An Interview with John Fife

by Matt B. on February 18, 2011

John Fife is a human rights activist from Tucson, Arizona.  For 35 years, he served as minister of Southside Presbyterian Church.

In the 1980’s, Fife co-founded the Sanctuary Movement.  Defying federal law, over 500 churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations provided housing and protection for Central American refugees, many of whom were fleeing U.S.-supported death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala.  In 1986, Fife and seven others were convicted of breaking federal immigration law; he served five years probation.

Over the last decade, Fife has turned his attention to a new generation of migrants – those crossing the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona.  He is a co-founder of Humane Borders, Samaritans, and No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, all of which provide humanitarian aid to migrants.

You’re involved with three humanitarian aid organizations in Southern Arizona. Say a word or two about the humanitarian crisis in the desert as you see it and the ways that each of these organizations aims to help.

The crisis unfolded beginning about 1999 here in the Tucson sector of the border. The Border Patrol and Immigration [and Naturalization] Service decided to institute a new border enforcement strategy in 1994, the same year that the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed.

That strategy was pretty simple. They said, “Almost all the migration of workers occurs in the urban areas of the border, and we believe we could seal those off by building walls and quadrupling the number of border patrol agents.” And then they said, “When that happens, people will begin to try to go around, so we’ll push the enforcement…further out from each of those urban areas.” And they said, “When that happens, the word will get out about how hazardous the crossing is, and thereby, we will gain control of the border.”

So what happened was they ramped up the enforcement Texas [to] California and funneled what had been a migration along 2400 miles of border right through the Tucson sector of the border here in Arizona, and that began to happen about 1999. As that happened, people began to die out here in the Sonoran Desert. We called together folks who’ve been part of the Sanctuary Movement and had a meeting of about 90 people on a Sunday afternoon.

Had folks not previously been crossing the desert? Or was the crossing previously safer in some way?

Well, it was much safer because most people crossed through the urban areas, so it was very easy to cross in a border town, meld right into the Hispanic population in that town, and go from there. [I]t was much safer, and the only folks out in the desert were folks who were crossing drugs primarily before then.

So you decided to respond.

[T]he conclusion was pretty easy: if most of the folks out there in the desert were dying from dehydration and heat stroke, why, we had to put water out in there in the desert. So we formed an organization called Humane Borders that puts 55-gallon water drums in critical areas of the desert, marked by a 30-foot flagpole with a blue flag above the desert vegetation so migrants can find those sites. Today, they have over a hundred sites and migrants use somewhere between 20,000-25,000 gallons of water out of those water stations each year, and a lot of lives have been saved.

And for a time, you had an understanding with the Border Patrol about keeping those stations as safe places for migrants to go.

Yeah, we did. We sat down with the sector chief, explained what our plans were, and said we needed to reach an agreement, because there has to be a distinction between humanitarian aid and law enforcement out there in the desert. Humanitarian aid depends upon its neutrality….

So, we [agreed to] give them the sites of each of those water stations, so they’d be clear about where we were going to be providing water. They, in turn, agreed not to target those sites with electronic or human surveillance, so that migrants knew that they could safely approach the water stations if they found them.

That agreement held for about three and a half to four years, until we got a new sector chief. And then he called us in and said, “All agreements are off.” Since that time, they have been clearly targeting those sites with surveillance, both electronic and human.

So, after Humane Borders was formed effectively and had a solid base, we sat down again two years later because we continued to set new records each summer for deaths of immigrants in the Tucson sector.

How many deaths are we talking about?

I think in the year 2000, they had documented 37 bodies found in the Tucson sector. By the next year, it was 60-some; by the next year, it was 80-some. So, the number of deaths [was] escalating dramatically. Last summer, the Tucson sector had a new record set. [T]he medical examiner’s office documented 253 bodies found in the Tucson sector alone.

As I understand it, these numbers represent only a fraction of the bodies that are actually suspected to be out there.

That’s right. Those are only those deaths of migrants documented by the medical examiner’s office in the counties along the border. What we’ve learned through experience is that the desert cleans itself up very rapidly. Small animals and, of course, vultures and coyotes will remove all the flesh from a body very quickly, and then the small animals scatter the bones until there’s nothing left within a very short period of time….

And the desert is a very vast place, and people who begin to suffer from heat exhaustion and heat stroke become delusional. They wander off established trails out here in the desert and they die in very, very remote areas. [O]ur best estimate is that they are probably three to five times as many people who die out there, whose bodies aren’t ever found.

As the number of deaths began to increase, you and your fellow activists expanded your response.

Right. Once Humane Borders was established, we sat down again and said, “We have to figure out what more we need to do.” The response was pretty simple: if the water stations are a passive presence out there, we need a proactive presence out there. So, we formed an organization called Samaritans that puts four-wheel drives out every day with volunteer doctors and nurses and EMT’s and load the four-wheels drive down with food and water and emergency medical gear and drive ranch roads and back roads, proactively searching for people who need our assistance, who are in serious trouble out there.

Samaritans, since the year 2002, now has done just that and found people in virtually every condition you could imagine out there in the desert. Of course, dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the most common ailments we find out there. The second most common is people’s feet get blistered, trying to trek the desert often in bad shoes. Then, those blisters break and their feet turn to hamburger, and they literally cannot walk – and they die out there as a result. Most folks travel at night and rest during the day, of course, in the desert heat, and so they fall at night. We find folks with broken arms and broken legs or twisted ankles or knees, shoulders. We find folks with diabetes-related disease or heart attacks or strokes brought on by the stress of the desert trek. We find women who have been raped in crossing. We find folks with rattlesnake bites. Almost anything you can imagine we find out there.

So then, once Samaritans was firmly established and had a solid base of support as well as volunteers, we sat down again and said, “Well, what more can we do here?” because we were continuing to set record numbers of deaths. The answer was, “Well, we need a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week presence out there in the desert, so we formed an organization called No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes.

The unique part about that organization is it literally establishes camps in the desert, calls for volunteers to come from all over the country—indeed, some folks come from Europe and Australia—and live in the camps 24 hours a day, go out and hike the migrant trails and reach into the desert with backpacks filled with food and water and medical gear, map those migrant trails and hike them, searching for people in distress. Since that’s primarily during the hottest, deadliest months of the summer, the volunteers had to be well trained and well equipped and in pretty good shape to do the work.

In the course of your work in the desert, have you had encounters with the Minutemen folks who seek to guard the border?

Yeah, we do but only infrequently. The Minutemen were primarily a television and media phenomenon when they were formed back in 2003-2004, and so, the encounters were only during the more comfortable months of the year, usually April and October, when folks who were part of the Minutemen organization felt more comfortable being out in the desert. Usually, what we encountered was a whole line of these folks sitting next to pickup trucks in lawn chairs, with guns and binoculars, lined up along a dirt road somewhere near the border. They were pretty much a media phenomenon.

Then they…disintegrated as an organization over the next few years into factions. Because of financial arguments among those factions and, finally, some violence involved, the whole thing has pretty much disintegrated. Now, there are still individuals who call themselves Minutemen, who we run into every once in a while, but they pretty much disappeared and are largely ineffective out here.

Can you put the work you’re doing in the context of America’s immigration policy at the border, and also perhaps in the context of America’s immigration debate over the past few years?

Well, the work we’re doing is directly as a result of the tragic failure of the border enforcement strategy that they have been escalating along this border with more walls, more militarization, more border enforcement agents, even National Guard units now, more helicopters, more drones – all the strategy has been to force the migration of workers into the most deadly and most hazardous areas of the border, and then try to use the deaths…and the suffering of migrants here in the desert as a deterrent to other people trying to cross.

Now, that’s a tragic failed policy, because people continue to be willing…to risk their lives even in very, very dangerous places, like the Sonoran Desert, in order to feed their children and support their families. Therefore, this policy has resulted in thousands of deaths of some of the poorest and most desperate people in this whole region. That tragic failure of the border enforcement strategy has been determined by the international community and international courts to be a violation of human rights and international law, as well as a terrible violation of any kind of…ethical standards, and the basic values of any civilized people who respect human rights.

And so, our work is basically to provide direct aid to the victims of that tragic failed policy, to try and save as many lives as we can, and to advocate, to hold the government accountable for their violations of human rights and international law.

I’ve heard the argument that if we were to actually complete the wall and make crossing impossible, we would avert these deaths in the desert and also potentially prevent the exploitation of migrants at the hands of coyotes and so forth. What’s your and your organizations’ take on that view?

Well, we invite those folks who believe that to come out and first of all watch how easily and quickly folks can scale that wall. It takes about 30-40 seconds, as some of our volunteers have demonstrated, to go up and over that wall. The Border Patrol itself said that it’s just a kind of “speed bump” on migrants’ journeys, and their public statements say it delays people’s journey by about five minutes.

Of course, there are regions of this border that you can’t build a wall across because of the terrain, the mountains and the canyons, and that sort of thing. It’s just impossible to build a wall without completely changing the entire landscape of the border.

And beyond that, let’s look at history. That was the reason for the Great Wall of China, wasn’t it? And it’s a relic that didn’t work – a pretty magnificent construction project but one that doesn’t work. And walls have never worked to stop migration.

But let’s say you built the next Great Wall of China along the 2400 miles of the United States-Mexico land border. Then folks—we know from the history of migration—are just going to get boats and start coming around by boat, and there’s a huge area in the Gulf and on the Pacific Ocean that we would have to deal with the boat people then. Then, if that failed, we would, of course, be into all of the ways in which migration takes place. Around and under walls, folks build tunnels, folks fly over. I mean, it’s just not possible.

How would you like to see the immigration debate change? And what kind of immigration reform would you like to see passed by Congress?

Well, it’s not just our organization. It’s virtually every faith-based organization, every religious denomination—Protestant, Catholic, Jews, Muslim, liberal, evangelical, Mormon—everybody’s on the same page in terms of the basic recommendations for reform of our immigration policy.

The first one is to recognize that migration is necessary for both Mexico and the United States, their economies and the well-being of their societies. Migration has always contributed to the well-being of both nations. So therefore, two neighboring nations need to cooperate and institutionalize [a] legal and regulated way to ensure that migration is of maximum benefit to both countries. That’s called the guest worker program in some people’s language.

Then, of course, you have to recognize that since we didn’t do that for years, we have a documented population in our communities that has been here and been working and been part of our communities for some time, and we need to regularize and legalize their status through work permits or other pathways to legalization here in this country.

Then, of course, you need to look at the long-term implications of migration and say, “That shouldn’t happen over a long period of time,” so therefore, we have to look at trade and development and economic aid policies and tariffs and all of the economic long-term solutions to close the gap between the economies of Mexico and the United States across this border. If you don’t do that, you’re going to have migration for as long into the future as you can see, and that’s not a good solution.

So you have to look at free trade policies that create migration of workers, drive small farmers off the land. You have to look at development and aid policies and economic relationships between the two nations over a long period of time and make the changes that are necessary in order to stabilize the economies and narrow the gap between the two.

Obviously, the US has various temporary worker programs for a long, long time, and there’s a lot of debate about what they should look like. Do you have specific thoughts about how our temporary worker programs should be reformed?

Yeah, there are a number of reforms. Because we tried it; we had a guest worker program between Mexico and the United States called the bracero program, beginning in 1948 and lasted until 1963. So we have lots of experience; we know what the problems were.

One of them was that the work permit was for a specific employer only, so that employer could exploit his workers, and they could not organize or could not move to another employer – because then they would be undocumented. So that work permit has to be portable between employers for a period of time, so that that kind of exploitation doesn’t take place.

And the legislation authorizing the bracero program had good terms in it for things like minimum wage standards, workplace conditions, and housing conditions – those kinds of basic workplace rights for the employees. But there was no monitoring or oversight or enforcement mechanism built into the legislation, so of course, while the legislation said we were going to care about those workplace conditions and workers’ rights, there was no enforcement, and so the exploitation was rampant.

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