Fairfield native Leanna Miller visits US-Mexico border

Editors note: This is the second in a two-part series on the Miller family and immigration.


Fairfield native Leanna Miller had an eye-opening experience two years ago when she visited Nogales, Arizona, which straddles the United States-Mexico border.

Miller went to Nogales in October 2016 with a group of fellow students from Beloit College in Wisconsin, where she is about to enter her senior year. The group intended to learn about and provide services for immigrants.


Border crossings

One of the group?s goals in visiting the border was to reduce the number of migrants who die trying to cross. Hundreds of migrants die each year attempting to cross the perilous Rio Grande or walk through the scorching hot Sonora Desert. The U.S. Border Patrol?s records show 7,209 people have died attempting to cross the border since 1997, though a USA Today Network report in 2017 indicated the actual number could be much higher since the border patrol ?largely fails to count border crossers when their remains are recovered by local authorities.?

Miller?s group left gallon jugs of water, medicine and canned goods at various locations in the desert where migrants were believed to travel.

?It?s an interesting experience because we were in the desert for three hours, and it was really hot. Then I realized that people who cross are walking in this heat for a week or more,? Miller said. ?We felt it was important to do water drops because the most common cause of death is dehydration.?

Two aid groups, No More Deaths and La Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (the Human Rights Coalition) published a report earlier this year indicating the water gallons they left in the desert were vandalized 415 times, about twice a week, from March 2012 to December 2015.

The groups said some of the supplies were damaged by wildlife, hunters, hikers and border militia members, but that most of the gallons were destroyed by U.S. border patrol agents. Steve Passament, a border patrol spokesman in the Tucson sector, told The Guardian that his agency does not condone the destruction of water or food caches.

Miller said she had heard of people being charged with crimes for helping undocumented immigrants along the border. She had also been warned about armed militia groups that have attacked immigrants and those helping them. Was she worried about any of that?

?My mom was really freaked out about the militia groups, but I wasn?t too concerned about it,? Miller said. ?Maybe that?s because I?m young and naļve, especially considering I was with a group that had been doing this work regularly and that a local person was leading our group.?


The wall

The U.S.-Mexico border is nearly 2,000 miles long. Arizona Central reports that roughly one-third of the border, 654 miles, has some form of security fencing. Of that, 354 miles are pedestrian fencing (mostly in urban areas), and the rest is made of low-lying posts designed to stop vehicles.

The wall divides Nogales in two. The populous southern side, in Mexico, has more than 200,000 inhabitants, about 10 times more than its American counterpart. Streets and buildings run right up to the wall on both sides, but there are only two places where pedestrians can cross.

Miller learned that it is common for residents to cross from one side of the border to the other to sell goods or work.

?A lot of ag businesses employ workers who can go to the U.S. during the day but have to go back to Mexico at night,? she said.

The group attended a lecture given by the Sierra Club about the effect of the wall on the environment and animal migration. Miller learned how the wall worsens flooding in Nogales by acting as a dam. National Public Radio reported that flooding in Nogales killed two people and caused millions of dollars in damages in 2008 and 2014.

Miller?s group visited the wall, and on the way back had to pass through a border patrol checkpoint.

?It was a little freaky because border patrol had us all get out of the van,? she said.

Once the agent checked the group?s passports and determined they were American college students, they were free to go.

?You don?t realize growing up in Iowa that that?s part of people?s lives,? she said.


Casa Alitas

The Beloit students stayed with a woman who runs a shelter in Tucson called Casa Alitas, Spanish for ?house with little wings.? The shelter houses mostly mothers and their children seeking asylum from violence in their native Central America.

?When they just come over the border, they?ve been wearing the same clothes for days,? Miller said. ?The shelter gives them clothes, shoes and hygiene products. A volunteer from Casa Alitas helps them make phone calls or reconnects them with other family members in the U.S.?

The shelter gives the families a place to sleep and a kitchen to cook in. It is a welcome reprieve from their arduous journey.



The group attended an immigration court proceeding where they witnessed dozens of mostly men charged with illegal entry and sentenced at the same time. The process of sentencing multiple immigrants at once began under ?Operation Streamline? in 2005, and has been adopted by Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Miller witnessed rows of 10 detainees each appear before a judge to plea and receive a sentence. Once they plea, another row of 10 detainees comes to the front and the process is repeated. A courtroom interpreter is present and speaks to the detainees in Spanish.

?The thing is that not everybody coming over the border speaks Spanish. A lot of them speak indigenous languages,? Miller said. ?Even if they do speak Spanish, they have to keep up with the judge, who called some people by the wrong name.?

First-time offenders are prosecuted for misdemeanor illegal entry, which carries a six-month maximum sentence. Migrants who have been deported before and attempt to re-enter illegally can be charged with felony re-entry, which carries a two-year sentence or more depending on whether the person has a criminal record.

As she watched the detainees brought in, shackled by their hands and feet, Miller could only wonder what happened in their lives to lead them to this point.

?My friend and I started to cry. We thought of these people in awful situations, and here we are, college students sitting on the other side. It felt wrong and messed up for me to be the one crying on the other side,? she said.



The group met with an organization called Colibrķ (?hummingbird? in Spanish) which tries to identify the bodies of people who died crossing through the desert and to return the remains to the family. Miller said delivering the remains provides some closure for the grieving family.

?One person from the organization personally delivered the body and was with the family as they prepared it for burial,? she said. ?There?s a lot of emotional labor in that, and it?s extremely important work.?

Miller mentioned that one of the girls in her group had done the same thing in Vietnam, reuniting remains with those who lost loved ones during the war.


Navigating immigration law

The students participated in a workshop on immigration law with a group called BorderLinks. They learned how immigrants can obtain different kinds of status such as a green card for work or permanent residency. Miller came away feeling visas are awarded in a ?random and biased? way. Whether a potential immigrant is allowed in depends on myriad factors such as family connections, skills and where they?re from. Due to per-country limits, immigrants from India, for example, are faced with particularly long wait times, from an average of six years for the most highly skilled to 15 years for those with advanced degrees, according to a report released this year by the Cato Institute.


Spanish skills

Miller is the daughter of Dan and Annalisa Miller of Fairfield. She grew up here in town and graduated from Maharishi School in 2014. She spent a ?gap year? between high school and college in Ecuador, where she stayed with host families while attending classes in Spanish.

Miller became so fluent in the language she passed as a native when she returned to the U.S. and began working in a Mexican restaurant. She has kept up her Spanish skills at Beloit through classes and student groups such as Spanish Club and ?Voces Latinas? (Latin voices), an advocacy group for Hispanic women.

Miller was home for two weeks this summer, and spent a few days at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant volunteering for IowaWINS (Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors). The organization runs a food pantry from the church for families affected by the Immigration Customs Enforcement raid May 9 in Mt. Pleasant.

Miller spoke Spanish to the families and helped them fill out paperwork, which she translated into English. She heard stories about how some families were driven to America because of violence back home, where gangs threatened them with death if the man in the family refused to join.



Miller has spent the last two weeks in Chicago volunteering at the National Immigration Justice Center. She?s learning about immigration law and helping process cases.

?I hope to be able to work there after college. That?s where my mind is,? she said. ?Particularly since my trip to Arizona, I?ve found myself continually involved in these issues. I want to do what I can to bring justice and provide resources for people in a hard situation.?