Through the Prism of Nonviolence:
Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2014
By John Heid
“You have no rights here!” barked a US Border Patrol agent to a resident of Arivaca, Arizona, who was passing through a Customs and Border Protection checkpoint 23 miles north of the US-Mexico border. The remark confirms a sense of violation that many borderland residents feel when encountering one of the 71 permanent or tactical checkpoints scattered across the Southwest. Condoned by the US Supreme Court over 40 years ago, the intended purpose of these off-border sites was for brief stops verifying residence status. The checkpoints were to be situated within a reasonable distance of the border — 100 miles from any external boundary. Today the total area encompassing these borderlands holds almost two-thirds of the US population. People in the Southwest call this region the “constitution-free zone.”
Arivaca, a community of roughly 700 people, is situated 11 miles north of the US-Mexico border and within 30 miles of three Border Patrol checkpoints. There is no way to leave the town without passing through one. Arivaca was established during the silver mining rush of the mid-to-late 1800s. Today its population is a multicultural mix of cattle ranchers, artists, retirees — many of them school teachers — and local service workers. With a general store, one bar, one Catholic and one Baptist church, a coffee shop, a public library, a handful of small businesses and a post office, Arivaca is quintessential bucolic small town USA.
Today, however, Arivaca finds itself in the heart of a migration corridor as a result of US border enforcement policy which has funneled migrant-travelers into harsher, more remote desert terrain. Over the last 20 years, residents have witnessed the human toll of this policy. Now, finding the bodies of deceased migrants in the arroyos around town is not rare. Residents have also seen a marked increase in the number of people walking around and through town. Usually these travelers are exhausted and hungry, and many are in urgent need of medical care.
While Arivacans do not necessarily agree about immigration policy, the common response to migrants has been to offer food and water as they pass through. However, the militarization of their community in response to the flow of migrants has caused some resentment. The influx of Border Patrol agents — with their helicopters, drones, surveillance towers, ground sensors and check points — has substantially altered the lives of every Arivacan. Many say they do not feel safer for this intrusion into their lives. In fact, people feel less secure. Arivacans say they are living in a war zone.
Two years ago a handful of community members came together to share their reactions to the militarization foisted upon them. A grassroots organization formed, called “People Helping People.” Their mantra: “People helping people in the border zone, restoring peace and justice in the borderlands.” The group soon opened a volunteer-staffed Humanitarian Aid Office on main street, across from the general store and bar. Residents now had a place to gather and share stories and ideas as well as to offer aid to those traveling through.
As people listened to one another they discovered a common sense of the negative impact the Border Patrol’s presence was having on their daily lives. Check points became a focus. Many have experienced harassment, racial profiling and unwarranted queries and searches by agents at the check points. They noted the loss of business in town and a decline in real estate values. They realized that their beloved community, Arivaca, once a popular tourist attraction, had come to be perceived as a dangerous place to visit. After all, people have to cross through a Border Patrol checkpoint to enter town from any direction.
Conversation led to action. Last July, a campaign focusing on the most heavily used check point began to take shape. After extensive meetings the group initiated a petition to close the seven-year-old “temporary”checkpoint. Over a third of the community signed on, including eleven local small business owners. Hundreds of signatures were also received from people who live in the wider region.
On December 8, 2013, Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla, Jr., was invited to receive the petitions at the check point. When residents arrived they did not find Mr. Padilla, but rather a closed check point. A lively “family friendly” rally ensued. Arivacans celebrated a brief moment of an interrogation-free highway to their homes — and, as importantly, their recovery of some measure of voice in their community’s and their own lives. The posters that day dramatized Arivaca’s spirit: “Check Points Divide Us,” “Do You Feel Safer?” “Make checkpoints a thing of the past.” Another asked simply: “Has any checkpoint, anywhere, made this a better world?” “People Helping People” was on the move.
Next, residents requested a meeting with Mr. Padilla within 30 days to address their concerns. When a month passed without reply, a vigil was held at the Border Patrol headquarters in Tucson to announce the establishment of a citizen monitoring of the check point to document harassment and violation of rights. Within weeks Mr. Padilla responded saying the old check point would remain open. Period.
On February 26 the inaugural observation of the check point began. Three dozen residents and supporters turned out — and at least as many Border Patrol agents and sheriff’s deputies. Six Arivacans took their positions with cameras and clip boards in hand. The lines of creative tension were drawn. While arrests were threatened, none occurred. The community held forth, and it plans to continue the monitoring until the check point is closed.
The long-term vision is an end to all suffering and death in the desert, an end to all border militarization, a humane immigration policy and a restoration of authentic security to Arivaca and the entire borderland, for residents and visitors alike. After all, “Our Communities Are Not War Zones!”
— John Heid lives and works at the Casa Mariposa Community in Tucson, Arizona.