called her “tía.” We had met days before as she came into the No More Deaths (NMD) humanitarian aid campsite in total desperation begging us not to shoot (mistaking our camp for a military one) and pleading for water. She was 46, and I was 21. She was a migrant traveling across the U.S.- Mexico border from Guatemala trying to reunite with her young daughter in Florida and I was a social work student from Nebraska trying to gain a better understanding of the border. Our worlds could not have been more different, yet the collision of them is imprinted on my soul forever.

I had always been interested in immigration reform and human rights law, but an experience working with a humanitarian aid organization along the U.S.-Mexico border two summers ago changed everything and potentially “ruined me for life”.  My fate was sealed by a game of checkers.

It was my junior year of college that I threw myself into studying immigration issues; I familiarized myself with Latin American politics and social structures as I prepared for a practicum the following year with the St. Louis Inter- Faith Committee on Latin America (IFCLA). My research led me to a group that was facing prosecution for “littering” by hiking the migrant trails with food and medical supplies and leaving large water jugs for those in need. I knew that in order to be a true activist I had to join in their mission. I had boasted about my in-depth study and knowledge of border issues, and arrogantly explained to friends and loved ones that I wished to be in solidarity with those suffering in the desert. However, nothing could have prepared me for my stay with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group whose mission was to prevent the unnecessary death and suffering of migrants in the Sonoran desert.

I hiked for three hours up a mountain in one hundred degree heat with four gallons of water on my back only to find that the water jugs left out from the last team had been slashed and destroyed. I learned about the number of individuals who go missing in the desert each year, heard personal stories from volunteers about border patrol abuse, and I knelt down and prayed at a shrine of a fourteen-year-old girl who was found dead the year before by NMD volunteers. We discussed privilege, anger, guilt, and how to possibly communicate this experience to loved ones. We smiled as Roberto, Tonya’s husband, cut up onions and sprinkled them around my tent to ward off the rattlesnakes and bring me good luck according to Guatemalan customs. We danced to pop music and went swimming in a lake to remind ourselves that joy exists even in such desperate conditions. I was no longer discussing my philosophy regarding human rights and dignity; rather, I found myself at the epicenter of the immigration debate where dehydration occurs daily and migrant death is far too common.

It was not merely a service trip; it was not a learning experience, nor a project. What happened to my spirit as I reflected on top of a mountain near Arivaca, Arizona was soul shattering. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, an organization to which I currently belong, boasts that participants of their program will “fall in love, have their hearts broken, and be ruined for life.” Though the program has been powerful, my transformation occurred two summers ago in the desert. I fell in love with the No More Deaths organization and the migrants while playing checkers with Tonya. My heart broke as I witnessed the plight of those crossing the Sonoran desert every single day and as I learned of Tonya and Roberto’s capture and detention by Border Patrol when they recovered and left our camp.  I was ruined for life.

While working at IFCLA, I was able to translate my experience and passion into practical advocacy.  My work connected my border experience with domestic immigration issues as well as international issues in Latin America.  I received direct advocacy experience and mentoring through my time at IFCLA. The organization utilizes a variety of different methods and approaches to fulfilling its mission of Accompaniment, Intervention, Investment, and Immigration. I worked with Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates to challenge legislation that would adversely affect the immigrant population of the state.  A robust and successful Immigrant Advocacy Day prevented anti-immigration bills, specifically SB 590, from being placed on the legislative calendar.  I also formed a team that successfully worked to pass a Resolution 79, which aims to curb workplace exploitation of immigrants in garment factories and declared St. Louis a Sweat-Free City.  I was an active participant of a racial profiling task force that observed court proceedings in St. Ann County to assess accusations of racial profiling of Latinos in the area.  I gave a presentation on my border experience and worked with my organization to promote speakers on immigration issues that encouraged awareness and dispelled myths. The list of activities goes on.  Most importantly, my goal was to provide a human face to the immigration debate and honor the struggle of those I met during my time at the border.

Currently, I work as a food security advocate for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, serving a predominantly immigrant population. Social justice is not only an interest for me, but also a way of life. Whether through the pursuit of human rights law, immigration reform, or public interest law, I made a promise to fight tirelessly to protect immigrant and human rights and to recognize the dignity of every person.  Every day I remind myself of that commitment I made to Tonya, mi tía, as we played checkers like old friends, in the desert.

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This article was submitted by Rosie Laughlin. She studied at St Louis University, and interned with the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America during her senior year. She currently lives in Tuscon, Arizona and is applying to law school to continue fighting for the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings.

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