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After 890 consecutive Thursdays, El Tiradito vigil for immigrants may end

For 890 consecutive Thursdays, members of La Coalición de Derechos Humanos have held a vigil to honor, and pray for, immigrants who have died or disappeared while crossing the southwestern deserts of the United States from Mexico. 

Each week, they stood in prayer, sang a song, and lit candles in observation at the El Tiradito shrine in Downtown Tucson. The tradition held on through holidays, including Thanksgiving, on Christmas Days, on New Year's Eves, for 17 years. But now that tradition may come to a close. 

It was the death of young man in Texas that brought them together. 

Twenty years ago, 18-year-old Esequiel Hernández Jr. was shot and killed by U.S. Marines near Redford, Texas, while tending to his herd of goats. The Marines were assigned to Joint Task Force West 6, a part of the expanding war on drugs that included the deployment of military units along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The coalition decided to hold a vigil in June 2000 to mark the death of Hernández, and then kept the tradition going, even as some members died or fell away, and leadership shifted from Father Ricardo Elford to longtime activist Jon Miles. 

"We took it on as a task and started coming here because of Esequiel Hernández was killed," Miles said. But we decided to continue because we knew that that walls were being built, and people were being forced further out into the desert and dying." 

"We just kept going. Through rain, snow, holidays. We did it 890 consecutive Thursdays," said Miles. "Even when I was ill— I didn't come to lead it—but people kept coming. When I got the surgery, I was gone, but I checked the calendar and we've done it 890 times. I've done the math." 

Miles, a tall lanky man with broad glasses and a baseball cap reading Cuba, is clearly tired. He's been getting radiation treatment for cancer likely connected to his service in Vietnam, when he and thousands of other soldiers and Marines were exposed to the defoliant widely known as Agent Orange. 

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The vigils don't take much, and he hopes they will continue, especially if he's not there to lead them, he said. 

"I've had 29 treatments, and I've got four more to go, but this last time, they gave me a double-dose, and it was rough," Miles said. 

"It just takes a few minutes," Miles said. "Sometimes there aren't that many people, sometimes we had college students come trying to get a grip on what they were hearing about what's happening in the desert." 

Some of the vigils at the small outdoor shrine are short and some are longer depending on the audience and the events of the week, Miles said. 

Miles hoped that Derechos Humanos would keep up the tradition, but a recent vote among the members means that the group will no longer formally organize the vigil, instead relying on the community to keep up the weekly devotions. 

The vigil needs to keep happening, he said, because the press "just isn't covering it." 

"It's not in the news anymore, they're still finding bodies out in the desert. And most bodies are not identifiable, so they're just John or Jane Doe, whatever," Miles said. "So we try to get other people here, so they can take it back to their community, to their churches or their colleges and tell people what's going on here." 

"People who are not located on the border are just not aware of these deaths," said Bill Hallinan, who has attended hundreds of vigils since 2000. "We've had hundreds of people come here, sometimes just a few people, sometimes 40 people, but we need to get the word out." 

Isabel Garcia, an activist and former public defender for Pima County, explained the decision to stop organizing the Thursday gatherings. 

"It's high time for people to realize that immigrants are continuing to die along the border, it just has not stopped. Derechos Humanos has committed to not only the vigil for 17 years, but to ending this problem," Garcia said. 

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"Some people voted to end it, some people did not, but we voted to commit ourselves to ending this death," said Garcia. "The remains are being found. People found five years ago still haven't been identified. And, we're witness to what our country is doing." 

The remains of more than 2,700 people have been found in Southern Arizona by U.S. officials, and of those, around 947 remain unidentified. 

And, while apprehensions continue to decline throughout the southwestern border region, the bodies of the dead continue to be found. So far this year, officials have found the remains of 46 people. 

On Thursday, Border Patrol agents responded to a call that two men were in distress near Gila Bend and discovered that the two men were part of a larger group. Agents eventually found the others, however, among the group was a 17-year-old boy, who had fallen unconscious along the trail. The boy, who was not identified by U.S. officials, later died at an Arizona hospital. 

"How can we have policies that mean someone like you tries to cross the border and now you're dead? You didn't have a heart attack, you didn't have cancer, you died because you crossed. It's a unnecessary death," Garcia said. 

"And we have to think about what conditions would cause people to cross. Imagine what it would take," Garcia said. "The American public is still ignorant about these policies." 

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1 comment on this story

1
3 comments
May 29, 2017, 12:20 pm
-0 +0

They are “ILLEGAL ALIENS”, not “immigrants.”

And Isabel Garcia is not a “Humanitarian.”

She, cynically,  encouraged the entry of illegal aliens to provide “cannon fodder” for her “Raza Revolution.”  And she didn’t give a damn how many died getting here! She didn’t care how many jobs were lost, or how excess labor lowered the wage of the working man.

Derechos Humanos and Isabel Garcia are a disgrace!

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Rev. Robert Carney and Mohyeddin Abdulaziz light candles at the El Tiradito shine in downtown Tucson as part of a weekly vigil for immigrants crossing the Arizona desert.

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