For the eight weeks in Tucson, I volunteer with Humane Borders, a humanitarian group focusing on migrant deaths. Nowadays it seems that everyone knows our immigration system is just a mess, but few are aware of the most inhumane part of it—many migrants cannot make the journey into the United States and die in the desert near to the border. Every year, more than 200 dead bodies are found in the Sonoran desert. Most perished due to hypothermia and dehydration. By installing and maintaining water stations in the desert, Humane Borders tries to prevent as many deaths as possible.
The presence of Humane Borders renders a lot of misunderstanding and hatred from others. The most common criticisms we have received—“Why are you attracting migrants to come illegally” and “Why are you helping drug cartels and human smugglers”—are not true. Still, some people hate us so much that they express it with their actions.
What is the most disappointing thing about water runs? Vandalism, of course. What is even more disappointing than finding a case of vandalism? Finding three vandalisms during a single run. That happened a few days ago. The flag was torn down; the barrel was emptied and removed. I cannot understand at all why some people spend so much time locating our water stations and using complicated tools and techniques to vandalize them—their job would be as tough as, if not tougher than, our water run. Maybe they are motivated to fight for their sense of “justice,” just like we believe we are doing the right thing.
Most importantly, the acts of vandalism made me question the meaning of our deeds. Due to the militarization of the border, the migrants have been pushed into remote areas and the migrant trails have been fluctuating and hard to locate. Therefore, some of our water stations along the abandoned migrant trails are not of much help anymore, including most of the stations of the Monday run. Thus, it seems that the primary function we serve is no longer to save the lives in the desert but to fight against vandalisms of the stations—which are actually rarely used by migrants. Vandalism, repair, vandalism, repair… it is just a repetitive cycle. Isn’t it a waste of time and money? That idea, I realized later, is the biggest frustration for me.
Just like every coin has two sides, however, every story has two sides, too. Although sometimes the fight against vandalism does not serve any utilitarian function, it still has symbolic significance.
Compared to organizing protests and speaking in front of hundreds of microphones, maintaining water stations in the desert seems to be less influential. Also, for a long time, the Humane Borders has been criticized for being silent in terms of political advocacy and engagement. In other words, many people think that Humane Borders is an organization that only ACTS without VOICE.
Yet, the vandalisms are exactly the evidence invalidating the criticism. They suggest not only that we have voiced out our political opinions by our actions, but also that our opinions have been heard and provoked reactions; they suggest that some people pay attention to, are challenged by and feel uncomfortable about our opinions. Similarly, political opinions manifest in the vandalism. From this perspective, our fight against vandalism is just another form of congressmen arguing at the Capitol Hill, advocacy leaders speaking in front the media and protestors marching on the street. The water run in the desert is also an arena of political campaign. We repair the water stations not only because they are important for the migrants, but also because it is a way to declare that we stand for the principle that every human being has the right to live. The seemingly repetitive cycle of vandalism and repair is a battle between two ideologies, one of which we are determined to make prevail over the other. The action of making us heard is never a waste of time and money.
Yueran is currently in Tuscon with Duke Engage.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.