By JIM McKEEVER
I heard many stories during a recent “water drop” in the desert with Border Kindness, a not-for-profit humanitarian aid organization in southern California.
One in particular told by a fellow volunteer will stay with me.
The story marked the beginning of the 34-year-old man’s transformation a quarter-century ago.
As a young boy in San Ysidro, Calif., Edgar went to elementary school less than a mile from the US-Mexico border, where it was common to have the equivalent of today’s active-shooter “lockdowns” — but because of migrants.
Once a month or so, Edgar said, an announcement would come over the PA system for students and teachers to shut themselves into classrooms and hide. Migrants crossing over from Tijuana had been seen cutting through the school grounds or a nearby neighborhood.
Occasionally, Edgar and other students would see Border Patrol agents chasing them. “It was like cops and robbers,” Edgar said. “We’d be like, ‘Get ‘em!’”
That all changed one day when he was in third or fourth grade.
Edgar and some friends were playing outside when they saw a chase unfolding.
A young couple, the father carrying a 2-year-old like a football, and the mother carrying an infant, were running as fast as they could to escape a Border Patrol agent.
They reached a fence and the father climbed over with the 2-year-old. Just as the mother handed the baby over the fence to the father, the agent caught up with her, took her to the ground and restrained her.
The father kept going, carrying both children.
“That’s when it changed for me,” Edgar said.
His family eventually moved a little farther north to Chula Vista and then to Los Angeles, but he took that story with him.
Edgar’s commitment is such that on this particular Saturday he and his girlfriend drove down from LA on one hour of sleep, then drove a group of us two hours to the desert where we trekked five miles in almost 100-degree heat to drop water and supplies for migrants.
Here’s how Edgar’s childhood memories and the water drop connect.
As a child, Edgar lived in an apartment not far from his school. One night he heard screaming and shouting in Spanish from somewhere nearby. Then he heard what sounded like someone breathing heavily outside his bedroom window. He looked out and saw a Latino man up pressing himself against the building, trying to avoid being seen by Border Patrol agents chasing a group through the night.
Edgar and the migrant looked at each other at the same time, and the man took off running, perhaps more frightened than Edgar.
The look in that man’s face came back to Edgar in the desert.
About halfway through our five-hour water drop, our group of 14 came upon nine migrants huddled together, hiding in a shady crevice in a canyon. They wore similar brown ponchos, which “entrepreneurs” in the borderlands sell on the streets to migrants looking to blend into the landscape.
The nine, all from from Central America, were frightened when they saw us, thinking we were there to harm them or turn them in to Border Patrol. (There are vigilante groups out here that “hunt migrants,” so the fear was justified.)
We reassured them that we were there to help, and we gave them as much water and food as they needed.
Later, Edgar said the look on the faces of the migrants hiding in the crevice took him back to his childhood and what he saw outside his bedroom window.
“It wasn’t cops and robbers anymore,” he said. “Who’s the bad guy here?”
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He makes regular trips to the US-Mexico border to volunteer with different organizations aiding asylum seekers and other migrants.