Friday, September 21, 2007

In A Place Where Blisters Kill

In A Place Where Blisters Kill
by Jay Dravich

Labor Day is a unique holiday. Secular, it celebrates
neither a historic event nor a famous person. Its
intent is to honor the small guy, the working man and
This Labor Day weekend, I was driving south from
Santa Cruz to do what I could to help keep alive the
most dedicated and most unwelcome laborers ever to be
denied a page in the labor history of America.
It was already hot in the morning and the drive to

Tucson, Arizona, promised to be a gauntlet in the
rapidly rising temperature. The air conditioning would
have to be occasionally turned off to prevent the car
from overheating and I regretted not having done the
seventy-five thousand mile oil change before I left
I spent the night in a motel in Blythe, California,
where nearly every room was occupied with men and boys
dressed in camouflage preparing for the first day of
dove hunting season. The bird that symbolically
represents peace on earth, carrying an olive branch
from G-d.
I arrived in Tucson in early afternoon, in time for
the weekly three hour orientation by the youthful
leaders of “No More Deaths”. For the past four summers
No More Deaths volunteers have gone out to the Sonora
desert to rescue migrants who are lost and dying.
Dehydration is the looming frightful presence in the
desert so volunteers walk on trails known only to the
“coyotes” placing gallon jugs of water all along the
routes. I had mailed in my application to join them in
their desert camp for a week.

The application asked if I could walk four miles in
four hours carrying a twenty pound pack in one hundred
and twenty degree Fahrenheit weather. I wrote back
“yes”. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I wanted to
give myself the benefit fo the doubt. The truth was I
was afraid my sixty-two year old, not brought in for
regular check ups body might not be able to endure the
During orientation they gave us a crash course in
wilderness first aid. How to distinguish heat
exhaustion from heat stroke. What do to with sprained
ankles. When to call in the helicopter evacuation
unit and to never, ever use one of the snake bite kits
they sell in all the outdoor stores. There was some
brief talk about what to do if we find dead bodies.
We got a short history of the border. I hadn’t known
that this whole tragedy only just recently began
during the Clinton Administration and the decision to
create NAFTA. Before then, border crossing was not
routinely a death defying ordeal.
I didn’t have any idea there were so many federal
police, under so many different bureaus who are taking

over the South West of America. In addition to the
significantly increased federal police rosters, there
are many private contractors making vast amounts of
money on the American side of the border from the
plight of the migrants. Wackenhut, a private prison
contractor, for example, has a very lucrative contract
with the Department of Homeland Security to operate
the buses that transport people to detention centers
and then to the border for deportation. If the Mexican
Mafia is the profiteer on the southern side of the
boundary, these corporations and federal bureaus
represent the northern profiteers in this quid pro
quo human trafficking scandal..
I certainly never before had considered the
ramifications for the local population of having so
many federal police patrolling their townships. All
these thousands of new federal police, brought in
under the excuse of border protection are just as
comfortable turning their attention to the citizens as
they are to the migrants. There is an area at least a
thousand miles long and close to fifty miles wide that
is now under federal police occupation. It is just

like in Central America. There are frequent military
check points. All vehicles are stopped. All citizens
detained. The men have automatic rifles slung over
their shoulders. The local population the solitary,
rugged people who inhabit the desert have suddenly had
their privacy invaded by cameras, sensors and
We also received an update on our volunteers being
arrested by federal law enforcement. I definitely did
not want to go to jail nor was my spirit buoyed when I
saw stacks of No More Death posters that read:
“Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime”. Several months
back two volunteers had been arrested while
evacuating three very sick men from the desert to a
medical facility in Tucson. The men had been vomiting,
were severely dehydrated and one had blood in his
diarrhea. The volunteers were charged with aiding and
abetting undocumented individuals. The good news was
the case had been dismissed. The bad news was there
had been no final ruling on the case which meant one
never knows what’s coming next.
At the end of the orientation half of our group left

for Nogales, Mexico. Outside of Nogales, No More
Deaths volunteers offer emergency first aid to more
than a thousand migrants a day who, regardless of
health distress are thrown off a Wackenhut bus, in the
middle of no-where, and a couple of miles from town on
the other side of the border.
The remaining four of us went out to the desert. The
camp was located fifteen miles north of the
frontier. Depending upon the trails selected by the
coyotes, the camp was situated near the mid-point for
people trying to cross the desert.
The camp looked better than I had imagined it would
be. There was a gnome sized travel trailer that
served as kitchen, with its three burner stove and no
oven, pantry, library, medical supply storage and dry
socks warehouse. Dining was outside under tarps that
provided shade from the relentless heat and in moments
could be transformed into a dry place to sit out the
monsoon rains and furious lightning that beats the
desert in the heat of the afternoon.
We had a wide choice of tents that were already set
up and ready for occupancy. I took the first one we

came to and it was like winning the lottery. I could
stand up in it and it came with an army/navy cot. More
over it had a water resistant rain fly.
The week started out well. We were aroused by some
walking through camp singing us awake with a gentle
Christian hymn. It was five thirty, the sun was
coming up and it felt pretty hot for so early in the
There were seven of us who sat around the table,
drinking brewed coffee and having our choice of cold
cereals with soy milk. One man was my age. He came out
to camp every Friday night and stayed through Monday
afternoon. He’d been doing so from the beginning, four
years back..With a winning smile and gracious demeanor
he was respected for his knowledge of the desert and
the issues surrounding immigration as well as for his
tenacity that mirrored the landscape.
The rest of our group was comprised of youth. The
oldest was twenty-five. He had recently decided to
forego law school to continue working to save the
lives of migrants. The youngest was twenty. He had
just returned from a Spanish language school in

Guatemala. In between there was a University all star
baseball pitcher, a potential seminarian, a recent
college graduate and one who hadn’t decided on what to
do come October. They were all white. Five were male.
One female. She didn’t like the latrine system that
existed and developed her own, slightly more pleasing
The more I watched them over the week, the more I
heard what they had to say, what they had seen, the
more I learned about the many other No More Death
volunteers, the more impressed I was with them.
Many of them have roots in the Church, coming in or
out of some organized youth volunteer corps. They come
with love and compassion in their hearts. With Jesus
teaching them the way. They are turning away from the
consumer culture and turning toward something far
more grand. In the bookcase, Edward Albee’s books
stood alongside the Bible.
All of them are smart. They can connect the dots
between NAFTA, the maquiladoras, immigration policy,
Latin American politics, Katrina victims, the
international corporate infrastructure and the Mafia.

They comprise an authentic international youth
They are tough. Sacrifice is a privilege to them.
They are mostly thin and scrawny, but scrawny in the
same way as Appalachian hard working people are wiry.
They are strong and strong willed. They are undaunted
by the desert though our female companion did get a
little upset when a large snake slithered across her
personal latrine.
It is impossible to walk the desert and avoid
getting stung, bitten, stabbed or sliced. I talk from
experience. Yet the most any of these youth would do
is to mutter an epithet and keep on going. They were
even embarrassed when they arrived back at camp and I
would insist on them using alcohol swaps to wipe clean
the scratches..
On the first morning the two experienced volunteers
studied maps. These were maps that showed the better
known, more established migrant trails leading from

Nogales to Tucson. We were patrolling about one
hundred square miles. With six of us, we could walk
two different paths and still leave a person behind to
care for two men who had wandered into camp the day
One of the migrants had terrible blisters and the
other was passing blood. They needed immediate medical
care and were certainly not capable of continuing to
walk. They decided to rest and heal at our camp for
two days and to then call the Border Patrol agents to
come out to camp, arrest and deport them to Nogales.
We gave them the names of our medical volunteers
located at the drop off site and hoped that something
more might be done for them.
It is never our role to encourage or discourage the
migrants from continuing their journey. Our purpose is
to simply prevent them from dying along the way. Often
times that means they admit defeat, voluntarily return
to Mexico, recuperate and then try to cross at a
later date.
Five of us prepared to leave camp for the five hour
trek. I was dressed in the latest fashion attire from

REI; socks, underwear, pants shirt and hat all
specifically designed for desert wear. Everyone else
in the group wore shorts and t-shirts, preferring to
endure the cuts and slashes than to be overly hot.
Besides carrying water for ourselves, we filled our
back packs with “Migrant Packs” which consisted of a
box of raisons, a small can of potted meat, a juice, a
power bar and whatever other small boxed or canned
food was available. A clean pair of white socks was
always included as well.
I asked about the socks. An experienced volunteer
explained it to me: “This is a place where a blister
can kill a person. There are about three thousand
migrants moving throughout the Sonoran desert every
day. They travel in fairly large groups, often from
ten to thirty people in a group. The coyote who is
leading the group through the maze of trails knows the
longer they are in the desert the more chance they
have of getting caught or in trouble so his goal is to
set a bone chilling pace, walking at night, with few
rest stops in between. People often describe the pace
as “running”. If for any reason a person begins to lag

too far behind, he or she will become separated from
the group and lost in the desert. One reason for
people falling behind is that they have blisters from
running in wet socks. If we can prevent a blister,
perhaps we will prevent a person from joining at least
a thousand other bodies a year that line our border. “
He had said a thousand migrants a year die of thirst
out here. Others have said the number is far greater.
No one knows for sure. Many of the bodies that are
accidentally discovered can not be identified and no
one knows what is the ratio of discovered to
undiscovered bodies. The vultures come in quick in the
desert and leave hardly any evidence behind..
We took “Roja” our sturdiest four wheel drive truck.
We were only going five miles but I had never in my
life driven on desert roads. It’s not pot-holes out
there, its gullies. It’s ditches that can swallow a
Volkswagen. It’s arroyos so steep that it’s hard to
see what is on the other side.

This was my first geography lesson. Not all deserts
are the same. I had spent a couple of days in Death
and once drove to Quartzite across the Mojave.
I figured if you’ve seen one desert you’ve seen them
all, so I was surprised at how much grows in the
Sonoran desert. It’s not brown. It’s green. And every
green thing has an attitude. Even the green things
that don’t appear to be nasty are nasty. They’ve got
thorns, knife edge leaves, stickers that burn and a
type of cactus that latches onto people and sets barbs
into the flesh.
Reaching the trail head we each grabbed two one
gallon jugs of water and started off, a GPS (global
Positioning System) dangling from our necks and a hand
drawn map that, if it was correct, gave us a vague
idea of the path. Periodically someone in our group
would yell out: “Hola amigos. Nosotros tenemos agua,
comida, medicina. Nos somos de la iglesia y no somos
la pincha migra.. (Hello friends. We have water, food
and medicine. We are from the church and we are not
the f---king immigration.) We added this last
descriptor in hope of gaining some trust from the
migrants who had been taught to hide whenever anyone
was approaching. Meeting people on the trail is not a
good thing. There are many bad people out in the
desert including drug dealers, bandits and police
(often confused with bandits). Three white boys
carrying water for dehydrated and/or injured migrants
is almost too hard to believe, so the migrants stay
In the entire week in the desert, no one answered our
offer of assistance though we saw many, many tracks.
The other thing working against us making contact was
that the coyotes prefer to move their groups at night
and hide away from the trail during the heat of the
day. When one of us expressed disappointment in not
seeing migrants, our leader reminded us that our goal
was not to meet migrants on the trail, our goal was to
find those who had lost their group and were alone out
there, somewhere, hopefully near a trail we might
stumble upon.
We were encouraged to leave water jugs at crucial
spots along the trail..We placed the water in plain
sight just before migrants would come to a creek or a
watering trough for free range cattle. All of that
water is so dirty and so full of giardia that it
causes diarrhea which further dehydrates and endangers
the migrants. We wrote the words Agua Pura (pure
water), the date and the GPS point we were nearest to
on the jugs. That way, if we chanced upon one of our
jugs further down a trail, which we often did, it
would give us a clue how the trails were connecting to
each other. We left zip lock Baggies with dry socks
alongside the jugs of water.
By the time we returned to camp the temperature had
climbed to 112 degrees, my brand new, REI, fifty
dollar wicking shirt was torn in a dozen places and
there were blood stains on the cuff. My shoulders
ached and a yellow benign looking caterpillar was
voraciously chewing my arm. I made it to the dining
area and soaked my bandana from a spigot in a five
gallon water barrel and draped the cloth around my
head. I drank from a second water barrel, filled with
ice water, courtesy of a beautiful neighbor who
allowed us to use her well water and freezer.
She was the true “Camp Mother” constantly reminding
the volunteers to bring her their laundry and always
keeping the door open if they needed a shower, or an
air conditioned room in which to sit or sleep. Like
many who live out in the desert, she had compassion
for the migrants.
It’s hard to not have compassion for the migrants.
These are frequently young men who scrape together
their entire extended family’s resources, selling
their cows, mortgaging their homes, doing whatever it
takes to come up with one to two thousand dollars
apiece to pay a coyote to take them to America. When
they arrive in the Mexican border towns, many of them
country bumpkins, they are easy prey for every low
life bandit . If they are lucky they don’t get beaten,
robbed or scammed out of their money and make a
successful contact with a coyote. The coyote is lowest
man down in the crime syndicates that are running a
billion dollar annual business in human trafficking;
This is a business with low overhead, where lots of
people are making a lot of money; and corruption has a
price tag that can easily be afforded.
The migrants are told to wait in one of the syndicate
run hotels where they have to pay for their food and
lodging. They are not allowed to leave the room and
everyone is very frightened. Then suddenly they are
told to get ready. It doesn’t take them very long.
They have very little to pack, at most a small day
bag. If it is a child who is crossing, the day pack
will be pink and have a picture of Barbie Doll on it.
A vehicle takes the group to the border and they
begin their trial. The migrants have almost no food,
at most a gallon of water and poorly made sneakers.
Even in winter, when the desert night air reaches the
freezing point, blankets are rare. It’s hard to carry
something in the desert when you are walking very
fast, your life dependent on staying with the group,
terrified of spraining an ankle on the rock strewn
path in the dark of night, becoming thirsty, then
becoming very thirsty, then having to make the
decision to drink the polluted water or try to make it
to the pickup point, never knowing if Border
Patrolagents in helicopters are going to spot you and
signal for your capture moments before your ride
arrives to carry you to freedom. The freedom to work
at whatever job you can obtain, at whatever wage is
No one in the group is carrying a compass or even a
map, because those who run Home Land Security have
decided that if a migrant is found with a compass or
map, it is irrefutable proof that this person is the
coyote and instead of facing voluntary deportation,
now faces criminal prosecution. So, besides taking a
vague bearing of the sun rising in the east and going
down in the west and knowing that freedom is to the
north, there isn’t much to guide the migrants.
Throughout the ordeal, they have an awareness that the
entire family’s welfare depends upon them succeeding
in getting jobs in the United States. Their failure
will bankrupt the entire family.
Lunch lasted a couple of hours, there being no
reason to leave the comfort of one another or to go
out into the blazing sunlight.. At three in the
afternoon we went out on our second patrol. A slightly
shorter one this time.
When we arrived back in the evening, I had the strong
impression that if something didn’t happen real soon,
we were going to eat peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches for supper. I grabbed a skiller and put a
pot of water to boil. An hour later we had rice and
stir fried vegetables using my secret recipe of soy
sauce, ginger, roasted garlic, olive oil and hot chile
powder. Bedtime came on quick.
The next day I was the first one out of bed and sang
my companions awake with “Amazing Grace”.. After
breakfast we started out on two new trails. That
morning I learned about herbitology. I got to
recognize and stare at a rattlesnake, many different
spiders, tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes that are so
ill dispositioned that they will attack people for no
discernible reason and those stinking benign looking
yellow caterpillars that leave welts wherever they
I thought about the migrant. The migrant who is even
more vulnerable to the crawling, slithering, hopping,
leaping teeth of the desert at night. The migrant who
has no first aid kit, no sun screen, no mosquito
repellent, aspirin or moleskin for the place where his
sneaker has dangerously started to rub against his
When it came time for the afternoon patrol, I
volunteered to stay in camp, admitting that I was
tired. This pleased all the other volunteers since
they wanted to be on patrol and gladly gave me
permission to stay in camp every afternoon.
Later in the day storm clouds began to merge over the
horizon. Thunder and lightning were everywhere. I
checked to make sure all the chairs in our dining area
were made of plastic. I rolled down the side flaps of
our dining area and then set out for the kitchen. The
five of them were going to return home cold and
drenched.. They would need something hot. Drawing on
my basic culinary background I made them a good hearty
vegetable soup with tofu using my same secret recipe
And so it went all week. The weather got worse
beforeit got better. We caught the tail end of
Hurricane Henrietta. The tents all leaked, all but
mine. People walked around wet all day and were wet
all night. By now no one mentioned their personal
discomfort. We knew there were thousands of people all
round us who were just as wet as ourselves, with no
tarps to sit under, no wet sleeping bags to crawl into
and no hot soup to warm their shivering hands.
I still can’t fathom it. What would it take to push
a person to undertake such a perilous, soul draining,
body punishing journey? What love of family would
motivate a person to roll the dice, gambling with his
or her very life, that they had the ability to endure
such misery and the following isolation of living in
an unwelcoming country just to send money home to
improve the lives of others? What level of economic
enslavement would drive a person to risk his life to
save his people. What nobility do they possess that
they can forgive us for this journey through hell and
still want to clean our houses, wash our dishes,
harvest our crops, enable us to live our lives of
For the one out of three migrants who is captured and
deported, from whence do they draw forth the courage
to attempt to cross once again? For be sure, when
migrants have gotten as far as the Mexican border,
there is very little room for turning back.. If only
one out of three people is intercepted it follows from
reason that within three tries, everyone, one hundred
percent minus those too injured or dead, get to cross
into America. Virtually everyone who tries to cross
the border is successful. All the border guards, all
the barbed wire, all the walls separating neighboring
countries don’t stop virtually anyone who is insistent
on crossing.
The black runaway slave had the underground railroad.
The migrant has no-one. The black runaway slave had
the northern states where maybe he might find safe
haven. The migrant has no-where to find sanctuary. The
migrant has taken the place of the black on slavery’s
auction block. The whip lash is gone. It has been
replaced with the threat of the cactus bush for no
matter how long the migrant lives and works in the
states, he knows that one small, little mistake and he
can be thrown across the border forced to face
crossing the frontier once again.
What have we done, America? How have we allowed our
nation to take such a wrong turn? What political
machinations are taking place all around us to create
fear and for what purpose? When did we become this
greedy? We use to pride ourselves on our generosity.
We loved our Statue of Liberty that proclaims: “Give
me your tired, your poor”. What do we need to do to
reclaim the high ground and more importantly, do we
have the spiritual strength to turn it round right?
Sunday afternoon we parted ways. Two of us were
leaving, more were coming to take our places. I took
good care to secure the rain fly on my tent to insure
at least one person would have a dry bed in which to
Two days later I arrived home. I walked into the
kitchen and stood there struck by a sudden awareness
of abundance. Everywhere I looked, I saw comfort and
ease. As my wife and two friends gathered around the
dinner table I offered to say Grace.
Dear G-d. We give so much thanks for all the comforts
that surround us: for the food to satisfy our hunger,
for the water that comes out of tap to quench our
thirst; for the roof and walls of this house that
protect us from the elements, for the companionship of
friends that drives away the darkness of isolation and
for a bed to sleep in assured that we are safe. Most
of all, Lord, we give thanks for the ability to
challenge a sickness that runs so deep in the American
political body and whose only antidote is love and
compassion. Amen.

For more information or to make a donation you can
send checks or money orders to: No More Deaths,
P.O.Box 33173 Phoenix, AZ 85067. Make checks
payable to "No More Deaths". The organization is also
always in need of new white socks and ace bandages.

Recommended Reading List
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail
by Ruben Martinez
Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the Illegal Alien
and the Remaking of the U.S. Mexico Boundary by Joseph
Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario
Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression by
Anne Bishop

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