There is a place in the desert where the U.S. Border Patrol takes undocumented migrants who they can’t deport. There are over 600 of them there now, and they will remain under six feet of U.S. soil until someone comes to take them home. Being identified only as John or Jane Doe and a numbered brick, though, makes it difficult for anyone to find them.
Holtville, California, is a two hour drive east of San Diego. On the way, you can look towards the south to see the steep, rocky mountains of La Rumorosa. The highway on the Mexican side of the border winds through those cliffs, a twisted mirror image of U.S. Interstate 8.
We parked in front of Terrace Park Cemetery. Despite the sweat on my forehead, Enrique, Dermot and Gabriel all assured me that by local standards it was, indeed, cold outside. Each of them have their respective histories in the area.
Enrique Morones is the founder of Border Angels, a “non-profit organization supporting humanity.”
The organization consists of extraordinary volunteers who want to stop unnecessary deaths of individuals traveling through the Imperial Valley desert areas and the mountain areas surrounding San Diego County, as well as the areas located around the United States and Mexican border… (borderangels.org)
Scattering containers of drinking water around the desert is just one of the things that Border Angels is doing to fight for the livelihood of the immigrant population – documented and undocumented alike.
Bishop Dermot Rogers is an Independent Catholic from Norther Ireland, an avid and astute proponent of many social causes including the improvement of conditions for migrants. Gabriel, like me, is a first-time participant in Border Angels activities. He studies theater and Chicano Studies in San Diego, and will be interning with Border Angels during the coming months.
The bishop, the activist, the intern and I were accompanied by two others as we walked through the tidy cemetery, beyond it, over a chain and past some stagnant puddles. There, in a clearing behind Terrace Park Cemetery, where we really weren’t supposed to be, lie the bodies of those who U.S. officials found in the desert but could not identify. We were there to bear witness to their lives as we imagined them, and to their deaths as we saw them: caught in a struggle of politics, dreams, necessities and boundaries.
Enrique gave us an introduction to the site, explaining that it represents only a fraction of the estimated 10,000 people who have died since the beginning of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994. Burials occur early in the morning, when no one can see them. The fact that Enrique regularly brings groups here, including media crews, is testament to both his dedication and his wily disobedience.
The various decorations that adorn the otherwise impersonal grave markers were all made by students who Enrique has brought. We spent a few minutes putting them back in place, since they fall over or are removed by the groundskeeper. We were warned by Enrique not to walk between the graves, though, as they could cave in.
Our visit was concluded by a moment of prayer, thoughts and reflection, guided by Bishop Dermot and Enrique. It wasn’t the kind of prayer I have heard before. Here’s an excerpt:
We seek to educate ourselves and others to the underlying causes of migration. We will continue to welcome and assist those who seek hope, home and labor in this country. We are in this country because our forbears risked all they had on a dream for a better life. Today we can do no less.
So we prayed at the resting place of those who struggled for what so many dismiss as illegality. There at the edge of the nation, the state, and the well-maintained lawn of the cemetery. Marginalized, as Dermot reflected, even in death.
– – –
On the way back to San Diego we stopped at Jacumba to look at the fence that the U.S. Government built to keep people off its property. Older sections are made out of Vietnam-era landing strips, and take about 3 seconds to climb over. The newer sections are a lot taller. We walked along the fence for a while, watched from afar by a clearly visible Border Patrol car on the hill. Nearby lay a large sort of brush that the officers drag back and forth along the fence, making a nice smooth surface for footprints.
Our conversation for the rest of the trip focused on immigration reform (now is the time!), discrimination (sparked by the border patrol checkpoint where invariably dark-skinned travelers wait for inspection) and the endless stream of stories that Enrique has collected over the course of his years of work along the border.
- Enrique has a recent interview with NPR on immigration. It’s short, and there’s lots more out there on the issue right now. I invite anyone to post good resources for what to know and what to do about it in the comments section. ¡Sí se puede!
Luckily, we weren’t about to spend all day in the border region without celebrating the delightful mixture of culture that it offers. At the world famous donut and taco shop of Holtville, California (home of the Carrot Festival), we fortified ourselves with some tasty Mexican food.
Thanks to Enrique Morones and Border Angels for the opportunity to join them!