The desert would look a lot nicer if camp wasn’t here. You can’t miss it, even at sunset from way up in the twin mountain ranges that lead down to the valley in a series of cholla-dotted washes. If you have a few minutes (while the beans are still simmering for dinner in the kitchen tent, maybe) and you follow the path away and up the hill, past the bucket toilets and the water tank, it looks like someone half-buried a UFO-sized golf ball in the sand; the clinic is a glowing white orb situated below a Red Cross flag and one with the Virgin of Guadalupe and one that says AGUA. It looks like that same somebody opened a fist and dropped down a bunch of tents and trailers. The sky is pink, and for a moment you think maybe it’s the end of the world, and this is what’s left.
No camp, and the desert would be rolling and thorny and perfect. But it would also include—in washes, under the occasional mesquite tree—more human bodies. In 1994, U.S. Border Patrol instituted an official policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence,” convinced that militarizing cities and funneling anyone who wished to enter the U.S. from Mexico (and didn’t have the money or marketable skills to obtain a visa) into rural areas would make the journey difficult and dangerous enough to keep migrants from coming. They were wrong. In the last fifteen years, literally thousands of bodies have turned up in the desert, some of which are identified. The majority are bleached by the sun and picked clean by vultures before any human arrives.
So we have camp. Located twelve miles north of the border and five from the town of Arivaca, which is home to a few hundred people, Byrd Camp occupies land donated by children’s author and immigrant advocate Byrd Baylor. Camp is run entirely by volunteers of Tucson-based organization No More Deaths, which exists explicitly to lessen suffering in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. To keep people alive. No Mas Muertes. Supported in part by the American Red Cross, the group exercises the right established by the Geneva Convention to provide humanitarian aid in a warzone. For the last twelve years, volunteers have hiked water out into the desert and provided emergency medical treatment to migrants at camp.
This conversation is a political one, of course. In 2016, “immigration” is a potent buzzword. But No More Deaths argues that there’s nothing partisan about their effort. At one of their weekly community meetings in a church in South Tucson, an older volunteer with a white cloud of hair leans forward in her folding chair. “Well,” she asks the assembled circle, “should coming into this country illegally be a death sentence crime?”
Around the room, her question elicits murmurs of agreement. While Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which allows law enforcement to demand papers from any Latino-looking person, is perhaps the broadest and strictest anti-immigrant law in the country, No More Deaths has many supporters in Tucson. Most of the staff at Byrd Camp is young and able-bodied, but less-mobile volunteers contribute from the city. Some publish reports on abuses by Border Patrol. Others, with volunteers at partner organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos, answer a hotline for Central American families searching for loved ones stranded in the desert. There are hundreds of cases open at any given time, and frantic calls come in day and night.
Local responses closer to the border are mixed. Outside the Border Patrol checkpoint on the road heading north from Arivaca, some residents have settled themselves into lawn chairs to document perceived racial profiling by the law enforcement. Across the street, some of their neighbors have posted a sign: “Citizens of Arivaca, Moyza & Amado Support Our BP Checkpoint.”
But for borderlands residents on either side of the issue, both Border Patrol’s green-striped trucks and the presence of desperate migrants, seen or unseen, have become inescapable facets of daily life.
Four of us staff the camp this May. We meet in town, and after a brief training session, we pack into a black Dodge pickup called Luther whose odometer doesn’t work and whose back doors don’t close all the way. Our only requirements are that we either speak Spanish or have some medical training; that we came here with a sense of purpose that extends beyond politics or pity; that we are unmoored from stable civilian life, free to plant ourselves in a desert for a month. We’re all young women, and between us we’ve spent the last few months biking across the country, riding freight trains, working at thrift stores and newspapers and farms.
It takes an hour and a half to get from Tucson to Arivaca. Just before the welcome sign for the town, we turn onto something that fits only the loosest definition of “road.” Thirty-odd minutes later, tailbones bruised and cell service a thing of the past, we’re pulling in.
Byrd Camp isn’t meant to be permanent; volunteers like to fantasize about a day when it will no longer be needed. But for now, it’s a patchwork of necessities and small comforts. In the office (the inside of a trailer that opens into the kitchen tent) there are maps and GPSes; on the shelves, vats of blue Gatorade powder and over-the-counter painkillers, desert field guides and zines about mass incarceration. Old armchairs flank the picnic table. There’s a fire pit, and an area where we pitch our tents. On the wall of the kitchen tent is a mural of the Virgin Mary carrying jugs of water. On the fridge are drawings and notes written by migrants passing through; inside, dozens of eggs and fat stacks of tortillas and vegetables (if someone’s donated them, or thepickings from the dumpsters behind fancy Tucson grocery stores have been good). The ropa tent holds another fridge full of thrift store clothes bought for a dollar a bag. Outside the clinic—which is furnished with cots and file cabinets of arnica salve for aching joints, tweezers for cactus spines, and more serious utensils for more serious ailments like rattlesnake bites, heart attacks, and early labor—there is a makeshift Catholic altar.
The days have a slow rhythm. Each morning, we consult the logbook and pick a set of drops to re-stock. The first volunteers thought like animals attempting to cross this expanse: Where is there water? Shade? How do you avoid checkpoints and towns, places with a lot of people? With years of practice, they’ve found most migrant trails in the area and positioned drops where the trails intersect. There are hundreds, and the logbook is updated with the most recent data from each drop: how many gallons had been opened, how many new ones the volunteers left to replace them.
After breakfast, we check Luther’s fluid levels and make sure the tool kit is stocked with wrenches, ropes, and a jack. (No More Deaths’ greatest expenditure every year is vehicle maintenance; the backroads we travel seem to take pleasure in chewing and swallowing tires.) Then half the group packs a pallet of water into the back of the truck and arms themselves with sunscreen and hiking boots in a futile attempt to fend off the desert for the day. When they head out, the other half (and we alternate every day) sticks around to hold down camp.
Water-dropping feels dramatic, even glamorous, but holding it down is anti-climactic. Afternoons at camp are long and hot. We spend hours with our hands in soapy water, washing dishes. We organize the ropa tent. We read. And we wait for migrants to arrive.
They always do.
They materialize at no particular time of day: young and older men in camo, stumbling mostly. Many see the Red Cross flag. Some don’t even care who we are; they want to turn themselves in. Anything for water. They haven’t had any except the scummy sludge in cattle tanks in days; they’ve often been throwing up for hours. They’ve fallen and are grimacing at best and bleeding at worst.
First, we offer food. When they’ve eaten and drunk, we conduct a basic medical interview: Before this, when was the last time you drank clean water? Ate? When was the last time you peed? Are you injured? What hurts? We dispense medicine when necessary, and the camp rules always: no drugs, no weapons, respeto para todos.
Sometimes it takes them a while to warm up to us; they’ll give us a thank you for the pain pills and food and then retreat to the med tent until dinner. I often wonder about this first view of the United States, so different from the desert it’s settled in and from the country that awaits those who make it further north: hairy, dusty women who drive trucks, sleep in trailers, don’t shower for weeks.
After dinner some nights, we sit around the fire, one or two of us and two or four or seven of the guys. They get to telling stories. Some sound macho, almost bragging: who’s been shot at by ranchers or BP; who’s crossed in every season, only to be deported each time. But there are others: who watched gang members rape a woman on the roof of La Bestia, the train up through Mexico, and couldn’t do anything. Who’s been kidnapped and tortured and whose brother was murdered, the third in the family this year.
The stories sometimes sound fantastical: a man pushed from a window whose bones collapsed up into him on impact but who didn’t die for another half hour, just screamed. A baby’s body hollowed out to carry drugs. Mafia big shots with pet tigers chained in their yards.
Some things, though, don’t feel that far from home. Eight-year-old sons whose hands aren’t strong enough yet to milk the cows, who are allowed to play video games but not the violent ones. Mothers with gardens at the base of a mountain, all the vegetables you could want. One night, a boy comes through who’s seventeen. There are no jobs in his little town, he says. You join the cartels or you become their victim. You work all week, overtime, and make four dollars. He just wants to work as hard as he can for five years and get home again.
I always want to ask more but usually hold back. The circle of firelight feels so safe, and it’s easy to forget the Border Patrol helicopters blinking, constantly, overhead.
For the most part, BP leaves us alone. But the month before I arrived, they’d set up on a nearby hill, binoculars trained on camp, waiting to apprehend anyone who stepped outside. And legally, they can walk in at any minute and take somebody away. When we talk on the camp phone in the office, we never say if there are visitors with us. The security I feel as a citizen here can’t belong to the migrants: I can share it for a few hours, a few days, but then they’ve got to walk out the north end of camp back into a real life-or-death obstacle course. While camp offers a momentary respite, it’s not a place for unburdening. It’s a chance to re-armor yourself.
When we say goodnight and put the fire out, the other volunteers and I follow the glow of our headlamps back to our tents, the men to the clinic. Sometimes, two of us women will stay at camp for a few days while the others get a break in town, but we never feel unsafe. Most of the men we meet are respectful, but our calm stems in large part from an understanding of our position of power: we have access to food and medicine, clothes. Unlike the visitors, we know where we are. And we’re here legally.
I find little ways to try to restore a feeling of equality: at the table afternoons, asking a migrant the definition of a word I read in the stained office copy of Cien Años de Soledad.
“Que significa una huerta?” An orchard, he offers. Terciopelo? Velvet. Malandanza? Misfortune. Rapto, derribar, atreverse? To rupture, to demolish, to risk. He speaks in circles, using synonyms, until I understand.
Lots of experiences at camp, however, aren’t so easily explained. Like hiking fifty pounds of water on each of our backs two hours into the desert in ninety-five degree weather to find all the gallons at a drop unopened and slashed with a knife. (Cameras hidden in rocks have recorded BP agents and homegrown “militia” men in action.) Or hearing story after story about BP helicopters zooming low to the ground, not to apprehend anyone, but to scatter groups, so that everyone drops their water and everybody but the guide gets lost. Watching, at night, as guys scarf down a final meal, shake our hands, and then head into a darkness that’s surprisingly cold, to navigate by moonlight between rattlesnakes, cacti and invisible sensors—and knowing that many of them are just going to end up imprisoned or back in the arms of the cartels on the other side.
These are the products of a policy that doesn’t try to hide the fact that it uses suffering—even death—as a tool. And a lot of nights when I climb into my tent, this reality wraps itself around me in an unwelcome embrace. On a large scale, I am powerless.
But this, I think, is why camp matters. If the big questions are too hard, if the politics hurt too much, everyday here I can use my arms to put out water that may save someone’s life. I can give medicine to somebody and it will stop some of his aching for a little while. For a little while, I can let him be—not a migrant, but a person.
On my last day at camp, I pick our drop sites, pull out the right maps and GPSes, help pack lunches, and, after checking the oil, put the key in Luther’s ignition and drive the other women out into the desert. Several hours later, bumping back up the road towards the glowing clinic in the dark, layers-deep in sun and dust, feet more blisters than soft skin and every scratch and embedded cactus spine a battle scar—I have never felt more capable.
And yet. While I climb up on the flat top of a Winnebago to listen to the desert stillness from inside my sleeping bag one last time, the lanterns in the kitchen stay on for hours. The others are making plans to look for a body. A volunteer who had been rock climbing that day came upon two migrants near the campground on the nearby Tohono O’Odham reservation. Both were shaken up: they’d just seen a dead man, about twenty minutes back on their trail.
It’s Memorial Day weekend and everyone else in America is remembering their dead, so volunteers are having a tough time rousing the police and getting permission from rez elders to go out and search on sacred land.
In a sense, though, all of this is sacred land—relatively untouched desert, majestic, terrifying, beautiful. And it’s been turned into a warzone. Lives end painfully and quietly here, and bodies disappear; human dignity is trampled; people make enemies of people who wish them no harm. As I pack up my tent and stop for the last time at the community garden in Tucson, my friends will be combing the desert for the man’s body. I’ll get on the plane, and if we’re lucky, the coroner’s office will be working to identify his remains. When I get to Washington, DC, collected into the arms of my parents and friends, his family may be getting the call: that their father, son, brother, will never be coming home.
I’ll go back as soon as I can.
Annie Rosenthal isn’t partial to slimy green vegetables, but she loves her dog, Okra. For a tour of her native Washington, DC that includes lots of cheap food and free nature, write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.