The small blue and white stripes of the wrinkled, abandoned pants were barely discernible through the layers of dirt. It took several vigorous shakes to piece everything together: stripes, elastic waistband, small – really small pants.

These were the pants of a child, larger than a toddler, smaller than a teen. The volunteers picking up trash in this desolate stretch near the Arizona-Mexico border debated how old the owner of the pants was. Ultimately, we guessed – 11.

Rebekah Parsons CLICK IMAGE TO VIEW
Scroll over this interactive picture to see border pollution facts.

When the discussion of the pants died down, they were simply balled up and thrown into a fluorescent green trash bag. But even from inside the bag, I could see the pants. Their imagery had been burned into my mind. How could someone so young be out here?

I had no answers but many questions. Moreover, I had no idea that picking up trash could so profoundly impact me.

As research for my depth reporting class, part of the Southwest Borderlands Initiative, I joined volunteers from the Tucson-based Humane Borders to pick up what immigrants had left behind in their illegal journeys across the border.

As we waited in a nearly full parking lot, we wondered what we might find. Doug Ruopp, the operations manager for Humane Borders, prepped us and answered our questions. Then we off in a convoy to the Ironwood Forest National Monument, located outside Marana, Ariz.

Everyone was silent, whether out of anticipation, fear
or reverence. Soon we found what we were looking for as we
ventured off the trail—there was trash everywhere.

Over seven miles of rugged road, the convoy made its way through mountains with names like Ragged Top and Sawtooth.

When we arrived at the meeting grounds, everyone was issued green trash bags and gloves. Then we split into groups. I chose one that ventured deeper into the desert.

The Ironwood Forest, Ruopp explained, is home to an old mine known among immigrants as Las Minas, as well as power lines which run almost perfectly north and south. These man-made markers help to guide people who have decided to take this route into Arizona.

Ruopp said it’s an area where immigrants shed their traveling clothes for ones they believe will look “more American” before they are picked up for transport by their smugglers or “coyotes.”

We slowly began our trek into the desert in single file, making our way around trees, over sandy creek beds and jagged rocks. Everyone was silent, whether out of anticipation, fear or reverence.

Soon we found what we were looking for as we ventured off the trail – there was trash everywhere.

Water jugs, tuna cans, baseball caps, broken shoelaces, t-shirts and backpacks. With each item found, our curiosity was piqued. Each piece of paper was scoured for information, every pocket was checked, every zipper unzipped. No one had been given instructions to do more than pick up the trash, yet each item triggered more intrigue. Who are these people? Where are they today?

As we ventured further into the desert, the welcoming morning sun turned harsh, and the intriguing outing became more revealing. Heat was taking its toll. Muscles began to ache and many in the group began to find ourselves in shoes of those we were cleaning up after.

A small step on a jagged rock left my foot throbbing and each step became more of a struggle. My water supply, which I had thought to be more than enough, was diminished to nothing as the sun beat down. What seemed like a small hike was turning into a hellish trip that seemed to last forever.

Everyone was tired. We no longer were curious about the lives of these unknown souls but instead became concerned about our own vulnerability in the desert.

On the hike back to the cars, the rocks became larger, the creeks became wider and our legs weaker. Three people fell. It seemed everyone was close to giving up.

We hiked less than five miles in four hours. It wasn’t particularly hot by September-in-Arizona standards but it made the reality of the immigrants’ journeys all the more evident.

The small glimpse into the world of illegal immigrants left many in the group with altered views. The aching muscles, the inability to quench your thirst, the shivers from winds hitting your sweaty body: what was our four-hour adventure is their stark reality.

CLICK IMAGE TO VIEW MAP
Follow the author’s journey from Tucson to the Ironwood Forest National Monument in Marana, Ariz.

As we struggled with our thoughts and feelings, attempting to drink as much water as possible, I thought of the pants. Soon someone else did, too, raising the issue for discussion. How could pants so small be out here? Do people bring their children with them?

We would never find the answers. But what surely was established that day, as many volunteers shed tears over the experience, was that the immigration issue is not merely colored in black and white as many would like to believe. Instead it is blue and white striped.


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THE CRONKITE ZINE SHOWCASES THE COURSEWORK OF INDIVIDUAL STUDENTS AT THE WALTER CRONKITE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND MASS COMMUNICATION, ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY.