The desert is the last place one tends to think a CNU professor would voluntarily venture. The absence of shade from the scorching sunlight and the lack of water characterize an environment where no fair-skinned Nordic descendent should inhabit. Dr. Joseph Healey, tenured Professor of Sociology at CNU, seems to disagree with this premise ever since his first encounters with a problem afflicting the southernmost states of our country.
Being aware of the immigration problem in Arizona, Healey trekked to the southwest hoping to help.
“It was my first trip down there and one of my friends was planning on taking me out into the desert for the day in search of immigrants,” Healey said. “She got a call that two immigrants had wandered into a church in the town of Green Valley, Arizona. They had been pursued by both the border patrol and the minutemen and were being held up in this church. The man and his family had been living around Phoenix for ten years where he was working as a landscaper.
“He had recently crossed the border back into Mexico for his father’s funeral and decided to bring his brother back when they were caught re-crossing. What struck me was that this man had no criminal intentions, he was simply attempting to get back to his family and his job. This was not an educated man, just someone trying to make a living,” Healey said.
For Healey, this firsthand experience left a lasting impression.
“It was an eye-opener for me and it put a face to the problem, with much greater impact than a newspaper or textbook,” Healey said.
For years, Healey has been volunteering with the Samaritans, a humanitarian group based out of Tuscon, Ariz. who patrol the Sonoran Desert and provide help to those that need it.
“In their goal of reduced suffering and death, they put up water in main migration routes within the desert and maintain those water drops and patrol the desert in search of immigrants in need. They offer water, food, first aid, clothes, socks, and shoes to those who need help. Everything they do is legal,” Healy said reassuringly.
The Samaritans are a multi-faceted organization drawing from all walks of political and religious life. “They are republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim,” says Healey.
The organization was founded in 2002 by a group of volunteers who realized the immigration problem has roots in a larger issue. According to Healey, the effort to globalize the worldwide economy has taken a tremendous – and in some cases deadly – toll on small Mexican farmers.
“NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has opened up trade in Mexico which has had negative effects on the economy, shoving many people out of their economic niches and has forced them to migrate north in search for jobs. People ask, ‘what don’t you understand about illegal immigrants?’ and the Samaritans ask, ‘what don’t you understand about starvation?’” Healey said.
But that is just the beginning of the problem. Healey explained that the U.S.’s attempts to curb this issue have created bigger problems.
“Because the U.S. government is concerned about border security, they have shut off the easy ways into the country,” Healey said. “But you can’t curb hunger, so the migrants have been seeking different routes into the country. That means more dangerous crossings such as the Arizonian border where death from lack of water, exposure, snake bites and tarantula bites are a common occurrence across the 60-80 mile walk from the border to the nearest large city,” he said.
“There have always been [people] crossing near the border but not nearly to the extent since NAFTA has been passed. It has created situations in Mexico where people cannot survive and Americans don’t understand the extent of which the situation has been created by forces beyond the control of Mexico,” Healey said with affirmation.
The Samaritans are in contact with the border patrol and work with the law agencies to assist immigrants. “They just want to help people and minimize the number of deaths,” Healey said in an innocent manner.
In a country typified by bureaucratic stagnation and polarized political opinions, the Samaritans’ answer to the problem trumps the failed government attempts at lucrative solutions. The Samaritans’ opinion of government handling of the issue is vicariously expressed through Healey.
To him, the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 – which allows law enforcement officials to request identification of suspected illegal immigrants while conducting, say, a traffic stop – is a reactionary piece of legislature that does not deal with the root of the problem.
The work visa program is too backlogged to be productive in any way. “It takes years. I have heard someone working on a work visa from 1989,” Healey said. “If someone comes to the U.S. on a green card and wants to send for their children, it takes years of paperwork and the temptation to just come illegally is so great,” he said.
The wall, according to Healey, is at best partially effective. The closing of traditional crossing points on the border has exponentially increased the death toll as migrants are forced to find new ways to cross the border.
“It is estimated that for every body found in the desert there are ten more,” Healey explained.
As a professor at CNU for 42 years and a college student during the civil rights era, Healey specializes in minority relations. He has found a sanctuary within the Samaritans, a plethora of humanitarianism he has come to adore.
For Healey, each trip brings about something different: an artifact, be it tangible or a simple memory, of which he can add to an ever-mounting collection of purpose throughout life’s journey.
“I found it while I was in the desert. I have no idea of what happened to the little girl who lost it but it keeps me motivated every day,” expresses Healey.
This will be Dr. Healey’s last semester here at CNU. He is set to retire, yet plans to continue his duties in the sweltering heat of the Arizona desert where the problem will persist and his collections of mementos will continue to gather.