By Nancy Wiechec
NOGALES, Ariz. — About 30 miles north of the border with Mexico, seven U.S. bishops and two priests piled out of a small bus just off of I-19 in Arizona.
Jesuit Father Sean Carroll of the Kino Border Initiative was taking them on a short hike in the Sonoran Desert.
“How far are we going?” asked one. “Is this illegal?”
Father Carroll led the way. First they negotiated a steep incline from the road. Then they crouched to scoot through a short tunnel underneath the road. Out of the culvert, they ducked under a barbed-wire fence, careful not to catch their shirts. One bishop lost his balance and took a little spill into tiny pebbles. They continued walking down a bone-dry wash.
Just a few steps down the uneven, gravelly path, they spotted discarded backpacks and socks — remnants from migrants who had passed this way.
The bishops and priests maneuvered past thin thorny branches of the desert brush and over spiny cactuses. Prickles of burr sage attached to pant legs and socks.
Climbing over the edge of the wash, the group stood in the open desert sun. It was only 72 degrees that morning. Even so, skin can burn if it’s not protected and you can quickly dehydrate. In the summer the temperature can soar past 110 degrees.
Father Carroll explained how migrants — many trying to make their way to work or to be with family — lose their lives out here.
Men, women and children from Mexico, other parts of Latin America and beyond perish in the Arizona desert from exposure, dehydration or injury. One advocacy group counts at least 200 who die in such ways each year.
It can take three to five days to walk across the unforgiving desert to pickup points beyond the usual range of the Border Patrol’s monitoring. Many move at night to avoid the extreme heat and to minimize the chances of being caught. But traveling on foot in the dark brings other risks.
As the bishops made their way back to their bus, they stopped for a moment, held hands and prayed for the people who make such dangerous and arduous journeys.
Back on the asphalt, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, said their short hike “brings home the reality” that many migrants face. “It’s very rough territory.”
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Nancy Wiechec is former visual media manager at Catholic News Service.
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Editor’s Note: Click here for more photos. Also see a related story and photos on a Mass celebrated by the bishops one day later at the border.