January 23, 2004

Commentary

Border Angels: A Politics of Humanitarianism

By Perlita R. Dicochea

In the face of the Bush Administration’s immigration proposal which would make undocumented immigrant workers legally exploitable for intervals of three years, thirty Border Angel volunteers, led by Enrique Morones, founder of the non-profit organization, caravanned from downtown San Diego to East County’s rocky desert hills to set up stations of water, food, and clothing.

I rode along in Morones’ reasonably-sized SUV. The trunk and back seat was stacked high with blankets and boxes of individually packaged pastry snacks for the stations we would set up that day in the small community of Campo. Stickers and buttons on the windshield sunshades display Morones’ politics. A sample read: “No War On Iraq;” “Help Someone: Cesar Chavez Service Clubs;” and “Stop Chasing Migrants to Death.” A pocket New Testament rested on the floor under his dash.

“We do not answer to the Mexican Government. We do not answer to the U.S. Government. We respond to a Higher Authority,” Morones said during our morning introduction at Pantoja Park. Morones added that the mission of Border Angels is guided by the questions, “When I was hungry did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you give me drink?”

Even so, I cannot help but see the work of Border Angels as highly political. When the militarization of the border becomes an acceptable apparatus for resolving the undocumented immigration issue, caring about “illegal aliens” is indeed a political sentiment. Doing something to help border crossers survive the desert’s extreme weather, among other dangers, is nothing less than a politics driven by pure consideration for the welfare of humanity.


Enrique Morones briefs volunteers before heading out to the desert.

Border Angel volunteers periodically change the location of their survival stations so that crossers do not become dependent on the help. “I do not encourage crossers to come illegally. It is too dangerous, too risky. Especially now after Operation Gatekeeper and 9/11,” Morones said. Since the inception of Operation Gatekeeper, 3000 illegally crossing migrants have died, many from dehydration and sheer exhaustion. Morones resolved, “If they are going to cross, they have to be prepared.”

I’ve traveled the road countless times to go to El Centro and Calexico for my dissertation research. Blue flag water stations can be seen year-round from the 98, a two-lane desolate road that reaches Calexico. My parents, whom reside in the Bay Area, took the trip with me last spring and saw the stations. “Pero mira nomas,” my dad exclaimed when we passed a few blue flags hovering over cardboard survival boxes. “Que bueno que hay gente ayudando a nuestra raza,” he said.

On that same trip, my parents were stunned at the sight of Border Patrol SUVs kicking up trails of dust as they trekked through the surrounding desert. Raza communities have our struggles up in the Bay Area, no doubt. But legal residents or not, the Border Patrol is like a boogy man in our imaginations. Up north, we see the Border Patrol vehicles and uniforms as haunts on television news and documentaries. My parents hear all the nightmare stories about abusive Border Patrol officers from their predominantly Spanish-speaking clients. To see the Border Patrol up close and personal for the first time really is quite eerie.

The blue flags came with their own sense of eeriness. Morones recently began placing makeshift crosses and red blinking bike-lights at the stations when he surveyed a few migrants and learned that border crossers did not know what the stations were for. Some were even afraid to go near them. The crosses signify help and safety and the blinking lights serve as guides.

I carried a trashbag of sweaters, jeans, and blankets up a fairly steep and somewhat unpredictable trail along with the rest of the volunteers. We were warned about snakes and loose rock. Border Angels had already set about 5 stations in this area. In view from the hilltop was a mobile-home sporting the American and Confederate flags and a ranch house guarded by several black, desert cows. Half-a-mile south we could see a simple wooden fence that marked the international Mexico-U.S. border.


A lonely water station stands vigilante, offering life saving relief to desperate desert crossers.

Old lights needed to be replaced, crosses had to be taped together from fallen branches, and old water jugs replaced. We filled large heavy-duty Rubbermaid containers with fresh water, clothes, and packaged snacks. It was work getting a total of 40 gallons of water up the hill to each of the stations. The sun was blaring and the breeze was cool. Most volunteers wore caps and sunscreen along with their sweatshirts.

After setting up the first station, I spent most of my time trying to find something to do – what with all the helping hands that day. There was a group of about 10 college students studying border policy from Massachusetts along with their professor. Several veteran Border Angels were also present as well as a couple of families. All-in-all, I hiked along with an interesting mix of students, adults, children, artists, educators and activists.

Morones later told me, “You know, we could have done this with four or five people. But it’s good to get people involved and for them to see the terrain. People obviously want to help. And it’s a way to get them started as volunteers for other projects as well.”

Perhaps we should not have to name being a Border Angel a kind of politics. But if we can call the violence and exploitation incurred on the undocumented along with the pervasiveness of anti-immigrant, hyper-nationalist discourse a politics of ignorance and fear, there is good reason for the desire to claim a politics of unconditional humanitarianism in the work of Border Angels.

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