It’s 8 a.m. in Nogales, Arizona, as 19-year-old Maryvillian Kirksey Dalen Croft loads the back of a vehicle with supplies for an all-day mission.

She and some others head out for the scorching desert to make water drops for migrants who might be trying to make their way from Mexico and into the United States. On some nights, they camp in the desert. She doesn’t meet any travelers on this trek, but evidence of their presence is starkly evident. As they walk along one of the trails used by the migrants, crosses and memorials come into plain view.

“We’re walking in the middle of nowhere in the desert and all of a sudden, there are six crosses right there,” she said by phone Thursday. “Seeing them became normal even though this is so not normal.”

The immigration debate wages on in this country, pitting the left against the right. But Croft said it’s become too politicized. These are human beings dying for a chance at hope, she said.

“Even though the immigration debate is so opinionated, it is not right to want people to die in the desert,” she said.

Croft, a junior at Maryville College and graduate of Maryville High School, has been at the U.S.-Mexican border since June 23. She is serving as an intern for Border Community Alliance, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on social and cultural issues. She, along with four other interns from other parts of the country, will be there for another month, crossing back and forth along the border to learn what’s going on and how to help.

A detainee speaks out

Every day presents one more emotional challenge, this college student said. This past Saturday, Croft was able to visit a detainee at the Eloy Detention Center near Tucson. She was shocked at who she found there.

“We visited with an inmate who had been detained there for four months,” Croft said. “We talked to her about her life. She said she had not seen any kids for two years. She has two of her own.”

Expecting to see young male migrants in these centers, Croft said instead they were young women her age and even grandparents. Some had been there much longer then four months. Those Croft talked to had no idea how long they would remain there.

“The problem is they have to fight their cases from behind detention,” Croft said. “There is no option or anywhere for them to go. None of them ever gets asylum. It is just incredibly hard. So they wait there. Lawyers take advantage of them and give them false hope so the migrants will pay up.”

Croft, the daughter of Amy Barham and Rick Croft, is a political science major at MC with three minors — in Spanish, women and gender issues, and international studies. She is a Bonner Scholar at MC and was looking for a way to serve over the summer. That’s when she found Border Community Alliance.

In addition to the water drops and detention center visitation, Croft also has spent time in one of the shelters on the Mexican side of the border. It is there that migrants who have traveled up from Central America end up as their pleas for asylum are heard. Once again, the makeup of this population rattles this college student to her core.

Not who you might think

“There were 60 people in the room and half were under the age of 5. They were babies. Tiny infants,” she said.

These families arrived at the shelter with the clothes on their backs and little else, maybe a backpack, Croft explained. Most of them will not advance across the border.

It is perhaps a Wednesday night walk back over the border into Nogales that will likely be the most lasting memory, Croft said. As she and another intern walked across, they could see a group of migrants lying in the street, trash strewn about. They, too, were waiting to talk to border agents. Croft said she was there to simply bring some food and drink to them. The Mexican policeman initially told them no but relented. Croft went to a nearby store and purchased some Gatorade and also candy for the children.

“They were filled with joy just because we had brought them Gatorade,” she said. “They were beyond happy. We looked them in the face as we handed it to them.”

Croft speaks Spanish and is able to communicate with them. She said in that moment when they offered the food and drinks to those at the border, the policeman was in tears.

“I walked back home to the house and I couldn’t even process it,” Croft said. “It is like every emotion all at once. It’s really so sad that you could cry for days. But you are also thankful for what you have and also mad because of what is happening and (that) we are OK with that.”

Studying politics in school makes it easy to only see the immigration issue from that viewpoint, she said. Standing on the border between the two countries can change you.

“It is worse than I thought,” Croft said, after seeing the hopelessness eye to eye. “It is hard to fathom the human rights issues we have caused,” she said. “They are people.”

Becoming a voice for the voiceless

When she gets back home to Maryville, Croft wants to be a resource for those with questions about what’s going on at our border. She is willing to speak to local organizations and said she will be contacting her local congressmen, urging them to put partisan politics aside in the name of human dignity.

Croft also spoke about the political leanings of her own hometown.

“The opinions of folks in Maryville are often pretty harsh when it comes to ignoring the fact that these people are coming here in need of help and to help their families,” she said. “We are so far from the border so it’s easy to be distant from the real humans and human rights problems that are happening. In Maryville, people view it as a matter of security or even as racial conversation, when really, it’s just purely human rights and a matter of life and death.

“Especially since our area is very religious, it is surprising that more people are not readily accepting the idea of at least providing aid to our neighbors who are crossing,” she said.

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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