Eddie Canales runs the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas. His office is roughly 75 miles north of McAllen, just across the street from the Brooks County Court House and a few minutes drive from the checkpoint that the Border Patrol operates along highway 281.
For those who are unaware, much like in eastern European countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States operates internal checkpoints, and has done so for decades. The checkpoints in south Texas are located approximately eighty miles north of Brownsville and McAllen. Everyone traveling along the two highways that lead out of the region is subjected to the same scrutiny, as if they were entering into the country for the first time. It is an unnerving experience for the uninitiated—in the middle of America an armed federal agent pulls the traveler over and insists that she prove her innocence, that she has a right to be there.
Immigrants for whom obtaining permission to be here is nigh near impossible, must therefore escape detection at least twice—once upon crossing the Rio Grande, and, once more, going further north. Many of them take their chances and try crossing around the checkpoints by heading out into the surrounding desert. The journey is dangerous. Many people—hundreds, it is estimated—die in the scrub land that blankets Eddie’s home county.
The checkpoints are the reason Eddie created his Human Rights’ Center. He has a rough job. He maintains dozens of water stations spread out across this area, formerly known as the Wild Horse Desert, and he has advocated for years to the federal government on behalf of these traveling souls, arguing for a more humane immigration policy, for shutting down the checkpoints, for having the border patrol do more to save the lives of those lost in the desert.
During a visit with him back in February, he talked about the recent discovery of the bodies of a group of migrants. “It had gotten really cold, and we found these individuals who apparently didn’t know how to huddle up together (to share their warmth). They all died. Then, not long afterwards, we found this other group that knew how to huddle up. They survived.”
Life lessons can be found anywhere, of course, but for those paying attention, the Wild Horse Desert offers them up in spades.
As a measure of the desperation of the migrant: not only is the traverse around the check point complicated by heat (or cold), a lack of water (you simply cannot carry the amount of water that you need to survive), the thorns, the rattlesnakes, the scorpions, but the migrant is walking on sand—sand that is loose, deep, and seemingly designed by some demon to wear a person out. These details are well known by those thinking about making the trip. They know of the risk, they know that people disappear and die while making the journey, and yet they feel that they must take this chance. Something dire indeed is driving people to make this trek.
As a measure of the courage, the generosity and the strength of many who have joined Eddie’s work: exhuming and identifying bodies so that families can have at least the peace of knowing the finality of their loved ones, is an exhausting task that pits good-hearted people against hard-headed bureaucracies ranging from our own federal government (which refuses to facilitate the identification of victims between Eddie and the families) to a county coroner who, without a lot more work, could facilitate the matching of DNA data between families who are searching for a loved ones and those who have died.
As a measure of just how casually cruel people can be: the water stations are regularly vandalized (this is not specific to south Texas. This video clip shows Border Patrol agents doing this in Arizona, a particularly chilling rationale for that behavior).
As a measure of the loss of our sensibility as human beings: that we have spent billions of dollars on “securing the border” when the vast, overwhelming majority of the people crossing into the USA are families (moms and dads and their children) who surrender to the first border patrol agent they encounter, and who are seeking asylum. Those who do try to avoid apprehension by the Border Patrol, and who end up wandering in the desert have names. They have mothers and children. They have best friends. Some of the ones that I have known (who made it across the desert alive) played shortstop for their local baseball team, others taught Sunday school, and yet others were hired out to serenade mothers on Mothers’ Day.
Eddie knows many of those who did not make it through the desert. He would not have recognized them in real life, as he only saw their remains. But mixed in those remains could be a small purse with some photos in it, giving a hint of the family that awaits news of her, somewhere south of the US. He might find a prayer card invoking the intervention of San Toribio, or a small notebook with phone numbers. Whether or not there is much physical evidence left of the individual, Eddie does know that this was someone who was a son or a father or a best friend.
The shift to a policy of deterrence and prevention of unauthorized immigration by the Border Patrol has been clearly linked to the increase in deaths of immigrants (RadioLab recently produced a series laying out this move, and its disastrous human toll). This policy has been picked up by Homeland Security, who has shamelessly suggested that separating children from their parents at the border is a good idea.
All of this begs the question of why on earth people would migrate at all. What diabolical forces must be at work in someone’s home country that would force them to leave their kin, their community, their language and the place of their ancestors? In the very long, heated national discussions about immigration, only the briefest nod is paid to the so-called “push factors”, those critical conditions that force the decision to migrate.
The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla has a long-standing relationship with Eddie, and Eddie seems somewhat encouraged by recent conversations. But the political change in Washington, and the continued dehumanization of the immigrant, makes any sort of meaningful change a very long-term project.
In the meantime, Eddie and his volunteers will continue to stumble upon the remains of those who, perhaps, did not have someone else to huddle up with, or who just needed water, and, lacking that, died, alone, unnecessarily, north of the American border.
(To help with the mission of the South Texas Human Rights’ Center, go to their website by clicking here).