It was the 82-year-old Jose Castillo, who we met last April in the small village with colonial architecture of Ajo, in the southern desert of Arizona, who recommended going to watch the video on YouTube.
For several days, everyone around him had started talking about these images captured in the neighboring state of New Mexico by the surveillance cameras of the American border services.
The drama is still told there today in silhouettes. That of a man, no doubt a smuggler, clinging to the top of the wall built there on the Mexican border. Then those of the two children whom he drops, as delicately as possible, on the American side of the border. Two toddlers delivered to the wild night and the silence of the desert.
“You can imagine the desperation it takes to get there: entrusting your children to smugglers, abandoning them on the other side of the border, with the deep conviction that their destiny will be better”, had exposed Jose, sitting in the local antique store, choking back a series of sobs.
He added, still with the same sadness in his voice: “I saw people arriving at the border in wheelchairs. I have seen people lose a father, a mother on the way. I have seen retirees, with only a few years left to live, asking for asylum. It is necessary that life at home has reached a level of extreme violence more than unbearable to inflict such hardships. Many Americans believe these refugees are coming here to steal them. Me, those whom I see passing here seek above all to find safety and to offer their children another future. “
In the weeks leading up to this meeting, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, one of the hottest in the United States, the debate on immigration to the United States had again ignited, after the arrival of Democrat Joe Biden in January in the White House had put thousands of aspirants into exile on the road to the country. Donald Trump’s highly repressive and inhumane anti-immigration policies, applied in previous years, had considerably slowed down these migratory movements.
In just one month, last March, more than 170,000 illegal immigrants attempted to enter the United States through Arizona, Texas or New Mexico, bypassing border crossings, before making their way to the United States. get arrested by US border services, according to official figures. This was 100,000 more than the previous month. At the last count, these services called almost 1.7 million people in fiscal year 2021. A record since the peaks of 2000 and 1986.
At the time, in the discourse of the American extreme right, this mathematics was also accompanied by disturbing images, those of hordes threatening and dangerous for the identity, the wealth or the security of America. Racist rhetoric always at odds with reality and even science.
In December 2020, a study published in the journal PNAS by Michael Light, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, recalled that between 2012 and 2018, illegal immigrants were associated with the lowest crime rate in the United States. Compared to them, US-born citizens were twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes, two and a half times as likely to be arrested for drug trafficking, and four times as likely to be arrested. for crimes against property. Fear of the other seldom stands the test of the facts.
And the facts, on the border between Mexico and Arizona, last April, told above all about another form of violence and tragedy: that of the invisibility of these illegals in the desert, reduced to the state of ghostly bodies. , specters, the presence of which can only be seen by the rare traces they left behind.
At dawn, in the Buenos Aires nature reserve, south of Tucson, while I accompanied two volunteers from the organization Humane Borders who came to fill freshwater cisterns scattered over this vast land to help these exiles, I saw the beauty and the poetry of the place endlessly struck by these vestiges of despair: bottles of empty water, scraps of cheap shoes that couldn’t stand the walk, canned beans or tuna, abandoned backpacks, sometimes small in size with prints of childish characters… and even worse, human bones testifying to the failure of crossing the desert or meeting with militias of white vigilantes, the dark side of this migratory crisis too often left in its blind spot.
Death on the road
Last April, the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona sounded the alarm on the worrying growth of these migrant deaths over the past two decades, although the phenomenon is necessarily underestimated in this regard. hostile environment where bodies disappear in a sandstorm or under a pack of predators.
Several skull bones found in the desert also tell of the violence of a summary execution. By firearm. The kind of weapon that we see worn on the belt by operators of pick-up when we stop filling up with gas and buying a can of water in Tucson. Before entering the desert.
“Here, I have already found torn women’s clothes,” said Stephen Saltonstall, volunteer at Humane Borders, entering a small canyon located near one of the water tanks managed by the organization, without speculate on the scene at the origin of these traces.
Everyone here knows that the illegals walk as much on the road of exile as on that of violence and humiliation, too often placed, from their departure, under the authority and threat of smugglers, corrupt police officers, profiteers, then racist extremists on arrival. Not being able to legally enter the country.
Tragedies which also benefit from a great deal of impunity.
“Look at the vastness of the land around you,” said Mr. Saltonstall, an east coast lawyer and civil liberty activist who had come to retire and assert his convictions in a warmer climate. “Everything is done here without witnesses. I’ve asked the FBI before why they don’t infiltrate far-right groups or smugglers to expose these crimes. As he did in the past for drug trafficking. I was told that there was no money ”… and probably also not enough pressure from the population and the electorate, who prefer to concentrate on the construction of walls, as if not to see the humanity that lies behind these dramas of migration.