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The ‘Deterrence’ That Only Succeeds at Killing

from the July 13, 2022 Bulletin

migrant deaths and injuries

The ‘Deterrence’ That Only Succeeds at Killing

Mary Ann Kopydlowski grew up in a Michigan working-class family. She’s worked as a nurse on a Navajo reservation and cared for the homeless in Boston. She’s also been active in struggles for Central American solidarity and gay rights. Kopydlowski feels she has a responsibility to use whatever skills she has to fight back against current US immigration policy. She explains why in this updated 2020 interview we did with her

You’ve been volunteering with No More Deaths and the Tucson Samaritans. How did these humanitarian aid programs get started?

Mary Ann Kopydlowski: In the early 2000s, people who lived near the border came across human remains and items left behind like discarded backpacks, clothing, and toothbrushes. They found it horrifying to be hiking in the desert for fun while others were hiking as a matter of life and death. They discovered and mapped a trail system used by the migrants and then started carrying in water and placing the jugs at key points. 

Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

It’s estimated that thousands have died on the Arizona/Mexico border. What makes the Sonoran Desert such a killer?

The border wall! It forces migrants to cross away from towns and spend days walking through remote areas of the desert. If you're fleeing violence, you can’t choose what time of year to go, so you can end up experiencing extreme heat or bitter cold. You face scarce and polluted water sources, treacherous topography, and near-total isolation from possible rescue.

Sometimes the people in a migrant group will get rushed by Border Patrol helicopters. They’ll panic and scatter, causing some to get separated from others and become lost. US officials purposely cause more deaths to stem migration. They call their failed policy prevention through deterrence.” This deterrence” has not stopped people from fleeing, but it does succeed in killing.

No More Deaths also runs a desert camp/first aid station. Did your experience as a community nurse prepare you to provide care?

Migrants routinely suffer everything from sprains and dehydration to blisters that turn into wounds. They also face exposure, heat, and disorientation from vast and remote expanses of wilderness. The No More Deaths camp sits 11 miles from the border, and it’s still a 65-mile walk to Tucson.

My work as a visiting nurse and at Boston Health Care for the Homeless gave me the skills and confidence to work independently without any medical infrastructure around me. And I had learned a lot about foot care, something always needed in the desert. 

Has the situation for migrants changed any over the years?

From no barriers, except the desert itself, came fences first and now walls. Border agents used to consider programs run by Catholics sanctuary spaces, and they left aid stations alone. But not under Trump or Biden. 

In 2020, in the No More Deaths camp, in less than two months we had 30 people arrested while they were getting medical help, and 12 more were rounded up. The Border Patrol tries to sabotage aid efforts. Activists with No More Deaths took a video of an agent mocking them as he dumped out gallons of life-saving water. Volunteers have also been arrested and prosecuted for acting on their humanitarian values.

Has witnessing the inhumanity of US policy been a soul-killing experience?

I’ve met people who moved to Arizona to relax in retirement, but the situation of the migrants passing so close to their homes motivated them to devote themselves to giving aid. I’ve met young people from all over the country who move to Arizona to volunteer. People like these give me hope of a time when human needs take priority over the needs of capital.