When musician Joe Troop visited the Arizona borderlands with his band Che Apalache in 2019, he had a shattering experience. While going into the Sonoran desert with guide Randy J. Mayer of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, Troop and his mates came across a marker for an unknown 16-year-old boy who’d died during the treacherous journey to reach the U.S. Just over the hill from that spot loomed a typical American McMansion.
“Big American flags, audacious swimming pool, this don’t-tread-on-me iconography,” Troop says. “It’s like, right in this person’s backyard a 16-year-old kid died. That was intense. That was like, ‘Fuck this.’ I took it to heart and started writing a song about it.”
Troop’s song “Mercy for Migrants,” debuting today, pleads for empathy and recognizing the impossibly difficult struggles of people who flee their homes for the United States. The fiddle-and-banjo-driven tune, which features Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, appears on Troop’s upcoming solo album Borrowed Time, out August 20th.
“Desperate hopes of salvation forced you to leave your native land/doomed was the road of migration, left you to die out on the sands,” Troop sings above an undulating fiddle pattern, before Washburn adds harmonies. “Why aren’t we there for each other? Mercy is for everyone,” they sing, suffusing the line with heavy sadness and bewilderment.
“Human struggle is human struggle, and the idea of having families and children walking through this Sonoran desert,” he says, “when you step foot in it, it takes on new meaning because you see just how terrible that would be.”
The accompanying video was filmed by Rode Díaz and Emily Rhyne and documents Troop’s return trip to the borderlands, where he stayed for several weeks at La Casa de la Divina Misericordia y Todas las Naciones migrant shelter. While there, he heard the stories of people who were seeking asylum from violent situations in Mexico and Central American; he also went into the desert to leave water for migrants passing through, seeing the numerous markers for people who didn’t survive — a wrenching visual that is included in the video. The realities on the other side in the United States are uncertain and unfavorable, but better than what came before.
“The other thing to understand about this situation is, there’s rarely good news,” he says. “Even if they get into the states, they get into this holding pattern to see if their asylum cases will be granted. They’re not given any stipend. The fight for their human dignity doesn’t end when they cross the border. But nonetheless for them, it’s a huge accomplishment. That’s a lot better than the migrant trail was leading up to that point.”
Troop urges people to read and learn more about immigration, a complex issue that involves many different types of people crossing the border for different reasons. “That has been miserably misportrayed in media in the United States, so people don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he says. “It’s been simplified by right wing media to be a talking point.”
He also encourages donations to La Casa de la Divina Misericordia y Todas las Naciones, which needs help to get water and food for the migrants it’s housing.
“They have to have a water filtration system — it’s expensive to get water up there,” he says. “They have to keep the place fireproof. They need to replace roofs. There’s often not enough food. They have to get non-drinkable water delivered as well, so they can shower — and the shower is a bucket. Any money given will help expand the facility and give them just a little more dignity in their day-to-day lives.”