In my work in the South Tucson community here, I have many conversations and occasional debates about the plight of migrants who cross our southern borders. In southern Arizona issues related to immigration are anything but hypothetical. They are up close and personal.

I decided to let my feet do the talking. I joined 47 persons ranging in age from 18 to 72 to walk the “migrant trail” ― a week-long journey of about 75 miles from Sasabe, Mexico, to Tucson.

We walked the distance many migrants travel to reach the United States. Many do not make it. According to estimates, more than 5,000 persons have died in the southern Arizona desert since the mid-1990s. 

This was not an effort to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” It was not some contrived simulation of the migrants’ experience. We walked to remember, to honor and to bring attention to an atrocious situation exacerbated by misguided American policies, uninformed attitudes and blatant fear-mongering. Responsible and fair immigration policies are a must. Meanwhile, allowing migrants to die in the desert is inexcusable.

As we walked each of us carried a white wooden cross with the name of a person who died along the way. The small cross I carried bore the name of Rosa Maria Arriga-Castillo. Rosa died in 2002 at age 22. She was my age.

A young woman carrying a backpack with a white cross with words on it.

On the “migrant trail” between Mexico and Arizona.

I wondered what Rosa’s life was like. She probably had children of her own whom she left behind in her desperate quest to provide a better life for them. I know she fled violence, because I have come to understand that poverty is its own kind of violence. But her family’s lives and livelihoods could also have been threatened every day by physical violence. 

During the times along the way when I felt like I couldn’t keep walking, I grasped the cross with Rosa’s name painted on it. Somehow, the tension of my hand clenching the cross brought me strength. How ironic. A person of another culture now known to me only by her name had nine years earlier summoned the inner strength to leave her family behind and to undertake the risks of a perilous journey northward in search of a better life, only to have that strength sucked out of her by the unforgiving Arizona desert. Now, something in her strength seemed to be pressed into my hand and into my being.

On the final day we walked the last seven-tenths mile to Tucson’s Kennedy Park in silence. As we reached the park the silence was broken by the cheers and applause of friends, family members and fellow activists who had gathered to greet us. Children ran to be reunited with their mothers, friends exchanged welcoming hugs, and one member of our group who had twisted an ankle was helped to the finish.

Tears began to flow. It was impossible to ignore the extreme contrast of our welcoming compared to the experience of so many migrants. Often their friends and family are back at home waiting anxiously for some word. There are few if any supporters. They don’t arrive from their treacherous journey into the welcoming arms of people or communities. Instead they hide in fear. They are ridiculed, judged and threatened.

After a press conference and a foot-washing ceremony, we placed our crosses at the base of a nearby tree. It was sad to give Rosa’s cross back, but there was a strange peace within me as well. I needed to let her go, to let her rest with the others, knowing I had completed a journey she could not and that I lived while she did not. Yet I also felt that we had made this journey together.

Now her voice tells me I need to carry on, to keep fighting for those who are still walking and for those who will die needlessly and often namelessly. But more importantly to keep fighting for change so that others like her won’t continue to die in the desert. And to keep working toward a day when every mother can care for her children without risking her life to do so.

Asi sea. Let it be.

Meredith Wilkinson is nearing completion of her one-year Young Adult Volunteers ministry with the PC(USA) in South Tucson, Ariz.