I recently joined Bob Kee of the Tucson Samaritans to hike trails in the Arizona desert and experience for myself the challenges undocumented workers face when entering the United States.
Migrants tend to leave traces as they walk through the desert, so it’s not difficult to know which trails they have used lately. The most common signs are empty water bottles, which migrants discard in the brush to lighten their load on this grueling four-day hike through mountains, deserts, and rocky streambeds.
Unfortunately, the signs are not always as mundane as water bottles. Near the end of our hike, Bob and I made a devastating discovery: a pair of women’s underwear hanging from a tree limb. Our hearts sank as we approached the tree. We became silent. We both knew what this meant.
Although rarely discussed in media, countless women who cross through the Arizona desert end up the victims of sexual assault. The rapists—often the same human smugglers these women have paid to guide them—hang their victims’ underwear on tree limbs as trophies for other crossers to see. And according to a report by the Tucson Weekly, it’s not just smugglers who are committing sexual assaults in the Arizona desert: migrants are also vulnerable to rape and assault by U.S. agents.
The rest of our hike felt eerie and surreal. I was sickened. I was frightened. I had enough of the desert and its secrets. I wanted to go home.
But if I wanted to go home, imagine how these victims feel, in the middle of nowhere, isolated, unable to have their screams heard, at least a two-day walk from the nearest population center, unable to find help or medical attention, unable to fight back, unable to trust anyone. Unable to go home.
As we continued hiking, I reflected on an observation I made the night before when Bob and I visited a shelter for deported migrants in Nogales, Mexico. When a group of ten or so women had entered the shelter, I wondered why their eyes looked so sorrowful, their faces so empty and expressionless. My best guess at the time was that these women were exasperated from the deportation process. Now I know, however, that at least some of them had this look of sadness because they had been victims of sexual assault in the desert.
Why did I have to hike trails in the Arizona desert to learn about this? Why aren’t these human rights violations—violations that occur on American soil—discussed more often in the media?
No one is listening to these women, no one is investigating these crimes. It doesn’t matter one bit that these women are crossing illegally: these assaults are a human rights issue that cannot be ignored.
To learn more listen to this 2007 report by Kira Neel of the Common Language Project.
For more on this issue, see another article I published on March 14, 2011