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Fourth of July in the Borderlands: Praying for Rain

The following post is from Margaret Reganthe author of The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands. Regan's book chronicles firsthand accounts of the militarized borders and the ultimate human struggle and sacrifice to experience the freedom and independence in the United States.

A hot wind swept through the Arizona desert on the first day of July, pushing gray clouds across the sky and carrying the welcoming smell of rain.

The dampness in the air gave some small hope to this parched land. During all of June, it rained not a single drop in southern Arizona. The temperatures spiked above 100 degrees on twenty-two days, including sixteen days in a row during the last two weeks of the month. On one day, June 23, the mercury shot up to 109.  

The region’s powerful summer thunderstorms—the monsoons—haven’t started yet but everyone’s praying for rain. Last week in Tucson, in a traditional celebration on the feast day of San Juan Bautista—St. John the Baptist—on June 24, neighbors carried his statue around on the banks of the dried-up Santa Cruz River, in hopes that the saint would baptize the borderlands. So far, the saint hasn’t answered their prayers.

4227  Often he waits for the Fourth of July. If the holiday merrymakers get lucky, black clouds roll across the Catalina Mountains and sheets of water fall in torrents, bending mesquite trees sideways and turning roads into rivers. Everyone turns giddy. Southern Arizonans sweltering by their barbecues have been known to welcome the downpours by dancing in the streets, their arms lifted up toward the heavens.

As for the migrants haltingly making their way through the scorched desert outside the city, they thank the rains for helping keep them alive.  

This is the dying season in the desert.

June yielded up twenty-four migrant bodies. An unidentified man was found dead on Tuesday, June 27, at the northern end of the remote Tohono O’odham Reservation, the deadliest migrant corridor in the state. Suspected cause of death: hyperthermia, death by heat. The temperature was 104 the day he died. On Monday, June 28, a 30-year-old man named Hindemas Majia-Peres perished near Sells, the small town capital of the Rez. He too was felled by the heat, on a day that the temperature hit 108. Four days before that, on June 24, on another 108-degree day, another man died of exposure, in the open land near Benson, a ranching community east of Tucson.

The deaths of migrants are up, way up, in this year of vitriol against these poorest of the poor, against these economic refugees who risk dying to cross into America to work. By the end of June, in the months since the fiscal year that started last October 1, 152 bodies had been found in the Arizona desert. That’s twenty-seven bodies ahead of the count this time last year, when the number was 125. The harsh winter, cold and wet, gets part of the blame for the uptick in casualties. But the true culprit is the increased border enforcement. The more walls we build, the more Border Patrol agents we add, the farther into the wilderness these migrants go, and the more that die.

But hardly anyone is discussing the death toll, not in Washington, not in Arizona. The state’s governor, Jan Brewer, who signed the infamous anti-immigrant bill SP 1070 in April, hasn’t mentioned the tragic fates of would-be workers like Hindemas Majia-Peres. Instead, she’s libeled the migrants, living and dead, by accusing the “majority” of working as mules for the drug cartels. She provided no evidence, and even the Border Patrol disputes her assertion. Their figures show that 90 percent of the migrants they apprehend are ordinary people coming to the United States to work or join their families. Ten percent have had criminal convictions.

Undeterred by these facts, Brewer went on to make a new claim that “our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded.” The specter of headless bodies was meant to invoke the horror of the drug cartel murders in Mexico. But that was a falsehood too. The medical examiners who autopsy the bodies of the crossers have never found a death by decapitation among the migrant corpses in their morgues.

Kat Rodriguez, a human rights activist in Tucson, has cataloged the deaths of the migrants for ten years, by name, when possible, and by cause of death.

“I’ve never seen a beheading,” she says. “It’s irresponsible of Brewer to be spreading fear. In addition to lying, she’s creating fear and feeding into stereotypes.”

The truth is, the migrants are drawn to the United States by the very things that Americans celebrate on the Fourth of July: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

And so they make their way across the desert, and pray that the rains come soon.