On the first anniversary of 9/11, four men huddle on a busy street corner in Douglas, Arizona, clutching armfuls of homemade crosses and pretending not to notice the steady drizzle or the lightning strikes illuminating the nearby Mexican mountains. After a brief prayer for “our brothers and sisters who are so angry,” the men begin to move up the puddled sidewalk. Every few feet, one of them holds a cross above his head and yells out the name of a victim over the sound of sloshing tires:
“Jesus Vidal Ramirez.”
“Presente!” the other three answer.
“Maria Inez Gonzalez.”
This vigil is not for the 2,800 killed in the worst act of terrorism on US soil. Every Tuesday night, rain or shine, this vigil honors victims of the deadliest ongoing human-rights violation on US soil. Since 1995 at least 2,250 migrants have died trying to cross the US-Mexico border. Most of these deaths have resulted from a Clinton-era “border control” strategy designed to shut down urban crossing points and force migrants to try their luck in harsher terrain–namely, the deadly green desert of southern Arizona.
Leaning each cross against the curb, the four men–volunteers with a humanitarian group optimistically named SNS Healing Our Borders–wend their soggy way toward the bustling border checkpoint that separates Douglas from its Mexican sister city, Agua Prieta. Finally, about twenty-five feet short of the checkpoint, all the crosses have been laid out. Father Bob Carney, his weatherbeaten face dripping with rain, turns east, west, north and south, blessing the dead: “Jesu Christo, Jesu Christo, Jesu Christo, Jesu Christo.”
Just then, one of the Border Patrol’s white ATVs comes flashing up to the checkpoint. Several women, one of them cradling a baby, step tentatively out the back hatch. The women have been arrested by Border Patrol agents and have chosen “VR,” or voluntary return, rather than contest their deportation. “They just want to get back across and get some jack together and try again,” says Tommy Bassett, his ruddy face solemn inside a parka hood. “Almost everybody makes it eventually.” He peers down the line of crosses and repeats himself: “Almost.”
While the men break into a Spanish-language version of “We Shall Overcome,” Bassett gazes out over one of the many walls built in recent years by the Border Patrol. It sits next to a trench originally dug to keep Pancho Villa’s army from invading. Hundreds of white dots have begun to light up the gloaming, stretching out in a ragged line across the desert as far as the eye can see. “Infrastructure,” Bassett says. A few hundred yards away, a white ATV stops and idles. “People have been known to come up this ditch, so there he’ll sit all night. Has to be a boring job.”
As we talk, hundreds of migrants are preparing to strike out into the storm. They’ll troop through forty to sixty miles of desert, three to five days of scorching heat and nights of erratic rains and chill. Most will make it. Many will be arrested. A smaller number will die, most likely of dehydration or exposure. Their bodies might be found, dried out like raisins. Or they might end up as nothing more than bones, picked clean by coyotes and buzzards and marked as “Human Remains” on a homemade cross.