It’s common to see Border Patrol agents many miles north of the US-Mexico border. Their trucks loom like massive white whales on an asphalt horizon. Traveling in southern Arizona requires passage through various “checkpoints” where it’s required that a person stop his or her car, unroll a window, while a drug-sniffing dog circles the vehicle.
I’m often nodded a go ahead. Occasionally I’ll be asked, “Are you a U.S. citizen, ma’am?” to which I respond, “Yes,” and then I’m allowed to move forward. My passage through border towns has been relatively relaxed and routine. There was only one time when I was treated differently, when a Border Patrol officer didn’t immediately see my face. I was driving at night, from the grassy ranchlands of Elgin to the populous city of Tucson. It was just after 10:30 and I stopped my car at the checkpoint. Because it was dark, and I couldn’t see the officer clearly in the dim light of his patrol booth, I only lowered my car window about an inch. I watched as the officer approached my car. I heard him pull something off his waistband. A moment later, he slammed his flashlight into my window.
“Unroll your window now!” he said. As though on auto-pilot, I manually unrolled it, but only another inch. He pushed his flashlight into the inside of my vehicle and shined it into my face. It was so bright, I couldn’t open my eyes. He immediately clicked it off.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, ma’am,” he said. “You go on and have a safe drive home, now.” I nodded and rolled up the window. I blinked a few times, but couldn’t see anything save the phantom light. I started driving anyway, not wanting to stay there. My vision readjusted soon enough. A half minute later, I involuntarily exhaled and sucked in fresh air so fast, I felt startled by the loudness; I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath.
This interaction was unpleasant. The unexpected aggression made me anxious. My hands shook for several minutes. But I had no deeper fear for my safety. I had a legal form of identification. I had a cell phone. I was pretty sure I didn’t have to get out of the car if he asked me to. My boss lived a few miles away. More than anything, my whiteness was my shield.
When I was nineteen years old, one of my college professors took my class on a field trip to Naco, AZ—a border town that, like Nogales, crosses the unnatural divide. We stayed on the Arizona side.
Naco isn’t much of a city. It’s a Port of Entry—a scorched, desolate place where people come and go. I’d never been to Naco before this trip, but I’d heard nebulous rumors that the town felt like a rural outpost, the wild west, a place run by its own rules without a lot of oversight. I heard it felt different than more populated border towns like Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez. I also had a vague impression that Border Patrol were more aggressive in Naco. But I had no information to back up this claim, and couldn’t even pinpoint where I’d heard these murmurs to begin with.
Our class planned to meet with a few Border Patrol officers, to learn about their job and border experiences. We were told we’d also be given a tour of the facilities. As our vehicles approached the border, kicking up dust in our wake, I felt dubious about the trip and the imminent visit. I imagined the officers would stick to a script, be on their best behavior. I figured we’d get a polished, sugar-coated version of what their days were like. I presumed they wanted to impress upon us the importance of their duty; I assumed they cared what we thought.
Agent J.S. and a couple of his buddies shuttled us into a cool, air conditioned room, located in the Field Office on the Port of Entry premises. The officers told us what we already knew: most border crossers (ninety-nine percent, they said) were migrants looking for work and a better life. There were the occasional drug busts, though, from the cartel. The officers grinned at each other. “That shit always gets my blood pumping,” one of them said.
“We’ve gotta little something we put together—off company time, mind you.” J.S. said. “A movie we made.”
“Great chase scenes,” another said. “You gotta see.”
“I’ll play it for ya, but I gotta emphasize again, we made this on our own time, aiight?” J.S. said.
One officer dimmed the lights. The video was static at first, then the cell phone and car camera footage started rolling: Chase scene after chase scene. Dirt kicked in the air. Frightened faces in the headlights. Handcuffs. ASP batons. Guns pointing. Crying women. Crying men.
Crying children. People shoved to the ground, wrestled in the dirt. Hands in the air. We couldn’t hear any voices of the chased, but it’s easy to lip-read pleading. No drug busts in this video. The entire stitched-together film was accompanied by a heavy metal song that looped over and over.
The song’s title: “Let The Bodies Hit The Floor” by the band Drowning Pool. The movie lasted nearly a half hour.
Later that day, J.S. and a few officers casually showed us around other parts of the Field Office. We walked up a flight of stairs and followed them into a room J.S. called the Processing Center. Separated from us by a chain link fence were men, women, and children in tattered clothes, with dirt-encrusted nails, empty eyes. Faces so caked with dust, I could see streaks where tears had dried.
“You see that Hondura over there? Not looking so brave now!” J.S. said, slamming his hand against the fence. I jumped, but those on the other side didn’t even flinch.
“These aliens are headed home first thing in the morning,” J.S. said.
Many of the migrants had a familiar look to me, a look known to those who live in the desert: shrunken, sallow skin and lips so cracked they can’t close. These are often signs of water deprivation and heat exhaustion, a deadly combination. I suspected these locked up people hadn’t had food or water in a while. I opened my mouth to ask J.S. this question. But as I raised my voice to speak, my breath caught in my throat. I surprised everyone and myself and started to cry. J.S. quickly ushered us out of the room and closed the door with a loud bang.
That night my classmates and I camped on a swath of public land just outside of town. I unrolled my sleeping bag on a patch of dirt, surrounded by creosote and little shrubs. Around midnight I retrieved my water bottle from one of our vehicles. As I closed the door and started walking back to my make-shift campsite, I heard the flooding of a car engine. From a short distance, I could see the headlights of a car tear down the dirt road. It had to be Border Patrol, I knew, but I hadn’t put together that the car had seen my body (via night-vision and heat- detecting monitoring devices) and had, momentarily, confused me with a potential migrant. I watched the car with acute interest, and was stunned when I saw it turn down our little road. Whomever was driving the car gunned it forward. It was coming at me so fast, I quickly realized that if I didn’t move it might hit me. I stumbled backward; my legs brushed against prickly pear. The car screeched to a halt in front of me. I could feel the heat of the headlights on my stomach. For a second I saw a man behind the wheel, but then he shined his high-beams and I saw nothing but white. I held my water bottle in the air. I waited for him to say something, but no question or comment came. I tried to squint; water pooled in my eyes. I could feel prickles in the back of my legs, but I didn’t move. I stood there, waiting. And then, abruptly, the car sputtered into reverse and drove away.
One of my classmates woke up from the commotion and joined me as the car jolted down the dirt road. She put her arm around my shoulder and when I looked at her, I saw she was crying.
“That was so scary,” she said. “I thought he was going to run you over.”
The Border Patrol visited us two more times, within minutes of the first encounter. By the third time, it felt like a sickening routine: the gunning engine, screeching halt, high beams, depart.
I made it back to my sleeping bag just after one in the morning. I was wired and clammy. I stared at the sky and saw two shooting stars. The stark beauty felt out of place here. The night was quiet, save the occasional scuttle of a lizard or small animal, settling in. The moon was nearly full, casting a milky glow on the desert. Everything was illuminated. Nowhere to hide, easy to be seen.
After about an hour, I heard a distant roar of a car engine. I sat up and looked for headlights. I could see a vehicle barreling down a dirt road, less than an acre away. It came to an abrupt halt. The headlights illuminated three people: a man, a woman, a little boy. Moments later I heard a wham! as the man’s body was thrown to the ground. I heard a muffled wail from the boy. They were herded into the back of the vehicle. And then they were gone.
In Arizona, my friends leave plastic jugs of water, bags of food, clean clothes, and toiletries in the desert for migrants. A few have been caught by Border Patrol. I know someone who spent time in jail for “littering”—the officers slashed all the bottles he brought with him into the desert. Earlier this summer I attended the federal trial in Tucson for the humanitarian activist Scott Warren. He faced twenty years in prison for offering water and medical care to two migrants last year. The jury was unable to decide whether these actions were a crime. The government, ever intent on criminalizing compassion, is retrying Warren this week as I write this, in November 2019.
I trekked into the desert once and left a few gallon water bottles with my friend J. We found a shaded area with food wrappers and carpet shoes, so we left some supplies there, thinking this might be a place where people stopped to rest. At one point J thought she heard someone, so she called out in loud, clear Spanish, “Hello, we come in peace. We have water and food.” We listened for a response, but none came. My arms and legs prickled with goosebumps, despite the blistering heat. After a minute J called out again, Vaya con dios. Buenos suerte.
Our president promises a “big, beautiful wall” along the border between the United States and Mexico. He makes my homeland sound ominous, filled with drug runners, the cartel, terrorists, gangs. He says our border is porous, says a wall will keep out the unwanted.
I’ve lived seventy miles from the border for most of my life. The desert is home. The president likens the border to a dangerous problem. He claims that a solution is simple. But I don’t think he’s right on either account. Everything about the border feels complicated to me; it’s impossible to describe with too broad a brush. The migrant experience is vastly different from that of the cartel, wholly unlike any other form of human migration. This movement is nuanced. There are specific, dire provocations to leave an often fractured, terrorized, embattled home in Mexico or Central or South America. The risk is huge at every turn. If an adult or child survives the violence they’re fleeing at home, and successfully traverses an often-inhospitable desert, they will then arrive at an increasingly militarized border zone. Excepting the welcoming presence of humanitarian aid organizations and workers, migrants will find that in policy and in practice, they are unwelcome. Migrants will be greeted by a country whose unremittingly strident immigration policy actively targets them and detains their children. They will likely experience casual, unconcealed cruelty, and witness a sweeping, unrepentant ethos of xenophobia. And they will still come. As would we, if our borders and lives were reversed.
It’s easier and faster to cross into Mexico on foot. Park on the U.S. side, tuck a passport into a pocket, and walk about a mile down a dusty road, toward the Nogales border. Walking into Mexico has always been uncomplicated and relatively effortless for me.
I recently crossed with my friend K. She led me toward the comedor, a day-shelter where she works, managed by the humanitarian organization Kino Border Initiative. It’s located an arm’s stretch into Mexico. I was greeted by a few volunteers, quietly preparing pasta and beans in large pots and pans in the back of the small, white building. Hundreds of asylum seekers and a few deportees lined the streets awaiting an afternoon meal. There were so many people, we served three separate dinners, ensuring each person had a chance to sit down and eat. I was stunned by the number of kids, many of whom seemed sick to me. Chicken pox was rampant— faces and arms covered with pink calamine spots.
I’d been to the comedor before, about a decade ago. I remember parts of that first trip vividly. Within a half hour of my arrival, a group of shackled migrants, just transported out of the U.S. that morning, funneled into the room and sat down at long wooden tables. I don’t remember meeting any asylum seekers. I also don’t remember speaking with any discernibly unwell people either, although perhaps my memory is faulty. I recall that the room was nearly full; we served only one meal. I carried steaming bowls of eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, and salsa, plus large cups of coffee and placed them on the tables. Almost no one spoke; a few nodded thanks. A Catholic priest said a prayer while a few people doled food onto plastic plates. The priest spoke in Spanish, told the migrants that at this place, they would experience no prejudice.
He assured them that he and all others at this comedor stood in direct opposition to anti- immigrant laws. He told these men, women, and children that they were valued, even if their treatment in the last few days indicated otherwise.
Within an hour breakfast was over. People got up and left of their own volition. They scattered into the desert border town, the temperatures already soaring in the late-morning sun. A few volunteers and I cleaned up the plates and pots and pans. And then I walked back toward the Port of Entry (POE), leaving the bustle of Nogales behind me. The POE looks and sounds different now—there’s far more security, scanning machines, English, and intimidation. But back then, I walked into a long, open-air hallway leading to a turnstile guarded by a stern, but not overly severe, Border Patrol officer.
“¿Como está?” he asked.
“Estoy bien. Mi pasaporte,” I said, handing him my identification. He took it and studied my face.
“Bueno,” he said after a moment. He gestured go ahead.
I walked through the metal enclosure and stepped onto U.S. soil. I nodded to the guarded officers ambling outside the POE. I tucked my passport back into my pocket and walked the mile back to my car. Sweat trickled down my neck and ran down my back. It was just after eleven in the morning, with temperatures climbing well over a hundred degrees. My lips and throat were so dry, I had trouble thinking of anything but my desire for Chapstick and water. By the time I reached my car, I felt possessed with my anxiety for both. My hands shook as I uncapped the gallon jug of water I kept in my trunk. It was uncomfortably hot; I drank it anyway. I gulped freely and carelessly. Water splashed down my shirt, drops fell on my car and dried within seconds. I opened the center console and rooted around for loose change. I had enough to buy some Vaseline in town. I closed the trunk and leaned against the back of my car, careful not to let any unclothed skin touch the metal. I was shaking a little. I’d gone only a few hours without water, but that was too long in this heat.
In the distance, I could see trucks and cars shuttling to and from Nogales. They weren’t so far away, but they looked toy-like and fake, wavy from the mirage of intense heat rising from the ground. I glanced around to see if there was anyone else nearby, but saw only sun, sand, and sky. I was alone, but for the cicadas—their songs screeching loud, all around me.
Regina Fitzsimmons is a recent graduate from the University of Montana’s MFA, where she studied nonfiction writing. She was born and raised in Tucson, AZ—the Sonoran Desert is home.
Photo by Regina Fitzsimmons.