All posts by thompsonsm

The Gold Standard

It’s day three back in Indy from my third trip with the Beyond Borders team, and this blog just keeps getting harder and harder to write. Not because I have no reflections, or because I did not enjoy my time, or because I didn’t learn anything, but because I am not ready to be home. I will never be ready. How can I reflect on something with which I will never be completely finished?

Every trip leaves a part of myself in the field. There are pieces of me scattered all around Brooks county. These are pieces that I will never get back, because they belong there. And coming home a little less of myself and little more someone new is tough, even though every trip changes me for the better. I am able to see myself grow little by little into someone I want to be and am proud to be. 

My growth this trip specifically was rooted in my team. Their support and general concern for each other’s well being is what allowed me to push myself harder. I traveled farther, through thicker brush, because I knew they were there. Sometimes, I got stuck. And they were there, to take pictures at first, but then to stop the line search until I was able to get

Me, quite literally, stuck in the brush
Me, quite literally, stuck in the brush

back into our formation, make sure I was okay, then continue. This team is unlike any other of which I have had the opportunity to be a part. Each case we do here in Indiana, each school project, brings about a new team. But this team. This team is what I will hold as my gold standard for as long as I am in the field. 

Dr. Latham, our fearless leader. She works harder than every single one of us combined and then some. Her ability to traverse the challenging political landscape at the Border with grace and poise is something I admire and can only hope to one day emulate. I am so proud to be her student and mentee, and hope that I am able to continue to use her as my anchor, even if we are equally directionally challenged.

Sammi, the tried and true. Never have I ever seen someone so dedicated and good. Watching Sammi work and map is truly incredible, and I learn something new every day with her.

Alba, my truest partner in crime. Alba cares so deeply for everyone and everything, in a true Cancer passion. She knows what I am thinking, even from other ends of the line search. I am thankful for her friendship and above all, her ability to make anyone feel important.

Tanya, the rookie. The one who will do anything you ask, because she is so eager to learn. She will go so far, and I cannot wait to cheer her on.

And of course, our team would be nothing without Deputy White and Eddie. Both are so incredibly selfless, having dedicated their lives to the border crisis. Working alongside both of them is quite literally a blessing. I am thankful for their leadership, guidance, and encouragement. 

So, while I may still be partially in Falfurrias, I know that my team continues to have my back, which is more than I could have ever asked for. Hopefully, I will be back in Falfurrias one day, and be able to give it everything it has given me.

The team, the number one, the gold standard
The team, the number one, the gold standard


Day 3: Betwixt and Between

In his 1967 book The Forest of Symbols, Victor Turner wrote a chapter titled “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage” (Turner 1967). Here, he describes a “liminal” period in which the subject of interest is in between different steps of their rite of passage, and are no longer held in the same regard as they were before their rite stated, but have not yet reached their post-rite status. While Turner was describing the Ndembu people in Zambia, I feel the idea of liminality can be aptly applied to the crisis at the border.

One could consider many stages of liminality in the physical and mental movement from one’s home country into the US, or any other county: in between their homeland and the border of the next, in between the border and their destination, in between their destination and freedom. This liminality is only compounded when an individual perishes in their in-between, which is what is happening here in Brooks County. Individuals are attempting to reach their destination, often with little or no contact to either their before (home) or after (destination). They are between, and their deaths force them into an added dimension of liminality: found or not found, identified or unidentified.  Thankfully, our work here in Falfurrias allows us to aid both the living as well as the deceased.

Water stationThis morning, we met early at the
STHRC, loaded up a prototype water station built by Trinity University students and faculty, water, and supplies and headed to a local ranch. We replaced a regular water station with the prototype, hoping that the additional water it is able to hold will be of aid to those walking along the power lines attempting to
reach the interstate. On this ranch, we met a foreman whom none of us had met before. He lead us to the water station and helped us build the prototype. After talking more with Eddie, he offered to take water and fill the rest of the water stations on the ranch.  I
downloaded an app on his phone that would give him fairly accurate GPS coordinates to
send on either to Eddie or in case of emergency. He told us about his experiences providing
Water station aid to those crossing through the ranch, and truly seemed interested in helping any way he could. 

This is how our work is able to impact the living. Through Eddie’s guidance and with Deputy White and the foreman’s help, we got the prototype up and filled it with 14 gallons of water (most only hold 6). Aid in the form of water helps increase the chance of survival, and thus the movement from one phase to the next. 

Team members with a water station
Our team with Eddie and Deputy White setting up the water station.

After we finished and made sure all of the electronic elements were set up, we continued on further into the ranch to conduct a line search. Deputy White had receivedTeam members walking along a road on a ranch
some coordinates of interest along a path, so we lined up as usual and did our search. We did not go far out into the brush, like yesterday, but mainly stayed on the path. This was largely due to the fact that the coordinates were right on the path, not off into the brush very far. We walked to and past the coordinates, then doubled back. We walked mostly in silence, our eyes trained on the shrubbery, looking for anything that our brains would perceive as bone before we did. 

Our searches, as well as our exhumations, are what makes our work able to impact the dead. By locating those who have perished, we start them on their way to identification, and thus out of their between. It is important to note that none of this would be possible without Eddie and the STHRC, or without Deputy White. They are the ones who continue the work once we are back to our “normal lives”.

After our fieldwork was finished for the day, we drove to McAllen, TX to speak to students from Emory University (visiting from Atlanta, GA). We listened to Eddie talk about his work and the STHRC, then to Dr. Latham talk about the history of our team’s involvement at the border. The students and their professors asked thoughtful questions, We finished our day by eating a lot of tamales at Delia’s. 

My hope is that our work continues to aid in the movement of individuals out of liminal phases, into something more definite. This applies both to those crossing the border, as well as those of us who are still figuring out what we are doing with our lives. I’m so thankful for this experience, and even though it’s my third trip, I learn something new everyday.

Day three team photo


Turner, V. (1967). The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Third Time’s a Charm

In our current climate — both environmental (with predicted average temperature increases of 2.5-10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years) and political (with a continued vilification of those crossing the border as well as those aiding in the humanitarian crisis) — the work being done at the border is imperative. Groups in Arizona and Texas, as well as individuals, are working every day to provide aid to those who have crossed and attempt to recover those who did not survive the journey. It is an honor to stand among those people, and an honor to travel to Falfurrias for the third time. 

Fieldwork in Sacred Heart Burial Park in January 2019. My first trip to Falfurrias.
Fieldwork in Sacred Heart Burial Park in January 2019. My first trip to Falfurrias.

My own anxieties are the same as the previous trips: the harsh environment, the long days, etc. However, the recent trial of Scott Warren (cited above) adds an additional legal anxiety. The Beyond Borders team is no stranger to interactions with Border Patrol and other entities, especially after getting pulled over three times in May 2019 while filling water stations. Fortunately, this has been the most extreme of our encounters. Yet, Warren’s arrest and trail, which TIME called “the most severe of all charges faced by humanitarian aid workers by far” (Aguilera 2019) means it is more possible that our team will have more, and possibly more severe, dealings with Border Patrol. 

While my irrational brain has these thoughts, my rational brain knows our team operates from a place of extreme privilege. We always have Deputy White with us, both for safety and to vouch for our presence and actions. We are also backed by an academic institution, an extra layer of protection that most organizations do not have. We have been and will continue to operate the same way we always have, but those working at the border every day are facing harsher consequences than we could imagine. Therefore, our job is twofold. We must perform the work at hand while in Falfurrias, but continue to educate about the border crisis wherever we go, as well as continue to support those organizations working tirelessly to aid at the border. 

January 2020 team
January 2020 team

Nevertheless, I am going to try to push those anxieties aside (if I can) and be present for this trip. It is very likely that this will be my last trip to Falfurrias, a reality I have no yet come to peace with yet. The past two trips have changed my life in ways that are impossible to articulate or duplicate, and it is an experience I never want to end. But — I want others to have these opportunities as well. I am so excited for our rookie, Tanya, to experience Falfurrias and everything that comes with it. I am also excited to spend my last trip with two former teammates, Alba and Sammi. And as always, I am grateful for the ability to continue to work with and learn from Dr. Latham, who inspires me every single day. 

Thank you to everyone who has supported this trip so far, and for your continued support throughout!