Walk to bring attention to migrants' plight - East Valley Tribune: News

Walk to bring attention to migrants' plight

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Posted: Saturday, May 24, 2008 9:21 pm | Updated: 9:15 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's threats of bringing his posse to Mesa make Shana Higa mad. The 30-year-old Mesa resident said the Maricopa County sheriff is targeting people through his anti-immigration sweeps who are not only her neighbors and friends, but also human beings.

"It's easy to catch people with a broken tail light and throw them back to their home country, but has he ever stopped short to think why they're here?" Higa said.

It's not just the "why," but the "how," that bothers Higa enough to join an Arizona coalition in a 75-mile walk near a patch of the Arizona-Mexico border. This is the fifth year that the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, or The Human Rights Coalition, a Tucson-based grass-roots organization, is planning the walk, along with a coalition of like-minded groups. The goal of participants: highlight the reality of those traversing the desert to enter the United States, many of whom die in the process because of the harsh conditions and lack of food and water.

Derechos Humanos organizer Kat Rodriguez blamed the United States' immigration and border policies for pushing people into taking the isolated, harsh illegal path and for the hundreds of bodies found on the borders every year.

She said sealing the traditional border areas to make it harder for people to cross into the U.S. was a "strategic government tactic" to make it easier for the Border Patrol to catch them and for some people to die.

"We've factored death into our immigration strategy."

They don't support open borders. Instead, a policy change at the federal level - one that recognizes the need for skilled and unskilled labor in the U.S. and fixes the legal route for those workers to get here - would work.

"We need to stop pretending that this is some shocking, scary thing," Rodriguez said. "It's not about us supporting illegal immigration," Rodriguez said. "It's about recognizing that it's a reality and it happens across the world."

Phoenix resident Melissa Rodis, who's walked the trail before, said some participants have received death threats in the past and there's no lack of people who scoff at this notion.

"People come to us and say people wouldn't die if they just chose to stay in their country, but they don't try to see why they would want to go through this process," Rodis said.

The threats haven't deterred them. About 70 people will do the entire walk from Sasabe in Sonora to Tucson, covering 12 to 15 miles each day.

Higa, a lawyer and first-time participant, said she can't forget the story of a father who was trying to enter the U.S. through the desert along with his daughter. They hid behind a bush after the Border Patrol spotted them. The daughter was run over by a Border Patrol vehicle and the father was charged with endangering his child.

"Those were serious felonies for a father who was trying to provide a better life for his family," Higa said. "I think it's tragic that people have to resort to such extreme measures to make a better life for themselves."

The roots go deeper.

Higa, a U.S. citizen herself, has an immigrant father from Peru.

Her brother-in-law is from El Salvador. She's had to help her sister go through the legal immigration system - "a long, tedious and unnerving process."

Higa said as an attorney, she knows the law, so she could help her family, but there are many who don't have the same means.

Higa said she wants to dispel misconceptions people have - the biggest one being that illegal immigrants are all criminals or "bad people."

"Sheriff Joe and his patrols and his policies spread that view," she said.

Arpaio told the Tribune Saturday that he hadn't heard about the coalition's walk near the Arizona-Mexico border.

"I won't care too much about it," he said.

Arpaio said illegal activity is all he cares about.

"When they cross the border and come into Arizona and if they are without proper documents, they are criminals - they have violated the law," Arpaio said, referring to illegal immigrants.

Higa brushed aside the "perception" that immigrants steal American jobs or that they feed off the welfare system, saying they pay taxes without being able to file tax returns.

"There are laws now that prevent anyone without proper documents to get any sort of public assistance," Higa said.

Rodis said she is again participating in the walk this year.

"These are people that are coming here and they all want to be part of American society, but dying to have to get here is such a tragedy," she said.

Rodis said she knows there are people who think differently.

"I know what I believe in my heart and if I can wake even one person a little bit to the realities of people dying, people with families, then I've gotten done what I wanted to do," she said.

Part of the walk would be along the trail illegal immigrants use.

Rodis said in the past, people have pulled over from the side of the road and joined the walk.

"Then there are those who drive by and give us the middle finger," Rodis said.

But there have been no counter-protesters yet.

Rodis said most of the people who do the walk support laws that would allow illegal immigrants to come to the U.S. - legally.

There also are some people who are against immigration in general and want there to be less immigration into Arizona, but they don't want to see people dying either.

Chris Simcox, founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corp., a border watchdog group, believes there are legal ways for people to enter the country through work visas.

"So their premise is inaccurate," Simcox said.

He added that Mexico needs to improve its economic opportunities so people wouldn't want to come to the U.S.

"I talk to thousands of illegal aliens who'd much rather stay home," Simcox said.

Simcox said if anything, people should advocate reform in Mexico and in Washington, D.C.

His group's not paying any attention to the weeklong event, he said.

"Walking and marching might make them feel better, but it does nothing for those who die and suffer," Simcox said. a U.S. citizen, said there's just something about the story of people trying to cross borders to find economic opportunities and the stories behind their struggles that prompted her to join the walk.

"Mesa is supposedly next and I want people to be able to see not only what the sheriff does but to say illegal immigrants are human, just like you and I, and they don't deserve to die."

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