A small crowd gathers in the courtyard outside the Border Angels headquarters located at the Sherman Heights Community Center on Island Avenue four blocks south of State Route 94 and five blocks east of Interstate 5. All 60 volunteer slots and ten wait-list spots were filled four days prior for today’s desert water drop. Filling spots was once difficult, but not since Donald Trump was elected.
The week after he won the presidency, the Border Angels received an overwhelming number of volunteer requests. Sign-up sheets are posted on the Border Angel Facebook page for those interested in hiking the desert trails that undocumented immigrants normally take when entering the United States illegally.
Water-drop volunteers are asked to donate two-gallon water jugs to leave along the trail to ease the trip for those crossing through the treacherous routes. One way to describe the experience is one part border-crossing reenactment, two parts humanitarian aid.
It is 8 a.m. and already the sun is blazing. Pools of sweat are beginning to gather on my neck and arms. Every inch of shade is taken. Gathered are mainly young men and women and a few middle-aged people, mostly Hispanic.
One graying man bears a striking resemblance to Bill Walton in all his friendly hippie glory. I sit near a young woman who is wearing a floppy hat fashioned to resemble a hamburger complete with sesame bun, felt lettuce, tomatoes, and a beef patty.
She is rolling her own cigarettes, one after the other. She uses a tool that looks like a claw on her pointer finger, to stuff the tobacco down into the rolling paper. I picture her lungs, red and inflamed, when we eventually hike through the desert in Jacumba, where today’s weather forecast predicts 112 degrees.
It isn’t until well after 9 a.m. that Jackie Arellano, the leader of today’s water drop, addresses the crowd. She is wearing a bright red T-shirt that reads “Love is Love, Water is Life, Black Lives Matter, No Muslim Registry, Trans is Beautiful, Immigrants Make America Great, and Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” She wears her blackish-brown hair long, and her friendly face exhibits the tendency to smile even when speaking on serious topics.
The crowd gathers around her in a makeshift circle as she explains in detail the safety precautions set up for the day. “Normally I do most of the talking in the desert,” she tells us, “but today, due to extreme heat, I will be going over everything here. You are going to have to rally because today’s gonna be rough. The heat advisory is close to record temperature for the regions we are going to be in, so hydrate! I can’t emphasize this enough: please drink water. Drink water now, drink water on the drive, drink water on the route!”
I and many of those in the crowd immediately begin chugging water.
Arellano continues, “Welcome to the June water drop! [Border Angels] is volunteer-run and has been since we were established in 1986 by our founder Enrique Morones. We have been working for decades on the preservation of migrant life and dignity.”
The crowd erupts in cheers. Arellano smiles widely. Arellano speaks for another 30 minutes, introducing trail guides, four in total, all of whom will be guiding volunteers on different routes with varying degrees of difficulty. One route leader, Jonathan Yost, is wearing professional-looking hiking gear. He is a big man in his early 30s with a thick Rip Van Winkle beard and tree-stump calves. He is leading the advanced trek that travels deep into the desert over boulders and rocky, desolate terrain. Another man, slightly older, will lead an easier hike. This might explain his casual dress. He wears his long Jesus hair down at his shoulders with tight stovepipe jeans and a v-neck paired with a pair of trendy combat boots with smooth soles not seemingly conducive to desert hiking. Arellano also introduces a handful of safety guides. These people carry ice water, Band-Aids, and Gatorade, among other supplies. In the desert, they stay in the back of the group to lend a hand to stragglers. Hours from now, I will become familiar with my group’s safety guides because, not five minutes into our three-hour hike, I will slice my leg open on a chaparral bush and have blood streaming down my thighs that require one of their Band-Aids.
After introducing the trail guides and safety monitors, Arellano gives a description of Border Angels programs, of which the water dropping is only one. Then she describes the Border Patrol’s two-decade-old policy of sealing the western end of the border for migrants east. “They call it funneling — sending people to areas where they are more likely to die. But guess what? People are going to keep coming and the Border Patrol under the current administration is only going to get stricter.”
She sighs deeply and looks out at the gathered faces before asking, “Who is going to help them?”
“We are!” shout many of the gathered volunteers.
“Yes,” Arellano shakes her head, a bright smile spreading across her somber face. “That’s right! You are.... That gallon of water you brought here today could very well be the difference between life and death for a migrant in need.”
And with that Arellano reaches for a stack of red papers on a folding table.
“Grab one of these or a few and please, please, pass them on to people you know in the migrant community.”
A balding middle-aged man in a NASA T-shirt takes a thick stack and shoves them into one of the many pockets of his cargo shorts.
“These are red cards. You may have heard of them,” Arellano says.
In 2007, red cards were created by the Immigration Legal Resource Center. The cards provide information on how migrants can assert themselves when dealing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
A hush falls over the volunteers as the fliers are read.
A blond-haired woman in her mid-30s, Kirsten Zittlau, is introduced to the crowd. She is a lawyer volunteering with Border Angels to give legal advice to undocumented community members. Zittlau addresses the group. “Every year, guess how many unskilled laborers — we are talking all the people that pick our fruits and vegetables that are supplied to the entire country — guess how many are allowed in the country via visas for the entire year? Five thousand. Five thousand! Does that sound like a lot to you? Yet do we want to eat our avocados and tomatoes? Would we be upset if they were suddenly gone? You see the hypocrisy here?” Zittlau says.
According to a Pew Research study, the highest percentage of illegal labor is in the farming industry. Of the United States’ estimated 800,000 crop farm workers, illegal immigrants make up roughly 46 percent of them, per the U.S. Departments of Labor and Agriculture.
Arellano thanked Kristin for her words before addressing the crowd one more time.
“I want to stress, you really do have to have identification with you. We go through at least one checkpoint.”
And, with that, the volunteers disperse into carpools. I take the hour-and-a-half ride up to our meeting spot at the Shell station in Jacumba with four young women. Two of them attend USC as graduate students. One is a kindergarten teacher, the fourth recently moved to San Diego from Wisconsin to take an accounting position in Mission Valley. All of them are children of immigrants, some have undocumented parents. The young woman in the front seat, who would rather not disclose her name, explains why she volunteered.
“I wanted to experience the physicality of it, and to do something about it. I don’t want to just read and write about it; I want to do. I think the whole experience will make me a better person, a better researcher, a better daughter, a better friend, and a better supporter.”
An hour later, at the Shell station, the Border Angel volunteers look out of place — a mass of people wearing T-shirts with slogans that say things such as, “Who would Jesus deport?” and “Black Lives Matter” clash with the ambiance of the dusty wild West appearance of Jacumba, a place where Minutemen often patrol the border fence.
Volunteers are told to gather for a photo before splitting off into smaller hiking groups. People pass around Sharpies and write encouraging messages in Spanish on their water jugs: Que Dios te cuide. (God keep you safe); and Sί se puede, bienvenidos (Yes you can, welcome). We pose, water bottles in our hands, with the large metal border fence as our backdrop. The ten-foot barrier separating Jacumba from the neighboring Mexican village Jacume was built in the 1990s to discourage the smuggling of people and drugs into the United States. Back then it was a simple, flimsy, wire fence that was easy to step over. People frequently went back and forth. Villagers from Jacume would step over the fence to buy eggs from the Jacumba grocery store, to visit the health clinic, to work, or to send their children to school. Now those on either side of the fence need to drive west 36 miles to the nearest crossing in Tecate. The four Border Angel trail leaders line up in a row in front of the volunteers in order of how difficult their hikes will be. I choose Arellano’s group, one down from the advanced hike. The girls I drove up with join a different group. I split off and hitch a ride to the next location, 15 minutes away, down a very bumpy dirt road with José Morales, a 23-year-old from Compton. The dashboard of his car is littered with NRA-style stickers. When I ask him about it, he laughs.
“I have a lot of conservative values,” Morales explains. “I have my liberal values as well. I voted for Gary Johnson, not Trump or Hillary. I believe that all this deportation and stuff like that is wrong. That’s why I’m here. I want to help. I really like to help people out. I feel like my contribution with this will have an impact.”
About 20 years ago, Morales’s father crossed from Mexico through the desert to Palm Springs. He crossed with Morales’s older brother who was eight years old at the time.
“My dad told me a little bit about it. Back then I think it was easier. I have other family members that have crossed through the desert as well. I have one cousin who has been caught four times. On the fifth time he made it here. Back then, when my dad crossed, the coyotes were assholes but they weren’t as bad as they are now. I have an uncle who was planning to cross. He was in Tijuana. The coyotes beat him up and took his money. They were armed. They left him in the TJ side of the desert. I think my dad might have had a good experience. He has never said that they struggled. He said that they walked through the desert and he did it through the night. I don’t know what season it was. I know in the winter it is freezing, and in the summer it is blistering hot.”
Morales goes on to explain that he would like to become a deportation agent. When he notices my surprise, he explains further, “I know it is ironic — my dad crossed through the desert. When my mom crossed, she crossed through the port of entry. She got a fake green card off a person that kind of looked like her. I guess the customs agent had something to do with the coyote. But, my dad and I watch Border Wars. One day my dad was, like, ‘You know what, why don’t you become [an agent]? And I thought that actually looks cool. When I was small I wanted to be a police officer. I didn’t know what other opportunities were out there.”
“Why a deportation agent and not Border Patrol?” I ask him.
“They make more money — way more money. I wouldn’t go for the innocent people. I know a lot of the deportation agents go after innocent people, and it’s sad. They always leave the criminals out, you know. That’s not what I would I do.”
I point out that he may not be able to choose who he deports, to which Morales explains further, “I am from Michoacán. It’s dangerous there right now. Michoacán is the avocado capital of [Mexico]. They have a bunch of acres of avocado fields out there. The cartels go and extort the avocado businesses. My mom was there recently. The poverty level there is real high, but she said she would see a bunch of people riding brand new trucks and had nice houses. She said that they are most likely drug traffickers. The reason people come over here is that reason exactly: everything is bad over there and they don’t want to get involved in it. They have people that try to threaten other people who say, ‘If you don’t join us, you are gonna get it.’ The government over there is corrupted as well. It’s just one big mess. So, I want to help those people.”
In 2014, community members in Michoacán raised money to train and hire a militia-style police force to help avocado ranchers avoid exploitation from cartels. Today, local citizens guard the entrance of the city with assault rifles. It is estimated that a million dollars’ worth of avocados are shipped from Michoacán daily.
Minutes later, Morales pulls his car over and parks behind Arellano. There are about 20 of us in the group. As we begin the trek, Arellano explains that she wants us to be able to get in and out as quickly as possible. At this point it is already 109 degrees with temperatures rising. The gray-haired hippie and his significant other will act as our safety monitors bringing up the rear. The air is dry and thick. It sticks to my body like an itchy mitten. I pull my hair up into a sloppy top-knot hoping to relieve the heat radiating from my face and neck. I place a couple of two-gallon water jugs in my backpack and carry the one I have brought for myself in my hand. Within minutes, the jug in my hand is body temperature. Not long after, it is hot enough that, when it brushes against my leg, its heat creates a pool of sweat on my thigh. The only thought on my mind is, What the hell have I gotten myself into? and the hike has barely begun. My eyes constantly scan the landscape for shade. There isn’t any, just cacti, low chaparral, and heavy boulders. We make frequent stops. I chug my now-hot water. Sometimes I sit on the boulders, but the heat emanating from them scorches the skin on the back of my legs.
Another hiker asks if I need sunscreen. “Your face is very red.”
Very red is an understatement. Hours later, I will look in the mirror and see that it is the color of a stop sign, even though I have applied a thick layer of SPF 70 and I reapply it again on the trek.
About 30 minutes into the desert, we find two water jugs from last month’s drop. Each of them has been slit open, their guts drained out and evaporated on the dry earth. Arellano holds one up, a mix of triumph and anguish in her expression.
A young woman pipes in to ask, “Is that a slash mark?”
“Yeah,” says Arellano, her voice filled with disgust, “this was a deliberate puncture. We have seen [water jugs] gutted, punctured, and shot. In 2016, when we would come out here, we used to see one in every four gallons slashed. Along one of our routes, 50 out of 53 gallons were slashed. That was last month!”
Arellano lets this grim reality soak in before continuing, “We have had to adjust our strategy. We no longer leave our water in open areas. We need to be more strategic. We need to hike further. What we ask of you guys is more participation in additional non-publicized drops, where we take a group of three to five of us and we are able to get in and out.”
“Who has time for that much hate?” a woman wearing Ray-Bans and yoga pants asks.
“What is wrong with people that they would trek into the desert just to slash water bottles?” someone else adds.
The group collectively moans their agreement.
Arellano puts the water jugs into a trash bag she has brought with for that very purpose and begins hiking again. We follow behind. No one complains. Not a single hiker mentions the heat or asks how close we are to the end. We suffer through, water jugs in hand. To my relief, we stop many more times to marvel at various items: clothing left behind, blankets, more slashed jugs, empty tuna packets. When we find a pair of ripped women’s underwear, Arellano’s bearded boyfriend Adam exclaims, “That looks rather rape-y!”
Arellano responds by explaining to the group, “Migrants are susceptible to violence like rape, murder, and kidnapping.... The poorest and most vulnerable cross the terrain. The desert is not the only way that people enter the United States unlawfully — it’s not even the most popular way. It is, however, the way reserved for people with the least amount of resources and who are the most desperate, because it is the most dangerous. There are women and children crossing. People are crossing and despite their differences of origin they have one thing in common: their circumstances were such that it was preferable, even necessary for their survival to risk their lives, to have a chance at a life. No one would cross the border looking for a gallon of water. They will, however, cross the desert completely unprepared because their life is on the line. We must honor that.”
With that, we continue on our way.
One of the safety monitors asks if anyone needs a Gatorade. Everyone shakes their head, no. I take a swig of my hot water and decide I am not too proud to turn down an ice-cold Gatorade.
“Thank you!” I say, nearly draining the entire thing in one gulp.
Noticing that my face matches the bright red Gatorade, she hands me a damp wash cloth, “Put this around your neck; it will help.”
That washcloth serves as my saving grace. I bury my face in it as the heat rises. I spend the remainder of the hike with it pressed against my skin while praising God for the angel who gave it me.
As we get deeper into the desert, we begin to shed our water jugs. Arellano explains that a lot of the jugs will act as decoys. She wants migrants to be able to find them but she also wants to avoid having our entire supply slashed.
“Don’t be a hero,” she demands, “leave a water jug.”
“No,” her boyfriend corrects, “you should say, ‘Be a hero and leave a water jug.’”
Arellano explains, “I say, ‘Don’t be a hero’ because everyone wants to hold on to their jugs until the last second to prove that they could walk the furthest before leaving their water behind.”
Not I. I shed one of the jugs immediately and marvel over how empty my sweat-drenched backpack feels now that I’ve lost eight pounds of water. An older woman in jeans and gray New Balance shoes lags behind near the safety monitors. She has driven nine hours from Mountain View, south of San Francisco, just to attend that morning’s event. She is staying at a hotel downtown. Her boyfriend is spending the day at a wine festival. I picture him underneath a mister drinking Riesling and listening to smooth jazz. I try to imagine that instead of the heat.
I might be the weakest link, the kid who gets picked last for the dodgeball team. I am lagging near the safety monitors, and it is humiliating. I assumed I would’ve been more hardcore than this. I am accustomed to hiking. I am mildly athletic. I grew up in Chicago so I am used to blistering heat, but this is different. There is not a lick of shade. The sun is beating down on my skin and hot air fills my lungs. It is difficult to breathe.
I need to pee. No one else has mentioned that they need to go, but I have followed instructions and drunk a lot of fluids. An entire gallon of water and two 20-ounce Gatorades are pulsing through my bladder. There is nowhere secluded for me to do my business. I try to shield myself behind a bush, but I’m certain that half the group saw my bare butt. At this point, I don’t care. I have no shame. I am exhausted.
Many of the other hikers have parents and siblings, aunts, and uncles who crossed into the United States this way. For them the hike holds a heavy significance. I am aware of this and I try to act accordingly. I want to honor them. I consider this with every step and think of those who have fled their countries looking for a better life in the United States. I imagine my mother and father, both of whom came to the U.S. for the same purpose, although for them the obstacles were fewer. My mother’s family came when she was a child after many periods of separation from her father who lived and worked alone in the United States in order to pave the way for the family’s immigration. My father arrived in the late ’60s when he was in his early 20s. He came to the States because there was no work in Ireland for young men. He struggled. He found his first job in a Chicago Sun Times ad asking for men to work at 6 a.m. When he arrived at the dusty parking lot the man in charge took one look at him and said, “This is not the job for you. You do not want this job.” My dad believed he was being slighted due to his brogue. When the other men arrived, they were all speaking Spanish. They loaded them into trucks. He spent the day doing manual labor. That was my father’s first taste of the U.S. and the separation of people into categories and classes. It left a lasting impression.
After three hours in the desert — give or take, it’s hard to tell — I start to feel a renewed sense of energy. Not long afterward, I can see our cars in the distance. I have never been so happy to see automobiles in my life. They are about two city blocks away. It is then that I realize I don’t have a ride back. I ask a few people nearby, “Are you going back to San Diego?” Two people say no, one says her car is full. I might end up stuck out here in the desert. At least I know where the water jugs are.
When I make it to a line of cars, a young couple in a black SUV, motor running, AC blasting, say they have enough room to take me back. I climb into the backseat, relieved and thankful. The middle-aged woman, who has driven from Mountain View and straggled behind much of the time, sits next to me. She fans her face.
“Look at my shoes,” Sylvia, the Mountain View woman, says. I am shocked to see that the soles on her sneakers are hanging by strings, exposing her white socks.
“That happened in the beginning of our hike,” she tells me, her eyes glistening with moxie. “The tread fell off both of my shoes. It was really, really, hot. I think that is why the glue came undone. It made the hike for me a little bit more strenuous. Lesson learned: make sure you bring plenty of water and the proper gear,” she adds with a shrug.
The woman in the front seat, Laura Perez, nods her head. “I could hear people having conversations, and I didn’t even want to talk, I couldn’t. I was drained.”
Her boyfriend pipes in, “Just imagine that we only did that for a couple of hours, I mean, that is just a little taste of what it really is. Can you imagine actually doing it?”
We all grimace.
Sylvia reflects, “I didn’t want my shoes to stop me. I didn’t want that to be an obstacle, especially since all these migrants have done it. They endure beatings, rapes, muggings. So, my little shoe problem — when it happened, I marched on. It was so worth it if it means someone can survive another day,” and with that she starts to cry. “When my grandfather came here he picked fruit. My father was born in one of the [migrant] camps. He has hard stories; it was a very hard life. He couldn’t go to school, but my dad taught himself how to work on engines and machinery. He ended opening up his own business and was a prosperous member in society. He worked so hard to put me through my final three years at private school, and I don’t take that for granted. That is why I try to give back. Laura up there,” she says pointing to the front seat, “she is our future, she wants to be an immigration lawyer.”
Perez blushes and says, “My mom actually crossed through the desert with [my siblings] and my dad. My sister, who is now 29, was eight months old at the time. My older siblings were just eight and nine when they crossed, walking through here. I am not saying that now, after today, I understand, because I didn’t do the whole thing. But you get a little feel for it. Now I just think, Wow, I can’t believe my mom and my dad crossed with my siblings. It’s really intense.”
Last year, the Border Angels gave a presentation at Perez’s college, Cal State San Marcos. It stuck with her. She found their website online and added them on Instagram. “Every time I saw a Border Angel post on Instagram, it acted as a reminder. I kept asking myself, Laura, when are you going to volunteer?”
Perez hesitates and adds, “Ultimately, I want to go to law school and become a lawyer. I really like that they provide immigration lawyers on Tuesdays. I have an uncle who is working on his legal status. Seeing his struggle and the money spent, I want to be someone who helps. My uncle has had an open case for over a decade. I wonder, when is he going to become legal? My grandfather just passed away in April. He wasn’t allowed to go. The fact that he couldn’t go to see his father is just heartbreaking.” Perez fights back tears before continuing, “He is someone that works, who files taxes, who has a family over here. He is stable and he has a case that has been open for ten years!”
For the rest of the ride we sit in exhausted silence enjoying the air conditioning and listening to the lull of the freeway. When we pull up to the community center I thank them for the ride.
“Take care of yourself!” Sylvia shouts after me waving and smiling from the backseat.
It’s early evening when I return home. I quickly peel off my desert clothes and take a cold shower. The only evidence that remains of my day in the desert is a sunburn on my face, shoulders, and legs. An hour later I am lathered up in aloe and leave for my son’s water-polo game. Afterward, the team celebrates their win at a pizza joint. One of the dads comments on how burned I am.
“I wore sunblock, but I spent the day in the desert. There was no avoiding a sunburn,” I explain.
He wants to know why I would go into the desert on one of the hottest days of the year. I explain that I volunteered with the Border Angels and give a brief description of my day. The table grows quiet. I realize I have casually broached a controversial subject. I wasn’t expecting to evoke such a strong reaction. But I should’ve known.
A recent Gallup study uncovered that more than eight in ten Americans favor new laws that would tighten security at U.S. borders. Another March 2017 Gallup study showed that 59 percent of Americans say they worry “a great deal about illegal immigration.” Ironically, 62 percent of Americans are against Trump’s new proposed border wall, according to 2017 Pew Research study.
“So, you left water in the desert for illegals?” one of the moms asks for clarification.
“We hiked along trails that undocumented people take when entering the United States.”
“I would’ve added salt to that water,” the dad sitting nearest to me spits out.
I look around the table expecting someone to comment but they remain silent, some horrified by the comment, others indifferent, and a few appear to be in total agreement.
“That water could be the difference between life and death for someone out there,” I say in response.
He shrugs and grabs another piece of pizza.