There’s a cemetery in the desert, in a clearing next to the border wall, on the U.S. side, in Douglas, Arizona. Among the gravestones, when one section ends and other begins, in between the orderly rows, there are clusters of cement blocks lodged in the sand, all of them the same, with the same word etched into the surface: Unidentified. Unidentified female, unidentified male, carved into the center of the block, along with a date—“found Aug 9, 2004,” “found Dec 31, 2005,” “found Jan 18, 2009,” “found Feb 12, 2009.” The date marks when the remains were found in the borderland wilderness—perhaps a corpse, perhaps only a skull.
An older version of the grave markers had a different word: “Unknown.” Immigrant advocates petitioned for the change from “unknown” to “unidentified,” because while they don’t know the story of each corpse found in the desert, they do know that that person had a family, that they were a parent’s child, someone’s friend, a beloved to a person who now cries themselves to sleep, wondering where they might be. Every unidentified life buried in the cemetery was known and loved, a beloved child of God.
Last week, after I walked through that cemetery with a group of Mennonite voluntary service workers and pastors, after we lit a candle and offered our prayers for the friends and family who never knew what happened to their loved ones, that God would comfort them, that God would give them peace—after the cemetery, our group joined the weekly vigil at the main border crossing, where local residents remember all the bodies they have found in the desert, on the U.S. side of the wall, in their county, Cochise county, Arizona.
We lined the road from the Mexican border into the U.S. with crosses, each cross with the name of a person whose body was found in the desert—Juan Tovar Hernández, Rosalía Ana Lilia Ramos Reyes, Isaias Sanchez Mayo, Lucina López de Olmos. 310 crosses, with a name written on each one, including lots of crosses with the phrase, “No identificado,” “No identificada,” unidentified.
Each of us took turns calling our their names, and the rest of us would respond by saying, “Presente,” present, declaring that we remember them, that they won’t be forgotten, that we will remind the world of their deaths, that we will remind God, our voices echoing the dead, people who prayed words like we heard in our Psalm for today: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1).
I’ve always been haunted by the story of Cain and Abel in the early chapters of Genesis, the account of the first murder, where Cain goes about his day as if all is well, as if the world is fine—and God interrupts him and says, “Listen. Your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).
At our vigil there at the border last week, one of crosses broke me, when someone read out the name written on it. “Araceli Estrada Lopez y nino”—and my mind invented the scene in the desert when they were found, a flash of horror, of Araceli and her child.
After we said all of their names and held their crosses, a pastor ended our vigil by calling out, “Jesucristo, presente,” four times, first while facing East then North then West then South—calling upon Christ’s presence, there and everywhere: God our creator, our protector, the God of life.
The U.S. estimates nearly 7,000 deaths along the border in the past decade—in the U.S. side. The Mexican government hasn’t provided estimates. Humanitarian organizations know there have been more than 7,000 deaths—because their workers have witnessed a whole landscape of anonymous skeletons and mass graves.
From the beginning of time people have migrated through those lands—to hunt, to follow the crops, guided by the seasons. There have been shifts along the way, of course, due to land wars and trade agreements. The key date in recent history is 1994, during president Clinton’s administration, when the U.S. Border Patrol outlined their new national strategy: “prevention through deterrence,” as it’s called. The policy is clear: Migrants “will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain.” They developed a border enforcement strategy that pushed migrants to most dangerous regions of the desert, to let them die of dehydration, death by exposure. A weaponized wilderness, the desert as the border patrol’s accomplice. A policy of indirect murder, where the U.S. deputized the landscape as a murderous ally.
Border agents can now keep their hands clean while heatstroke and dehydration does the dirty work. No one needs to claim responsibility. They absolve themselves of culpability, as they hunt for water outposts set up by humanitarian organizations. When they discover these oases—covered by mesquite and palo verde trees, hidden among the creosote bushes—border patrol personnel gouge the canisters, emptying the water into the sand. Immigration prevention through deterrence.
In Joshua 24, the people are reminded of God’s provision as they left their homeland, wandered through the wilderness, and finally arrived in a new land, a new home. “I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land,” God says in our passage (Joshua 24:3). God prepares a place for the people, and protects them all along the way—that’s the theme of our passage. “When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt,” God declares to the people,“you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea” (24:6). God remembers them, God never lets them go.
Last week I met a woman who reminds me of what God is like. Her name is Rocío. She’s from Bolivia. A company promised her a work visa in exchange for her labor. She needed the money to support her family, so she made the long journey. When she arrived in the U.S., she worked hard, until she couldn’t handle the abusive conditions, so she went to the immigration office to report a complaint. ICE didn’t care about the boss, but instead held Rocío for questioning, and discovered that the company that brought her to the U.S. from Bolivia provided her with a tourist visa, not a work visa.
So ICE arrested her and sent her to the Eloy detention center in Arizona. An immigration judge set her bail bond at $20,000. She was incarcerated for two years before the pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson met her on one of her visits to the detention center. They found money to bail her out, and they found an immigration attorney. Rocío is now free, and has resident documents. If I were Rocío, I would get back to making a life, far away from the trauma of that detention center.
I met Rocío because she took me to the Eloy Detention Center, a private prison operated by Core Civic an hour’s drive from Tucson. Rocío now organizes visits to the detention center, the same facility where she was imprisoned for those years. Detainees write her letters, asking for a visit, and Rocío brings people from the community to sit with them, to show them that they are not alone, that they aren’t forgotten.
That’s what God is like—the One who remembers us when we are alone, when we are separated from loved ones, when we think no one in the world cares about us. “I go back to that horrible place,” Rocío told me as drove home from our day in Eloy—“I go back there because I know what it feels like for a friend, or even a stranger, to sit with me, to hear my story, to let me know that my life matters. Just to be remembered.”
That’s what God is like—the One who returns to us again and again, to give us what we need to survive, to endure, to sustain our spirits, and to strengthen our hope.
And God brings friends—that’s who we are called to be, friends of God, people who labor with God to remember what this world wants to forget, to draw close to the people our society tries to disappear, to erase from our lives.
“Do not be far from me,” the Psalmist prays, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” That prayer is an invitation—for us who are friends of God, a call to listen, to open our lives, to draw near, to draw close to people who know only loneliness, people our world tries to disappear.
“Do not be far from me,” the Psalmist prays, and people in the deserts pray, and our sisters and brothers calling out from the ground pray: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”
Unidentified life, all around, near and far—no identificada, no identificado. Araceli Estrada Lopez y niño. All of them known and loved by God.