It has been just a couple of days since the UIndy Beyond Borders team has returned from our most recent volunteer trip in South Texas. Just a couple of days, yet I have already had several conversations with friends in Indiana concerning the work that we did and explaining the true nature of the humanitarian crisis occurring at the border. And I know there will be more to come.
Though we have returned from Texas, I know that the work is not done. Every day I find myself thinking of those who are likely attempting to cross the harsh Texas desert at this very moment, and hope that the water stations that the Beyond Borders team helped set up will be enough to get them safely to their destinations. These conversations I have with friends and family back in the midwest are just one way that our work continues at home; by talking about our experiences, we are able to help spread awareness of the reality of the humanitarian crisis that is occurring at the border. Living so far removed as we are, it is difficult to fully understand what is occurring there; having now experienced just a small portion of what migrants are going through as they attempt to cross the border better equips me to be able to educate those around me back home. One of our goals has always been to spread awareness of the border crisis and to dispel any of the common misconceptions that are so easily spread by news and media. As I sit comfortably at home, I hope to continue to have these conversations with those around me to help increase awareness and educate as many people as I can.
I will also continue to think about those who aren’t able to do so – those who are still walking through the sand and brush and heat to make a better life for themselves. I can only hope that our work this past week, and our continuing work in the future, will help alleviate the crisis in some small way.
“Uncharacteristically hot,” the radio host said as he reported today’s weather in Falfurrias. My thoughts? If it’s going to be uncharacteristically hot for Falfurrias, then it is definitely going to be uncharacteristically hot for us. And the weather did not disappoint!
We began our day bright and early in order to avoid as much of the afternoon heat as possible. We rolled in to Whataburger to get our breakfast taquitos (yum!) before the sun was up, and by the time we made it to the ranch to begin our search, the clouds were providing a nice cover from the sun, keeping the air (relatively) cool for the first couple of hours of our day. I jokingly declared that if I kept my sunglasses hooked to the front of my t-shirt, the skies would remain overcast for the rest of the day. Of course, true to Texas form, I spoke too soon and the sun quickly peeked out from behind the clouds, and with it the temperatures rose.
We covered a significant amount of ground while searching on the ranch, bobbing and weaving our way through the spider- and tick-infested thickets, keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of migrants that may have crossed through the area. We were looking for things such as personal effects that may have given us clues as to the last whereabouts of anybody passing through, trails that may have indicated higher traffic areas, and, of course, any signs of human remains that may need to be recovered. As the day wore on, the temperature rose, and our feet grew weary from walking on the sandy terrain for miles, so we decided to head in a bit earlier. The UIndy team, along with Eddie and Jeff, decided to take advantage of the extra afternoon time to take a trip to Roma to see the Rio Grande River on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Dr. Latham, Haley, and I had all previously taken this trip in May 2017 and so we were delighted to be driving through Rio Grande City to share this experience with our rookies, Rachel and Angela. We also remembered how much hotter it was on the Roma overlook, despite being just over an hour south of Falfurrias, and this time was no different! Roma is a great little town directly on the border, with some gorgeous colorful buildings and one of the world’s greatest bird sanctuaries. It also provides access to some stunning views of both the U.S. and Mexico sides of the Rio Grande River, with the sheer drop offs on the banks of the U.S. side reminding us of the many obstacles facing those who are attempting to cross the border. After spending some time gazing out across the overlook in the hot sun, we were all ready to cool down. Eddie suggested we stop by a snow cone stand on the way back to Falfurrias and we all happily obliged. With the menu mostly in Spanish with small, difficult to see pictures, most of us took Eddie’s advice and ordered the “Mangonada,” a deliciously fruity frozen beverage with a little chili powder kick!
With our refreshing beverages in hand, we headed back to Falfurrias to plan for our final day in Falfurrias. Today was a great day, and I think we all feel refreshed and invigorated to begin early again tomorrow to cover some more ground on the ranches and repair some more water stations across Brooks County. I can’t believe we only one more day left for this trip, but already feel so grateful for this experience and for all of the experiences and opportunities that we have been able to share with Eddie and Don.
We are nearing the end of Day 2 of our trip and my-oh-my has this experience been so unique from my previous experiences in South Texas! Because our goals are so different than a normal field or lab season, we have had the wonderful opportunity to converse and work closely with some of the individuals who live, work, and breathe the immigration crisis every day. Through this work and all of these conversations, I have already learned an incredible amount about some of the nuances of what it is like to live and work in Brooks County from multiple perspectives in just the last two days, and I can’t imagine what the rest of the week has in store for us.
Yesterday began at the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC)where Eddie led a conversation about the work that he does every day and the obstacles he faces along the way. What really struck me during this conversation was how complex the social and political environment is in South Texas and just how many different organizations are involved in the humanitarian crisis here. Each of these organizations, such as Border Patrol, the Sheriff’s Department, and the STHRC, has their own goals and, therefore, their own perspective, complicating their ability to coordinate their efforts. Furthermore, each organization also has their own experience and areas of expertise, which can make it difficult to understand each other and work together. This point was made clear as I listened to Dr. Latham explain to Eddie the reasons behind the amount of time it takes to obtain DNA results from bone samples, as DNA is one of Dr. Latham’s areas of expertise and is something that Eddie likely has not had direct experience with. Until having this conversation with Eddie, I had not fully realized just how political the relationships between organizations can be and how difficult it can be to navigate those relationships. While listening to his words, I reminded myself that, although the UIndy team is here to volunteer for a week, Eddie’s passion for helping migrants drove him to come out of retirement to volunteer all of his time to this cause through the creation of the STHRC, and that he lives this crisis every day.
Our team has also had the opportunity to spend time and converse with “Deputy Don,” a local sheriff department Deputy who has been accompanying us. Yesterday, Don rode in the mini-van with some of us (and with his big gun) as we checked the water stations on various ranches in Brooks County, and filled the time in between each stop with stories of some of the experiences he has had searching for, rescuing, and recovering the remains of migrants in and around Falfurrias. As we drove along, Don pointed out very specific locations where he had discovered both living and deceased migrants, often associating each location with a detailed memory of the circumstances that surrounded each recovery. Some stories had a happy ending, where an individual was found on the brink of death and was saved; other stories were much more difficult to hear. Listening to his stories, I realized that Don could recall details about each and every recovery, an indication that this is not just a job for him. Similar to Eddie, Don lives with this humanitarian crisis every day and is working within his organization to not only do his job, but to help save the lives of those in peril and to help give a name back to those who have already perished.
As we were driving through the ranches both yesterday and today, I also happened to notice that Don knew the location of all of the water stations that Eddie had set up on these ranches, a fact that surprised me. This was obviously not Don’s first time visiting the water stations. To me, this was a great example of two very different organizations with different goals working together; the Sheriff’s department, run by law enforcement employees, and the STHRC, run by a very dedicated volunteer. Though their immediate goals, personal experience, and areas of expertise may differ greatly, and though those differences may sometimes cause friction, there was an obvious respect and a mutual understanding of the nature of the humanitarian crisis and the work that needs to be done to help solve it. I feel that I am only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the complexity of the political and social environment that surrounds this humanitarian crisis, and hope that our continued work with both Don and Eddie this week will bring more insight into life as a humanitarian in Brooks County.