The Border Songs CD is a compilation of spoken word and music addressing the catastrophic effects of US border policy. The CD was officially released October 12, 2012. We hope to raise nearly $100,000 for No More Deaths / No Más Muertes.
The Border Songs CD is available online at Twenty dollars from each sale goes directly to No More Deaths/No Más Muertes.

Border Songs is Three-years Old! October 12, 2015

It’s been three years since we launched Border Songs into the world on Oct. 12, 2010, at a standing-room-only concert at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, AZ. In the meantime, much has happened. First and foremost, we have essentially sold all of the albums—5,000 double albums!—and we gave every cent of the proceeds to No More Deaths / No más muertes ( Each album that we sold generated $20 for No More Deaths which provides enough money for No More Deaths to buy 29 gallons of water. That’s roughly $100,000 for humanitarian aid—or, expressed differently, nearly 145,000 gallons of water (or the equivalent in food, medical aid or blankets) for people in extreme need.

In this way we helped further No More Deaths’ mission of “Ending death and suffering in the Arizona / Mexico borderlands.” I have personally met several people who told me that they would have died had they not found water left in the desert by humanitarians. I get weak in the knees every time I hear that. It hits home. It becomes real. Unfortunately, this crisis is real.

People—men, women and children—continue to suffer and die all along the US/Mexico border, including in Arizona. Last year 133 dead bodies were found in the Tucson sector, an increase from 122 the year before. And keep in mind that these are just the bodies found. If you’ve seen the desert you know—as we stated in the Border Songs booklet, the area is vast and many, perhaps most, of those who perish are never found. We can take some solace in knowing that few of these bodies were found in the immediate area where No More Deaths works. No More Deaths makes a difference. Humanitarian aid is never a crime!

Three years in and I still cannot believe the breadth and scope of the Border Songs album. We brought together work by artists from Aztlán, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and all over the United States. Border Songs unites poets, performance artists, sound sculptors, writers and musicians. I probably said it a thousand times while hawking the album at Farmers’ Markets and festivals, “It’s the most eclectic album in the world!” Border Songs crosses from Spanish to English, from spoken word to music, from hip hop to cumbia, from mariachi to Central American New Song, from mambo to rock, acoustic instrumental guitar to country, from folk songs to animal fables, to the vibrations of border wall itself. Border Songs is an almost impossibly eclectic mixture, but it works because it’s all held together by a proclamation, respect for and defense of the dignity of human beings regardless of their ethnicity or the country where they were born.

In addition to the humanitarian aid that Border Songs helped to fund, the album has generated a great amount of thought, awareness and discussion. It’s as if Border Songs is an album of seeds—growing and reproducing awareness about the humanitarian crisis taking place on our border all over the world. I am happy to report that there are Border Songs albums in every state of the U.S. (with the possible exceptions of North and South Dakota). There are albums throughout Latin America, and Europe, even in places as remote as Iceland, India, Japan and Kazakhstan. The album was broadcast in its entirety by radio stations in Mexico City and Australia. I learned recently that a track from the album was played at an event in the Pompidou Center in Paris. Border Songs crosses borders!

Over the last three years artists from the album presented a series of events and concerts with music, art and spoken word—powerful experiences for all of those present, including the artists and the audiences.

Sadly, in the three years since we released the album we lost three contributors:

  • Pete Seeger, passed at 94 years old. He chopped wood up until eight days before he died. I think that every single contributor to the album was, and is, incredibly honored to have participated in a compilation with one of the most influential musicians in the history of American folk music. Pete Seeger was not only an influential musician, he was a man of conviction who, when interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the Mccarthy era, refused to discuss the communists with his inquisitors and instead offered to sing them his songs. Pete Seeger believed in justice. To think that we created a project that Pete Seeger endorsed, celebrated and participated in is, simply put, mind blowing! Pete Seeger knew that no human being is illegal.
  • Charles Bowden passed unexpectedly. He left this earth without warning, but before departing he left in print a vast cannon of border writing that helps to draw attention to the complexity of this sometimes forgotten frontier. The fact that Border Songs includes an audio recording of Chuck’s unique and evocative voice, in the desert, on the border, helps keep his voice present today. “There are no Mexican stars or American stars,” growels Charles Bowden while looking into the sky above the border on Border Songs, “it’s like a great biological unity with a meat cleaver of law cutting it in half.”
  • Cyril Barrett was taken from us way too young. Cyril had volunteered with No More Deaths and the beautiful song he contributed to Border Songs, “Coyotes of Sasabe” reflects the musical memories of someone who knew, intimately, the trails that migrants and No More Deaths volunteers walk. Though we didn’t know Cyril before he sent us his submission, we became friends over the course of producing the album. He played with us at three concerts, in Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucson, and he peddled albums while playing out in Tucson. “Which way to go nobody knows it’s north and east a little,” sings Cyril on the album, as if simultaneously describing the disorientation of refugees in the desert and, metaphorically, our own confusion at figuring out what to do to fix this awful situation. I spoke with Cyril by phone a week or two before he passed. It seemed pretty clear that he was on his way out. I didn’t know what to say. I told him how many albums we had sold and he laughed with joy. I felt happy that Border Songs could bring some relief to Cyril at a moment when his outlook was really bleak.

Looking back over the last three years, I cannot believe how much this project enriched my own life. I made so many friends, from contributors to the album and people who worked to prepare the package, to people who participated in the Border Songs concert/events in Flagstaff, Sedona, Phoenix and Tucson. Never in a million years did I imagine myself playing and singing in concerts, sometimes to audiences in excess of two hundred people. Thanks to John Tannous and his team for giving us the support of the Coconino Center for the Arts, and Chad Hammill and the Center for Indigenous Music and Culture for procuring us quality sound at each of those shows.

I’ve continued to write border songs of my own all of this time. Though I never thought of myself as a “songwriter” before the album, I’ve now written eight of my own border songs, and performed many of them at concerts. Even when singing them to myself in my living room I feel these stories deeply. The crisis on the border has occupied my soul. I have even written poetry about the border.

There are way too many people who helped with this project to thank everyone. If I tried to thank all who have helped and deserve recognition you would stop reading before getting a third of the way through this blog. That said, I at least want to thank a few people who made enormous contributions. First and foremost, thanks to my co-producer, Chuck Cheesman (“Uphill: American Dream”), who came up with the crazy idea to make a CD for No More Deaths in the first place. Chuck insisted we put my song, “Voluntary Return” on the album—it’s his fault!—and I am amazed to this day to be part of a compilation with this group of people.

I never would have written “Voluntary Return” if No More Deaths volunteer Christa Sadler hadn’t offered to help me take a group of students on a field trip to the border in 2010. Before that first trip I had an academic understanding of the border and undocumented immigration. On the border, while meeting the people I describe in that song, I was hit in the gut so hard that my song emerged. Christa and I kept taking groups to the border, and Christa started taking other groups from Northern Arizona University and Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy. Before we knew it, and with a cohort of supporters at each of these institutions, we had started an unofficial Border Field Trips program in Flagstaff, Arizona. I first heard Christa sing while out at the No More Deaths Byrd Camp in the desert and at the shrine of Josselyn, a child who tragically lost her life while crossing. Christa’s voice is the last track you hear on each of the discs.

After we announced the Border Songs Project with an online “Call for Songs,” people contacted us and offered to help. Christa Agostino contacted me from Prescott, like mana from heaven, and asked if we had a graphic designer. She, like everyone else involved in the album, donated her time and created a slew of different design options. Shawn Skabelund, worked behind the scenes on many parts of the album (and the planning committee of the Beyond the Border: The Wall the People and the Land exhibit at the Coconino Center for the Arts which ended up bringing a great deal of the album art to the project), Christa Agostino, Chuck, and I negotiated and fretted over the package until, miraculously, we settled on the killer design, with Raoul Deal’s incredible art on the cover, and Michael Hyatt’s and Rex Koningsor’s and Shawn’s photographs, a collection of images that makes Border Songs a visual, as well as a sonorous, work of art. It took a village to produce this album.

Bill Carter, a friend of a friend, appeared out of nowhere and offered to invite several internationally known musicians and writers to contribute to the album. The artists readily agreed, but when some of the record labels started to flex their muscles about permissions, Bill didn’t give up until he procured gratis rights to the songs. I’m proud to have worked with a such a generous and talented film-maker/writer.

Then folk musician/producer Ted Warmband (“Who’s the Criminal Here”), contacted me to ask if we’d like to have some incredibly well-known musicians on the album. Not only did Ted help to make the album the extraordinary compilation that it is, he also played in four Border Songs concerts, in Flagstaff and Tucson, and helped me produce other concerts. He has even come to sing to my students while we’re on field trips. Most importantly for me, Ted has become a dear friend.

Flagstaff artists Matt Hall (aka, m. henry) and Pachuco & Classik filled incredible niches in the album’s wide angle scope. They all, generously, performed in multiple presentations. Matt performed all over Arizona with us, making people laugh, smile and then think, about the selfish purpose behind the border wall. Pachuco & Classik showed us, through hip hop, the complexity of young people’s experience of living in the U.S. without documents. This reality became doubly manifest when Pachuco decided he could not play at the release concert in Tucson for fear of driving through Phoenix where he might be detained by the authorities. We can breathe easier knowing that Pachuco received his papers and can now travel safely.

Glenn Weyant, my border-wall playing sound sculptor friend has also been there throughout to help push this project and to help resonate sonically in an ever-expanding soundscape. Glenn too has spoken in Flagstaff, participated in concerts and has met with my students and, most memorably for me, invited us to join him in the largest group ensemble performances of the world’s largest most expensive and most lethal instrument—the border wall. Glenn insistently blogged about Border Songs to his followers in the sonicsphere. And every time Glenn gives an interview to a journalist from anywhere in the world he tells them about Border Songs!

We’re grateful to all of the contributing artists, but Scott Ainslie, Katia Cardenal, Eliza Gilkyson and Joel Rafael made extra generous efforts to promote Border Songs. Katia (from Dúo Guaradabarranco) came to Flagstaff with her daughter Nina to perform as featured performers at Border Songs first anniversary concert. Scott and Eliza carried albums with them on tour to sell. Joel dedicated an entire day of his radio show to interview me about Border Songs and to play the music from the album. Joel told me that Border Songs is the best project for a cause he’s ever been involved in. I can definitely say the same thing!

Here’s a true confession: I, naively, thought it would be easy to sell 5,000 albums . I innocently believed that NPR, Terry Gross and Dianne Rheim would all interview us and the albums would sell like hotcakes. I know that there are millions of people on this earth who would gladly buy a $20 album to save lives. And yet, unfortunately, millions of people never heard about Border Songs. Though I gave interviews about the album at every opportunity throughout the country, we never got picked up by that top layer of national press that could and would have sold out the album in a couple of months. When I looked at the original stack of the first 2,000 CDs in my garage, and realized that they could be there forever, I kind of panicked. The thought that I had begged people to donate some $9,000 to make the album (thank you, once again, to all who donated and helped us to fundraise!), and that these albums might just gather dust in my garage forever was completely terrifying. In response, I became obsessed with selling the album. I consciously embraced a cartoon-character persona, constantly challenging myself to sell an album to every caring person with whom I came into contact. I wouldn’t go to a doctor or dentist appointment without giving the folks in the office the opportunity to purchase an album. I couldn’t sit on an airplane without finding a way to bring up the border and try to sell Border Songs to the people beside me. It worked! I sold albums in cafés in Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and supershuttles in New York City. I sold the album to my vet, my roofer and everyone in-between. My kids were mortified to see me in sales mode, but, knowing that my goal was to save lives, they shouldered the embarrassment as best they could. My personal record on a plane was six albums sold to a woman who bought them to give away as Christmas gifts.

And I had a LOT of help. So many people helped to sell the album, it’s impossible to mention a fraction of them, but I want to at least thank those who believed in this project so much that they stuck with it time and time again. Reyna Cárdenas, Jude Costello, Nate Edenhofer, Conrad Felix, Erika Hess, Alleigha Keeling, Sarah Larsen, Mollie Muchna, Emily O’Neil, Brandon Pence, Alyosha Sándoval—these folks, and MANY others, would table at events all over Flagstaff and would talk to people about the border and Border Songs. We learned a lot about people while selling the album. It wasn’t always pretty. I’ll never forget the time a guy told Reyna to go back to Mexico. She cried, took some deep breaths and went right back to selling CDs. Once a guy told me that we ought to post a guard every quarter mile on the border and “shoot every last one that comes across.” “I guess you don’t want to buy an album,” I responded. Usually though, people were supportive if we could get their attention. The challenge was to get people to stop and talk—if you don’t engage them, people will walk right past you at your table. Thanks to the Flagstaff Community Market for letting us sell so many times at the market, and the Museum of Northern Arizona for letting us sell at the Day of the Dead celebraciones. Thank you to Rand Jenkins for letting us sell at the Hullabaloo and Conucopia festivals. Thanks to the Ballet Folklórico de Colores, especially Jessica Kitterman, for the long-term loan of their tent which protected us from the elements. Thank you to Marisol for helping us get a booth at the Latin American Studies Association congresses. Thank you Tracey Goode, for inviting us to play a concert at sell at the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies Association conference in Tucson. Thank you to the stores from Oregon to New York, who sold the album and supported the cause.

While tabling, we realized that the album was more than an object to sell. Border Songs, for us, became an opening, an opportunity to talk with people about the humanitarian catastrophe on our border. And since the reality is so hidden behind a discursive wall of bla bla, and since everyone is so busy now a days, many people right here in Arizona have no idea what’s going on. Over the last three years we asked thousands of people if they had heard about Border Songs and we showed them photographs of little girls who died in the desert, and death maps, and we told them that over 7,000 human remains have been found since 1994 and that these are just the bodies found . . . While trying to engage with people, we amused ourselves by profiling them. We would look at the crowd and try to figure out who would be interested in talking and who wouldn’t. Often, people would surprise us. Occasionally, you’d be sure that someone would be with “us” and they would start talking about illegal this and illegal that, shake their heads and march off in disgust. Other times, someone we might think would be anti-immigrant would turn out to be strongly supportive of the project and compassionate. Students, we sometimes thought, hardly ever bought the album, but we would still talk to them. One day a young man looked up at me with tears in his eyes. “I have to buy this,” he told me, “my parents crossed that border!”

We relearned, over and over, the old adage that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Sometimes people’s reactions were thick with irony. “Have you heard about the Border Songs CD?,” I would ask at a festival to get a passerby’s attention. “Sorry man, I’m dying of thirst” more than one told me, hurrying to buy a beer or a drink and having no idea just how ironic their get-me-out-of-here response could be in this particular case. And fortunately, many people asked questions, and people gave donations, and some cried, and some got mad, and some hugged us, and quite a few bought albums to listen to or give away to their friends. And all along we kept sending money to No More Deaths in Tucson and Phoenix. And we learned that just because people are conservative doesn’t mean that they want people to die in the desert. I sold albums to Tea Party people who told me that they didn’t agree with me about politics but that they didn’t want folks to die in the desert. (I wrote about that once in a blog called “Finding Common Ground.”)

Anyway, long story short, today Border Songs is three years old today. There is just a handful of albums left online (see purchase links), and No More Deaths has a few, but that’s all that remain for sale out of the 5,000 cds that we made. Personally, it’s quite an adjustment for me not to have any more albums to sell. When I meet someone friendly I sort of twitch internally, I instinctively feel like I ought to sell this person an album. Then I remember that I have none to sell, I’m not that album selling guy any more . . . I need to find other ways to communicate with people now. Stay tuned, we’ll figure something out. Thanks again, for everything!

Robert Neustadt

October 12, 2015

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Crossing different kinds of borders . . .

People often ask me how I came to be so passionate about immigration, and what brought me to produce Border Songs. I usually tell the short version of the story. In 2010, I began taking students on field trips to the Arizona/Mexico border. Looking into the eyes of deported people and listening to their stories made a huge impact on me. I, alongside my students, felt shell-shocked after encountering raw human suffering at its most basic level. The people we met—poor people seeking work, food and a better life—did nothing to deserve such suffering.

At an aid station in Nogales, Sonora (Mexico), we met Ruth, a woman from Oaxaca who had left her 5 children with a neighbor and left to cross the border. Instead of finding work, she was detained and locked up in a Border Patrol holding cell. I interpreted Ruth’s story while my students listened. She said that there was a sign in the cell: “If you need food, water or medical care, tell an agent and you will be provided for.” She said it wasn’t true. After four terrifying days running through the desert she was given only two packages of crackers and a cup a juice. She could barely walk, yet they told her that she could wait and get medical assistance in Mexico after being deported. When we met her, she didn’t have any money, or any idea how she could get back to her children. She said that she would probably attempt to cross again, to find work cutting lettuce in California, because she didn’t know what else to do. I looked up while interpreting—every one of my students had tears streaming down their faces. In some ways, Border Songs was born when I first looked into Ruth’s eyes. She found her way into a song I wrote, “Voluntary Return.” I played that song for my friend Chuck Cheesman, and he suggested we make an album.

This is how the album came about, but there were other eyes, many years before, that also contributed to make me the person that I am. When I graduated from college one of my housemates told me that her boyfriend worked for the US Department of Immigration Review and that there was a job opening for a Spanish-speaking court interpreter. I was excited by the possibility of a job for which I would use my Spanish. What a great way to begin my post-college life!


The application process involved several months of paperwork and they finally invited me to an interview. I cut my hair. I put on a sports jacket. I went to the interview in downtown Chicago, excited to prove my worth as a Spanish speaker.

Shortly after I arrived my interviewer explained the process: “We’re fortunate,” he said, “we have apprehended an illegal alien so today we’ll have you interpret the interrogation as part of your interview.” In hindsight, my innocence amazes me. Until that moment I had never really thought about what the job I was applying for would entail. I thought it would be fun to be paid to speak Spanish. My heart sank to my stomach as I looked at a very sad, slightly pudgy, Mexican man. I looked into his eyes and wanted to tell him that I was not with “them,” these people who were detaining him. I resisted this urge, I was being observed. I held my tongue and interpreted the interrogation to the best of my abilities. My memory of the interview haunts me to this day.

Interviewer: Where did you cross the border?

Detainee: Por el agua. (Through the water).

Interviewer: Did you purchase a ticket on a commercial maritime vessel?

Detainee: Long pause, blank look, then he answered, No.

Interviewer: Then how did you come?

Detainee: Through the water.

Interviewer: What do you mean, “through the water”?

Detainee: I crossed through the water, like everyone. [I assume he crossed the Rio Grande river into Texas].

Interviewer: Where are you from?

Detainee: Soy de un lugar que se llama, “Salsipuedes” (I’m from a place called Salsipuedes).

I wondered to myself, is this a trap? Salsipuedes means “Leave if you can.” There are towns called Salsipuedes in Mexico. Still I wondered, were they testing my Spanish? I translated, and mentioned as an aside that the name of his town translates to “Leave if you can.” Was this coincidental irony? I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to leave.

As the interrogation proceded the man started to give less and less information in his answers. “No me acuerdo” (I don’t remember), he repeated over and over, “No me acuerdo.” The interviewer became annoyed and at one point barked, You seem to have memory problems. Have you ever been treated for memory loss by a licensed medical professional?” I couldn’t believe I had to translate such nonsense. My interviewer, the detainee’s interrogator, was a jackass. I hated the interrogation and by extension my interview. Everything in me wanted to leave. I felt dirty, as if I’d been sullied by the experience of participating in that interrogation. I dug deep and completed my interview.

A week later he called to tell me that I had done an excellent job. They would be offering me the job, he assured me, I only needed to submit a list of my friends and family, so that they could complete an FBI background check and the job would be mine. I thanked him, and said that I no longer wanted to be considered for the job. “Why?” he asked, expressing surprise in his tone. I understood his confusion, we had been corresponding for months and each step along the way we were always pointing towards the moment when I would be offered the position.

“The objectives of the US Department of Immigration Review and my personal job objectives are not compatible,” I responded.

“Any elaboration on that?” he asked.

“I think what you guys do is immoral,” I replied. Click. I didn’t look back. Not for a long time. Not for 26 years.

What is interesting to me now, as I recall this episode, is that I turned my back on the experience and did my best to forget it. I did not become a court interpreter for the Department of Immigration Review. Nor did I become an immigration activist. At the time, I don’t think I knew much about what was occurring with regard to undocumented immigration (and conditions were certainly not nearly so dire as they are today). I sided, intuitively, with poor migrants who were and are manipulated by the system but the extent of my knowledge was limited. And it stayed relatively limited. Although I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on a performance artist working on the border, I really didn’t understand the human dimension of the crisis until I took that first trip with my students in 2010. In the meantime, the situation had become much, much worse—to the point that our immigration policies have created a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. Now we funnel people through the Sonoran desert and remote areas of Texas. Thousands have died. Those who survive the journey work like slaves. If they get detained we funnel them through for-profit prisons prior to deportation.

Each day on the field trip further shattered my soul. The trip culminated in the Tucson Federal Courthouse where we observed an Operation Streamline hearing. 70 detained migrants, in handcuffs, ankle shackles and chains, were given a group hearing. Most of the detainees were shuffled in and out without saying more than a few yes’s, no’s and pleading culpable (guilty). One case was explained, however, and it seared my soul. A detainee’s wife had recently lost a baby. She had become pregnant again, and called him at work to tell him that she was bleeding. “He panicked,” his lawyer explained, “he knows he shouldn’t have driven, but he drove his wife to the hospital.” I listened in disbelief while a court interpreter repeated these words back to the detainee. Culpable. He was sent to (a for-profit) prison for 90 days of incarceration, before deportation, for driving his bleeding wife to the hospital. As he shuffled out of the courtroom, on his way to prison, he walked right in front of us. I tried to look him, and all of the prisoners, in the eyes. I said nothing—one is not allowed to speak to the prisoners. Like that time in Chicago I tried silently to communicate my solidarity. This man too, found his way into my song.

I guess I ended up an interpreter after all. From these stories and experiences came my song, “Voluntary Return,” and from that song, and Chuck Cheesman’s vision, and the efforts of a slew of musicians, writers, artists, photographers, designers and volunteers, came Border Songs. That’s the long version.

We made 5,000 albums and have given all of the money to No More Deaths / No más muertes. Each sale = $20 for No More Deaths, that’s enough money to put 29 gallons of water in the desert. Or the equivalent in food, blankets or medical supplies.

We’re down to the last few cases. Get it while you can and thanks for your support.

Humanitarian aid is never a crime!

Robert Neustadt

March, 2015

“Voluntary Return”

Pancho lived for nine of his years

Turning the gears of Las Vegas

Casinos, . . . He worked construction
He met himself a woman and moved right in They had a daughter, a family in, Las Vegas

It was the American Dream
Till he was driving to work and a bag flew out

The police pulled him over and they through him out of the country

He got deported.

They called it “Voluntary Return.”

Now he’s stuck in Nogales without a dime Convicted says the Migra of a heinous crime “Illegal Entry”

and even worse, “Working,” not a good thing to do.

Ángel too he committed a crime

He drove his bleeding wife to the hospital alive, Without a license.
Not a good thing to do.

He stood before the judge, his hands shackled to his feet
She asked for his plea in a streamline beat

He said, “culpable”
She gave him 90 days.
90 days in a for-profit jail,
then he’ll go out to a land of no opportunity He’ll get deported.
They’ll call it “Voluntary Return”

They dumped her in Nogales, a woman named Ruth Five kids in Oaxaca, barely a roof

They’re with a neighbor.

They miss their mom.

Four days in the desert, she walked and she ran

Till her feet were so blistered, black and tan

She couldn’t walk more.

And she didn’t feel like talking.
They threw her in a cell, they locked her up tight

They gave her some crackers and juice at night

At three in the morning, pushed her over the line. They called it, “Voluntary Return.”

And our boys in a green they “go out to play” Chasing the dark folks out of the state There’s dope they say.
Dopes on the border, our Border Patrol

What can we do about homeland security? What can we do about national security? What can we do about border security? What can we do?

How ‘bout “Voluntary Return”?

©℗ Robert Neustadt

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Deaths in the Desert caused by US Migration Policy

Here is a new (written) interview of Robert Neustadt with Mark Karlin of Truthout/Buzzflash. It’s a comprehensive discussion about US border policies, conditions and consequences that make up our current crisis. Please share this with anyone you think would be interested, and/or anyone who needs to learn about the crisis which all-too-often remains hidden, “in the dark,” outside of public view!

Today’s BuzzFlash at Truthout commentary is an interview with Robert Neustadt – a professor of Spanish at Northern Arizona University – who cofounded Border Songs, a group that supports saving the lives of migrants from Mexico who often perish from the harsh desert conditions trying to make it into Arizona. You can help the humanitarian efforts of providing migrants in scorching heat with water, food and support by getting a Border Songs double CD set from Border Songs. All proceeds go directly to the humanitarian group: No More Deaths/No Más Muertes (NMD) to provide volunteer assistance such as placing filled water containers in the Sonoran Desert.

MARK KARLIN: Why do so many migrants die trying to cross into the US through Arizona? Hasn’t the US created border enforcement strategies that force people to cross through a broiling desert?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: Yes, there is no question that US government border enforcement strategies have resulted in an enormous increase in border crosser deaths. In 1994, the US government explicitly adopted a strategy called “enforcement through deterrence”, which was outlined in a Border Patrol position paper. The strategy was to seal off the easy-to-cross urban areas near El Paso, Tijuana and Nogales by building walls, ramping up Border Patrol presence, adding more sensors, technology, and recently, patrolling with drones, while leaving open swaths of remote, hazardous back country. By closing the urban areas where people traditionally crossed, enforcement pushes undocumented border crossers into desert and mountain terrain in Arizona (and Texas). This “funnel effect” is clearly a primary factor that results in migrant deaths, and has been acknowledged by everyone from policy makers to humanitarians.

During the early 1990’s, the number of border crosser deaths examined per year by the Pima County Medical Examiner in Arizona varied between 5 and 11. In the year 2010, following construction of almost 700 miles of wall and a huge increase in the number of Border Patrol agents and enforcement technology, they examined 225 human remains in the same office. I find it profoundly disturbing that most people have no idea of the scope of this crisis. These statistics are all readily available and confirmable, but you have to seek them out because the media does not cover the issue sufficiently. Since 1994, they have found over 7,000 human remains in the borderlands, the majority of these in Arizona, and this number only represents the number of bodies found! The actual number of border crosser deaths is almost certainly significantly higher though the bodies were never found.

Currently, the morgue in Tucson houses over 900 unidentified human remains of presumed border crossers. Marc Silver’s documentary film, Who is Dayani Cristal (with Gael Garcia Bernal, 2013) emphasizes the severity of the issue.

This situation is a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe, and US government border enforcement strategy is directly implicated in the dramatic increase in deaths. Even more disturbing is the fact that the number of undocumented border crossers has dropped precipitously while the rate of deaths has remained relatively steady. This means that the chance that someone will die while crossing the border has sky-rocketed, and this is a direct result of our efforts to “secure the border.” This is compounded by the fact that we have deported over two million people since Obama has been in office. Many of these people will attempt to cross to rejoin their families.

MARK KARLIN: How does the humanitarian group No More Deaths/No Más Muertes try to prevent the loss of life and provide compassionate care to the survivors?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: The mission of No More Deaths/No Más Muertes is “to end death and suffering in the Arizona/Mexico borderlands.” The primary causes of death in the borderlands are hyperthermia (heat stroke) in the summer and hypothermia (freezing to death) in the winter. The lack of water in the Sonoran desert is a major problem which leads directly to death and suffering. No More Deaths caches gallon jugs of water, as well as food and blankets, on trails that are frequented by migrants.

In addition, No More Deaths has a base camp in the desert that is staffed by volunteers 24/7, 365 days per year. They have a medical tent and offer food, water, first aid and medical care to anyone in need. No More Deaths also provides care for recently deported people on the Mexican side of the border. And they interview deported people and conduct research about abuse suffered by migrants while in custody of US Immigration authorities. In 2011 NMD published a report entitled Culture of Cruelty,

in which they documented approximately 30,000 cases of reported abuse. More recently, in 2015, NMD published a report entitled Shakedown, in which they detail how authorities take the money and possessions away from migrants when they are imprisoned and subsequently deported. In the desert, NMD aims to limit death and suffering. In Mexico, NMD works as an advocate for recently deported people and tries to help them recover their money, their belongings and their dignity.

MARK KARLIN: How do our current US border policies make refugees from Mexico and Central America prisoners inside their own nations?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: First and foremost, by not recognizing that they are “refugees.” The US government does not recognize people suffering from hunger and poverty as refugees. Migrants who cross the border without documents are usually fleeing abject poverty and/or extreme violence. San Pedro de Sula, a city in Honduras, is reported to have the highest homicide rate in the world. Gang violence in Central America has reached an unfathomable level, and hundreds of thousands of people have died in Mexico in recent years since former president Calderón declared war on the drug cartels. Nevertheless, you cannot qualify for asylum in the US because of generalized violence, you have to prove that you are individually targeted because of membership to a specific group.

Many people don’t understand why migrants don’t come to the US legally. For all practical purposes, there is no legal avenue for an indigent Mexican or Central American to come to the US. You need to own a house and have significant sums of money in the bank in order to get a visa. This is just not the case for the vast majority of undocumented people that feel desperate to come to the US to work as farm workers, maids, meat packers etc.—there is no “line” to join.

Ironically, we have also made undocumented people prisoners inside the United States. Before, the US built the wall and militarized the border, undocumented migration was cyclical. Migrants would come to the US to work for a period of time, then they would return to their families and return to work, back and forth. US border enforcement has made it so costly and dangerous for people to cross the border that undocumented people now rarely risk returning home to their families. Once living apart becomes intolerable, and once they raise the funds to pay a coyote (guide), undocumented people attempt to bring their families into the US. So, rather than keeping people from crossing the border, our policies have resulted in an increase in women, children and older men who risk their lives to cross the border to reunite with family, and in an increased percentage of crossing deaths.

MARK KARLIN: How did NAFTA accelerate the need for many Mexicans with limited economic means to cross into the US despite the risks?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: The North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 1994, is the biggest single economic factor that caused undocumented migration from Mexico to the US to “explode.” Prior to NAFTA, Mexico was a corn exporting country. It is important to understand that corn is central to Mexican culture. This goes beyond the fact that tortillas are a food staple–according to the Mayan creation myth, human beings were made from corn. After NAFTA was signed, the US started exporting US government-subsidized corn grown by industrial farms to Mexico. Mexican farmers with small milpas (corn plots) could not compete. The price of corn dropped 75% and millions of small and mid-sized Mexican farmers lost their land. This rippled outward to those who processed corn, transported corn, made tortillas and ate tortillas. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we started constructing walls on the border the same year that NAFTA was signed.

Experts knew that NAFTA would decimate corn production in Mexico. They said that people could switch to fruit farming or that they could take factory jobs in maquiladoras (factories owned by US companies that were opened on the Mexican side of the border). The Mexican fruit industry could not compete with Chile, and after a number of years many of the maquiladoras closed on the border and moved to Asia to take advantage of an even cheaper labor force. Many of those who came to the border looking to work in maquiladoras then decided that it was in their best interest to cross into the US rather than return to their distant homes in southern Mexico where they could no longer sustain their families.

MARK KARLIN: Can you describe the tragic irony of the Native American Tohono O’odham indigenous nation, which straddles the Arizona border, being used by the Border Patrol to monitor and detain migrants making the perilous journey across the Sonoran Desert?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: The Tohono O’odham Nation, the size of Connecticut, is the second largest Native American Reservation in the United States, though very few people have heard of them. Like many native peoples in this country, their community is plagued with difficulties such as poverty, diabetes, alcoholism, drug abuse and gangs There are very few employment opportunities.. The temptation to make money from smuggling people or drugs across the Nation is enormous for people without other options.

As you mention, the Nation spans the US/Mexico border. The Tohono O’odham have the right to cross the “border” which bisects their land, but they need to have a tribal ID card. Many do not have a card, especially those from the Mexican side. Their culture is suffering because tribal members, particularly the elders – the reservoirs of traditional knowledge and ritual – are isolated from those on the opposite side.

The tribal government receives considerable help from the US federal government, including health care and housing. For this reason, they allow the Border Patrol unfettered access to the Nation. In the words of Tohono O’odham humanitarians, David Garcia and Mike Wilson, many O’odham, and especially the tribal government, do not want to “bite the hand that feeds them.” Additionally, many O’odham do not have documents, they were born in their homes, so they are subject to harassment by Border Patrol. It’s ironic when Border Patrol agents ask O’odham people to state or prove their citizenship status, especially when you realize that the O’odham are on their land, the place where they have lived for thousands of years. For a Border Patrol agent from Ohio or New York, a Tohono O’odham may look just like a Mexican. There have been cases of O’odham who have been accidentally deported! From this perspective, some say that the Border Patrol are the “invaders,” not the migrants.

Sadly, the Tohono O’odham Nation is the deadliest corridor on the border. Luis Alberto Urrea tells the true story of 14 men who died while trying to cross O’odham land in his gripping book, The Devil’s Highway. Tohono O’odham people would traditionally help and provide water to travelers; their name means “the desert people.” But since the tribal government does not want to bite the hand that feeds it, they forbid humanitarian groups such as No More Deaths and Humane Borders from providing aid on the Nation. To make matters even more ironic, many of the migrants who pass through the Nation are indigenous people from southern Mexico or Central America.

MARK KARLIN: You are co-producer of the “Border Songs” 2-CD set to raise money for No More Deaths/No Más Muertes. Can you detail what is in “Border Songs,” how the idea came to you and how much money the project has raised for direct support of saving lives?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: I started taking students from Northern Arizona University on field trips to the border in 2010, in fact I published an article about those trips in The UTNE Reader. My experience on the first field trip was so powerful that I came home and wrote a song called “Voluntary Return.” I played that song for my friend, singer-songwriter Chuck Cheesman, and he was moved. He already had a beautiful song called “Uphill (American Dream),” about an undocumented man in Chicago who mails money to his family rolled up in paintings. Chuck threw out the idea of making an album and donating all of the proceeds to No More Deaths. I thought it was the best idea I had ever heard.

Originally, we envisioned a small, local project. We put out a “Call for Songs” on the Internet and I got contacted by Ted Warmbrand from Tucson, who asked if we’d like to have Pete Seeger, who at the time was 93-years old, on the album. Then Ted also brought in Dúo Guardabarranco, a really important new song duo from Nicaragua, and Joel Rafael. At about the same time, Bill Carter contacted me and asked if we’d like to have Michael Franti, Amos Lee, Calexico, Sergio Mendoza and Giant Giant Sand on the album. By this time, we had a critical mass of important artists, so we invited other famous musicians like Sweet Honey in the Rock, Eliza Gilkyson and Tom Russell because they had songs we wanted to include.

As a university professor and director of Latin American Studies I also contacted writers, some of whom I knew, such as the Salvadoran poet Mario Bencastro, the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, Chicana writer Denise Chávez and the North American poet Margaret Randall. Bill Carter put us in contact with Charles Bowden. Everyone we invited enthusiastically embraced the project! We blended Randall’s poem with the work of a sound sculptor, Glenn Weyant, who plays the wall as a musical instrument. So our little project blossomed into a double cd, with 31 performances of music and spoken word about the border and immigration. It’s very eclectic, it moves between English and Spanish, spoken word and music, and it includes a wide variety of musical genres including folk, cumbia, corrido, blues, rock, Central American New Song, Americana and wall—always defending the dignity of human beings. We made 5,000 albums and we’re down to the last few cases. Soon we’ll be sold out, and will have raised $100,000 for humanitarian aid.

MARK KARLIN: How can the CD set be ordered?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: It can be ordered online. Each album purchased will send $20 directly to No More Deaths, which is enough to put 29 gallons of water in the desert! There are purchase links for two online marketers, CD Baby and, on our web site.

MARK KARLIN: No More Deaths/No Más Muertes is a volunteer organization in southern Arizona. What can other people concerned about the draconian US border policy do to change the nation’s attitude toward and treatment of migrants?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: Well, my first answer is always to buy Border Songs and to gift it to your friends, colleagues and family! One of our goals is to raise money for No More Deaths and the other is to raise awareness by getting the album out there. There are a number of NGOs doing terrific work on the border (for example, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, Derechos Humanos, Humane Borders, the Kino Border Initiative, Samaritans, the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign) and all of them need donations. Talking about this stuff and getting the word out, on social media, for example, is really important. The Border Songs Facebook page shares lots of relevant articles. As I said before, I don’t think many people have any idea just how grave the situation is. Once we can raise awareness on a massive scale then, hopefully, we can make some political in-roads. In the meantime, I continue to put my energy into humanitarian aid because the political machine is deeply compromised by powerful economic interests.

MARK KARLIN: In the brochure that is provided with “Border Songs,” it is stated that, “Our government has spent billions of dollars to secure the border and, in so doing, has created environmental and human devastation.” How could that money be better spent aiding migrants in need?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: I don’t have all of the answers but it’s clear to me that our government is and has been on the wrong track for a long time. We’re currently spending $18 billion a year on border security and enforcement. Instead of sinking all of that money into enforcement, which doesn’t work and is causing untold death and suffering, why don’t we invest the money in the Mexican and Central American economies so that people don’t feel the need to migrate in the first place? And let’s be honest, our economy needs workers, so how about we allow people to enter legally with work visas?

Unfortunately, these questions have answers. The for-profit prison industry is making billions of dollars off of the criminalization of undocumented people. The border industrial complex is making billions of dollars building and maintaining walls, and selling drones, sensors, and security technology, boots, Billy Clubs, Tasers, guns, trucks, uniforms, you name it! The system is working splendidly for a group of people who are profiting, and I think that explains why we continue to expand this tragic border enforcement strategy.

MARK KARLIN: I have read that anti-immigrant vigilantes cut open water jugs left for migrants facing death due to thirst in the desert. I’ve also read that some other border residents object that No More Deaths is contributing to the debris and also “encouraging” migration. Your response on is chillingly true: “That said, isn’t it preferable to find empty water jugs (i.e.,trash from water that may have saved a life or lives) than a corpse?” Given the harsh and xenophobic anti-immigration laws in Arizona, where you are located, some people don’t care about the corpses, is that right?

ROBERT NEUSTADT: Only someone who hasn’t been to the desert and seen first-hand the expanse that migrants cross could believe that No More Deaths is encouraging illegal immigration. The desert is enormous and migrants are by no means guaranteed to find the water left by humanitarians. Recently, between 120 and 190 dead human remains per year are encountered in the Tucson Sector, so there is just no way you can call it an “easy” journey in spite of any aid provided. No More Deaths and other humanitarian groups, like Humane Borders, Samaritans etc., are just helping as many people as they can—simply put, it is the right thing to do. The issue of trash in the desert is a red herring. It’s a low tech solution to pick up the empty bottles, and No More Deaths picks up trash all of the time. I’d rather pick up a bottle than a corpse!

As for people in Arizona and elsewhere not caring about migrants dying, these people do exist. Humanitarians routinely find slashed water bottles; we included a picture of this in the Border Songs booklet. It’s profoundly disturbing to think that some people would prefer that an undocumented person die than potentially make it into the country.

In some instances, No More Deaths has caught Border Patrol agents on hidden camera destroying water bottles, and taking blankets (though their official policy is to not touch the water). That said, I think the number of people who believe that migrants deserve to die in the desert is very limited. Most people, frankly, haven’t thought about the issue carefully. They get manipulated by quick sound bites, like “Which part of illegal don’t you understand?” and “They’re trashing our environment.” They are misinformed about the economic contributions made by undocumented people in our country, about the fact that they do pay taxes and social security without benefitting from social security benefits. Undocumented workers are sustaining, not draining, our social security safety net.

Many anti-immigrant people swallow the fallacious “they take our jobs” argument. But I’ve had long conversations with Tea Party members and people with very conservative perspectives and ended up selling them a copy of Border Songs. We may argue about the causes and effects of illegal immigration, but in the end most people agree that no one deserves to die in the desert.

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“Who cleans up all the garbage you are leaving in the desert?”

Today, October 12, 2014, the Border Songs cd has been out for two years. We have raised many thousands of dollars to help No More Deaths provide humanitarian aid to people in extreme need. I don’t have an accurate # for how much we have raised—our accountant has been busy—but let’s just say approximately $65,000. That’s a lot of water, food and medical supplies!

Today at the Flagstaff Community Market, and again on Facebook, a woman posed a thought-provoking, important, and perhaps slightly hostile question: “Who cleans up all the garbage you are leaving in the desert?,” she asked.

I provided a quick answer: “We” do! No More Deaths volunteers, as well as volunteers from all other humanitarian organizations working in the Sonoran desert (Humane Borders, Samaritans etc.) continually pick up trash and remove it from the desert.

Do the water bottles and migrant packs cached in the desert get discarded in the desert and do they remain there until someone, for example, a humanitarian, picks them up? Yes.

I think I can speak for all NMD and other humanitarians to say that we lament the accumulation of trash caused by undocumented immigration. None of us like to see trash in the desert. That said, isn’t it preferable to find empty water jugs (ie. trash from water that may have saved a life or lives) than a corpse?! 

Sometimes, at water drops, migrants swap bottles filled with potential death for clean, life-saving water. As Margaret Randall writes in “Offended Turf” (on Border Songs), “abandoned plastic gallon jugs, some filled with the urine of desperation crack beneath mid-March sun.” Other times migrants leave bottles filled with stock pond water, often with floating cow feces. Drinking stock pond water likely sickened Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros, the 14-year old girl from El Salvador whose death continues to resonate in the No More Deaths community.

Undocumented migrants are going to attempt to cross the border regardless of whether humanitarians attempt to provide aid. That is a fact. Migrants are in the desert and they have no guarantee or expectation of finding aid. They are desperate and sometimes ignorant of the dangers that await them. As long as there are people in the desert at risk, and dying–over 7000 human remains have been found in the borderlands since 1994–the ethical and moral approach is to provide people with humanitarian aid.

This is not an endorsement of anyone’s decision to cross the border without documents, it is simply a humane response. A cadaver in the desert is not “garbage,” it is a tragic loss of life that resulted from an inhumane global system that values the enrichment of some over the lives and misery of others.

The solution to our failed immigration policies is complicated by nefarious economic and political interests (the US labor industries, the for-profit prison industry and the border industrial complex). We will strive to find solutions though we know this will entail a very long process and struggle. Meanwhile the solution to trash in the desert is remarkably low-tech: People with garbage bags pick up the trash.

The solution to deaths in the desert is more urgent though still fairly simple: People need water, food and clothing. I told this woman that we welcome help from anyone and everyone who would like to be a part of the solution. . .

Many of us live too far from the border to cache water and pick up trash. All proceeds from Border Songs go directly to No More Deaths so that they can continue to provide aid. Each album purchased provides 29 gallons of water or the equivalent in food or medical supplies! Thank you for keeping the Border Songs project alive, so that it can help humanitarians save lives and reduce suffering!


Humanitarian aid is never a crime! No más muertes!

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