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Water in the Desert


Anyone living on the U.S.-Mexico border--anyone paying attention, that is--understands that no matter how many fences, floodlights, and, yes, walls, anyone puts up, the border is no more than a line on a piece of paper. Animals, including humans, are drawn by nature and need. We travel in search of water, work, love, safety, sensing our way through life. Lines on a piece of paper often fail to align with more profound realities.

Bruce Chatwin wrote about the aboriginal maps that exist in people's heads in The Songlines, a holy book for desert rats. These natural maps are most visible in deserts. Nowhere is the disconnect between the two ways of seeing the world starker than in the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave deserts along la frontera.

On Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, people of good will celebrated after a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to fully restore the Obama-era program that shields immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation. The program known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) has protected more than 800,000 young people, many of whom have more than repaid whatever debt they owe to their adopted country by becoming doctors, teachers, and other valuable members of society.

Now the country is faced with the task of modernizing its Byzantine and outdated immigration system. It won't be enough to excise the human rights abuses of the Trump administration. Before Trump, the country's stance on immigration was muddled, inefficient, and often cruel.

Human migration is higher now than it's ever been in human history. The explosive rise is not just affecting the United States. Greece, Germany, France, and Spain are buckling under the sheer numbers of people fleeing political unrest and ecological collapse. As the climate continues to change, wiping out traditional livelihoods and destabilizing fragile governments, the numbers will only increase.

The answers may not seem simple, but in a profound sense they are. By injecting simple humanity into immigration policy, both nationally and internationally, governments can adopt contemporary solutions to a global shift that activates primal fears, engendering an ugly modern-day tribalism.

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Here in the United States, we conveniently forget that so much of our territory once belonged to countries other than our own. New Orleans was Spain and then it was France. Most of the Southwest was Mexico, and if you look closely, the story of how that changed isn't pretty.

Many parts of the U.S. retain traces of former inhabitants and cultures. Tucson, Arizona is one of those places, a city that lies only an hour from the U.S.-Mexico border. In this liberal college town (liberal for Arizona, that is) there has long been a community of folks dedicated to helping migrants, whether they have papers or not. Some come from close by, others from far away: the Lost Boys of Somalia, for instance, found adoptive families and university educations here.

And for decades, there has been an underground railroad for Central American migrants, no less necessary or admirable than the underground railroad that aided slaves escaping the American South.

Twenty years ago, when the Clinton administration stepped up enforcement in border cities, forcing migrants out to the surrounding deserts where as many as 2,000 people died every year, Americans have ventured out to remote parts of the parks and national wildlife refuges outside Tucson, trying to save lives.

For much of that time, Tucson photographer Michael Hyatt has volunteered for Samaritans, a humanitarian aid group dedicated to saving the lives of migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert. His photographs documenting their grueling and often dangerous journeys can be found in his recent book Along The Migrant Trail.

The video below features Hyatt's collaboration with visual artist Jo Andersen and musician John Coinman. Coinman is the bandleader for Kevin Costner & Modern West, and has worked with many of our favorite musicians, including Amy Rigby and Tony Gilkyson of Lone Justice and X.

Jo and John filmed this video for the song "Long Way Home" with an iPhone and a GoPro. "Long Way From Home" is from Coinman's 2019 album Under The Sun.

The work of sheltering migrants has been going on for as long as humans have walked the earth. Yet the work has never been so daunting or so necessary.

Without a path to citizenship, Dreamers still have cause to worry. Read about it in The New York Times.

Brian's Playlist

I Ain’t Got No Home ::: Bob Dylan

I’m A Dreamer :::: Garland Jeffreys

Patria ::: Ruben Blades

Deportee ::: The Byrds

Across The Borderline ::: Ry Cooder

This World Is Not My Home ::: The Monroe Brothers

Refugee Blues ::: Aaron Lee Tasjan

Living Like A Refugee ::: The Sierra Leone AllStars

Where Is Love ::: Dionne Warwick

I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore ::: Woody Guthrie

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This land is our land. All of us.