Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone

Terry Greene Sterling (2004)
Globe Pequot Press, 2010.

Chapter 1: By the Time They Get to Phoenix

Drugs and people are smuggled from Sonora to Phoenix.
Money and guns are smuggled from Phoenix to Sonora.
The people know they are the most expendable cargoes, so they say their prayers.

Red high heels. A New York Yankees baseball cap. Star Wars figurines. Dirty diapers. Backpacks. Framed photographs. Gunnysacks. Tuna fish cans. Electrolyte solution bottles. Jackets. Hoodies. T-shirts. Hair ribbons. Human feces. Plastic water jugs. Pink thong panties.

In the years I’ve covered the Arizona-Mexico borderlands as a reporter for newspapers and magazines, I’ve come across hundreds of objects of immigrant trash strewn in the desert. The litter had always outraged and saddened me. On the one hand, it seemed disrespectful, contaminated pristine stretches of desert, and killed wildlife. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but wonder about the untold story behind some migrant trash. Who abandoned that bright green hair clip beneath the acacia? Who speared those size-five Cherokee blue jeans on the angry spines of an ocotillo?

Each immigrant crossing illegally into Arizona drops an average of eight pounds of belongings during his or her journey, according to federal environmental officials. Even though illegal immigration has declined, tons of fresh trash are still strewn along Arizona’s borderlands. Volunteers pick it up. Federal employees pick it up. Cowboys pick it up. Hikers pick it up. Although the trash is offensive, just about anyone who cleans up immigrant trash is moved by some of what the travelers leave behind.

Volunteers who leave water for migrants on the desert trails make shrines out of immigrant trash. I came across one such shrine near Arivaca, a tiny town that sits about twelve miles north of the border. Whoever made the shrine had arranged little stones (in the shape of a heart) around a pile of immigrant trash. A small figurine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, that beloved brown Mexican national goddess- Madonna, overlooked a choppy mound of photos, worn-out athletic shoes, T-shirts, baseball caps, plastic one-gallon water jugs, hooded sweatshirts, backpacks, blankets, and empty bottles of electrolyte solution. There was a cell phone in the shrine, a large black plastic garbage bag that had been fashioned into a makeshift raincoat, a yellow toy truck, an inhaler for an asthmatic, and a small sun-baked Spanish prayer pamphlet called Oraciones de los Emigrantes, which literally means Prayers for Emigrants.

The fragile booklet was tiny, about three inches square, designed to fit in a pocket of a jacket or a backpack. The sun-brittle pages con- tained prayers to patron saints of travel, prayers appealing for safe passage. But one prayer, in particular, caught my eye. I scrawled a rough translation in my notebook—Dearest Infant Lord Jesus, who accompanied by your sainted parents Mary and Joseph, knew the bitterness of leaving your homeland for Egypt, we ask you on behalf of all the children who are homeless immigrants and refugees, these children who suffer as you once suffered, we ask that their parents find work, food and a home, and that they always be received with love, that outsiders they meet treat them as brothers, and that you please keep their bodies and souls safe.

What would compel a border crosser to ditch the nearly weightless prayer booklet in this thorny desert? Had he or she died on the trail? Had the immigrant been robbed or raped by smugglers or border bandits who’d rifled through a backpack or a jacket, dumping the prayer booklet and everything else on the desert floor in a search for money or documents? Had the migrant lost the prayer book at night, when the smuggler led his group of men, women, and children through mesquites and oak trees and flesh-ripping acacia? Assuming the person survived, would he or she end up in my city, Phoenix?

• • •

God help the owner of the tiny book of prayers if Phoenix was his or her final destination. The nation’s fifth-largest city is also the nation’s kidnapping capital, and virtually all the victims are undocumented Mexicans. Phoenix is a major transportation hub for human smugglers, drug smugglers, firearms smugglers, and money smugglers. We’ll get to all that later.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an undocumented immigrant in the borderlands who hasn’t heard of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-described toughest sheriff in America, whose famed “crime suppression sweeps” have terrorized Latinos. Phoenix is Sheriff Joe’s home base. His fans include neo-Nazi teens, middleaged Minutemen, an aging Anglo conservative electorate that thinks Mexicans will take over their country, and strong anti-immigrant activist groups.

Phoenix is Arizona’s capital, the place where state legislators have enacted some of the harshest anti-undocumented-immigrant laws in the United States. Arizona laws deprive undocumented people of employment, health care, social services, public scholarships at universities, and driver’s licenses. A 2010 law criminalizes migrants without papers and requires beat cops to enforce immigration laws.

All of this explains why Arizona in general and Phoenix in particular are at the epicenter of the nation’s immigration debate. As the main portal for illegal immigration into the United States, Arizona began passing laws to control immigration in the face of the federal government’s inaction over immigration reform. You can understand the initial frustration; millions crossed into Arizona after NAFTA was enacted. What you can’t understand is why Arizona’s laws became ever more punitive and racist as immigration declined.

Some immigrants couldn’t take it in Arizona and moved to friendlier states. Others went back to Mexico. No one knows if the recession prompted them to leave or if Sheriff Joe ran them out. Whatever the case, the number of unauthorized immigrants in Arizona has recently decreased significantly, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In 2008, about 560,000 immigrants were thought to live in Arizona. In 2009, about 460,000 were estimated to live in the Grand Canyon State.

The majority of those still in Arizona are believed to reside in Phoenix.

Separated from their Anglo neighbors by language barriers, cultural differences, and the harshest anti-migrant laws in the nation, undocumented immigrants in Phoenix love, pray, play, sin, suffer, and survive in the shadows.

For migrants, Phoenix can be a living hell.

And yet, they risk their lives to get to Phoenix.