A few weeks ago, I saw evidence that our government treats animals better than it treats immigrants. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a watering trough for passing cattle. Yet, it destroys gallons of water intended for human beings.
When I saw this injustice, I had already been in the desert for several hours in 110-plus-degree heat. I was sweating profusely but I was chilled to the bone.
I was in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in western Arizona with No More Deaths. I joined an interfaith group of 60 clergy and people of faith, including four other rabbis, to support the organization’s humanitarian work providing much needed water to immigrants sojourning through this brutal terrain along the U.S.-Mexico border. Nine volunteers from No More Deaths face federal charges for saving the lives of migrants in what is now one of the most trafficked corridors along the border. We were there to commit the apparently criminal act of leaving water for immigrants as a public assertion that providing humanitarian aid is never a crime.
There have been more than 444 known deaths of migrants in the remote West Desert since 2001, including 130 known deaths in Cabeza Prieta. But it is estimated that only 1-in-3 bodies of missing immigrants are recovered. These are called desaparecidos, the missing whose bodies are never found, denying their families and loved ones the closure they need to grieve.
This crisis is entirely of the federal government’s making. People arriving at official ports of entry are told that they can’t be admitted. The most common routes across the desert have been closed, forcing immigrants to ever more dangerous and more remote parts of the desert. U.S. border patrol agents destroy the water that volunteers leave in the desert, water that could be the difference between life and death.
And the militarization of the various federal agencies that have jurisdiction over the lands near the border only heightens the danger. The motto of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency is “Conserving the Nature of America,” but its agents inexplicably met us with body armor, body cameras, guns, and tasers.
These tactics represent purposeful efforts to put migrants in mortal danger. They are part of the Trump administration’s intensified efforts to terrorize the entire immigrant community, from its zero-tolerance policy at the border to placing immigrant children in internment camps. And make no mistake: The policies do not result in fewer people crossing the border, they only result in fewer people surviving the border passage.
To drop off the gallons of water, we hiked about three miles, knowing exactly where we were going, armed with all the supplies we needed and extensive medical support. Yet it was still one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because of the extreme heat. Toward the end of the hike, at noon, there was no shade. I still can’t wrap my head around what it would be like to do that for a hundred miles, without what you need, without knowing where to go, all while being hunted by border patrol.
One member of our group — a white citizen — became overwhelmed by the heat, and, unbidden, a Fish and Wildlife Service agent went down into the valley to rescue her. The agency had overheard our walkie-talkie discussion about her condition. A short time later, an EMT from the Bureau of Land Management showed up to check on her. That event clearly showed us that the resources exist to care for people in distress in the desert. It is morally repugnant that such help is withheld from brown non-citizens.
Part of the sacred myth of the Jewish people is our experience wandering in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. In the Torah, the rabbis understand the midbar (desert) as a source of spiritual transcendence. It is where the mishkan (tabernacle) was built, and where the shekhina (spirit of God) came to dwell among the people. But the physical experience of being in the desert this weekend has radically shifted my understanding of the agony that wandering also engendered. I know why Moses hit the rock in a moment of desperation for water; I know why the people complained constantly.
The Sonoran Desert is absolutely beautiful. It is also deadly. But it doesn’t have to be.