“No sé donde está mi hija. Por favor, puede ayudarme a buscar pa ella?”
“I don’t know where my daughter is. Please, can you help me find her?”
Calls like these are made to Derechos Humanos every day, with dozens of panicked families looking for their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, cousins, and close friends. They are unsure if their loved one is still traveling through the heat of the desert, or stranded somewhere in its vast expanse, in a detention center in one of the 90 ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities across the country, or deported back to their country of origin. This means their son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister, or cousin is missing somewhere within millions of miles between the US and their home country, alone or with hundreds of others in detention, dead or alive. The stress, worry, and fear behind each call to Derechos Humanos, behind each caller missing a member of their family, is unfathomable.
Many people might assume these outcomes of remaining separated from family, of detention, of deportation, and of death are risks one takes when trying to enter the US without documents. Yet no human should encounter these abuses for such innocent intentions. Thousands make this abrasive journey north to the US to flee violence and threats from gangs, escape persecution for one’s sexuality, reunite with one’s family, or find employment to feed and support their loved ones. It is clear that these dozens of people who go missing every day somewhere between the grueling desert and the formidable US detention system are not simply trying to “steal jobs from Americans”, but are evading poverty, violence, and death.
Thus, with each missing person that Derechos Humanos tries to locate through search and rescue teams, calls to detention centers, and aid from forensics teams, it is impossible to ignore their unique struggle and incomplete family.
“Do you have an identification number? If not, I cannot help you.”
This is often the first response of various officers at ICE offices, US Marshals Services, and detention centers, who we call to try and locate people in the labyrinth of apprehension. The harsh and unsympathetic employees are earning their salaries off of the imprisonment of these displaced family members, who they minimize to eight or nine digits.
As with any instance of systematic human rights violations, such large-scale statistics of death, abuse, and displacement can take away from the humanity and individuality of each person affected. Amidst the overwhelming and disturbing statistics – this past year 137 human remains were found in the desert (just in the Tucson sector of the border), over 235,000 people were deported from the US, and thousands more were detained – it is easy to forget each individual, family, and community affected by this perverse system. But without focus on the actual people behind these numbers, it is impossible to try to begin to understand the impact of these abuses on each mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, or son.
“Impunity” is a word we heard daily on our trip around the state of Chiapas, Mexico a few weeks ago. It was usually spoken with sadness, like in a discussion of the root causes of migration, or with a quiet rage behind it, built up over the years in one survivor of a massacre. This massacre, executed by a government-funded paramilitary group, was just part of the impunity we heard about so often, which was almost always in reference to the Mexican government. Many of the people we talked with cited it as one of Mexico’s biggest problems and huge push factor for emigration from Mexico.
Fleeing violence, poverty, and a government that facilitates misery, migrants from Mexico (and even farther-flung countries, like Honduras and El Salvador) arrive in the US only to be greeted with a 20-foot steel wall, a blisteringly hot desert (that claims thousands of lives a year), racist Border Patrol policies, and the private detention center and prison industrial complex. They gave up everything, packed up their entire lives into whatever they could carry in a backpack, and made a life-threatening journey to the United States so their kids could live somewhere that at least had a government that would treat them like human beings. Sadly, they may have come to the wrong place– it’s hard not to see some parallels between the infamous impunity in the Mexican government and the sneakier, more bureaucratic impunity in our own. When I (and other volunteers at the Coalición de Derechos Humanos) call detention centers, the insolent operators tell us boldfaced lies or simply refuse to help us, if they don’t hang up on us. In Pima County, migrants’ 911 calls are just redirected to Border Patrol, where they are frequently ignored. Migrants facing trial at the Tucson courthouse get herded through Operation Streamline like cattle, 70 at a time and shackled together with chains, given no private meetings or prior preparation with their lawyers. Like the other Rachel mentioned in her blog post above, ICE refers to detained immigrants with numbers, not names.
Luckily for ICE, no one contests their dehumanization of migrants because as a whole, American society shares their disturbingly mathematical, inhuman view of immigration. The proud manner in which the media proclaims that the agency deported 235,000 people last year sounds as though these forced removals were 235,000 units of a good exported for profit, not 235,000 people’s lives uprooted and irreversibly damaged. Coming to the borderlands of Arizona, I was sure that everyone would share my moral outrage at this humanitarian crisis but was shocked to discover that, just like in the rest of the country, a lot of people don’t care about migrants’ humanity. I fought frustration and discouragement about this through my entire internship– how could those people be so maddeningly indifferent about the life or death of their own neighbors? Do people really just not give a shit about other people?
But that sucks. Like really, truly, honest-to-God sucks. I refuse to believe that humanity is that calloused. There has to be something more to it all, something that preserves the sanity of the full-time employees fighting an uphill battle at Derechos Humanos, something I’m missing. I’ve been looking a little deeper recently, and I think that my previous misconceptions regarding human indifference are a trap. If we think other people don’t care, then we don’t have to either, right? It’s an easy way out, a coping mechanism of blissful ignorance used to deal with the big, ugly, systemic problems in the world and our complicity in them. Of course people care about other people. What about the entire staff of Derechos Humanos, who are all very intelligent people and could be comfortably working for any major company, but instead chose the heart-wrenching job of locating missing migrants (from an office that rivals the desert itself in summer heat, no less)? What about Cristen, who manned the Missing Migrant Hotline from her cell phone all by herself, 24/7, receiving hundreds of calls for two whole years? They work quietly without fame or fortune, so it’s easy to miss them if you’re not paying attention, but of course they’re out there.
People here keep telling us that we now know more about the current state of immigration in the US than 99% of the population, so we better use it well. I think that statement, in and of itself, is a problem- if no one knows, no one can care. I’m returning to the East Coast with the intent to spread awareness about the monstrosities happening at the border and to educate people about why they should care. It’s lonely and difficult if only one person is fighting for change, but a lot of people can make a lot of progress. What if millions of people were talking about immigrant rights? Solidarity is a powerful thing.