Death in the Desert: Riding With the Samaritans

Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise. Luke 10:36-37

Traveling along the W. Tucson-Ajo Highway Friday morning near the Arizona-Mexico border, dawn is still a long way off. Brother David Buer, a Franciscan friar, sits in the backseat while I ride shotgun next to Jeff Millsap, a 40-year-old community activist. We are headed to the Tohono O’odham Nation, the third largest reservation in the country and an area only a little smaller than the state of Connecticut.

The back of the SUV has been packed with water, Gatorade, crackers, socks, clothes, and medical supplies. As the sky gradually turns from black to indigo, we start gazing into the brush along the highway, looking for the tired and lost.

Deadliest Year

Brother David and Millsap are volunteers with the Samaritans, an organization that patrols the desert seeking people from Mexico and Central America who have crossed the Arizona border south of here and are making their way north for jobs or to rejoin family. Millsap estimates that it’s at least a three-day hike from the border across parts of the reservation.

Many of these migrants, overwhelmed by the heat, rough terrain, and lack of water, can’t make it. They often come poorly prepared, unable to carry enough water and sometimes wearing little more on their feet than sandals. The Sonoran Desert is filled with cacti and brush that tear apart feet, rocks and crevices that twist ankles—especially in the dark when most of the migrants travel. Sometimes a guide will lead a group. Anyone, injured or otherwise, who can’t keep up is frequently left behind.

In the past 12 months, 214 people have died attempting this journey, making this one of the deadliest years on record. In July, the bodies of 57 people believed to be migrants were found here. Most were discovered along a well-known trail in the Baboquivari Valley on the Tohono O’odham Nation. In years past, Brother David says, immigrants typically crossed the border near Nogales, just south of Tucson, which is a less remote area and less dangerous. But the recent crackdown has pushed immigrants into more rugged regions further west on the Tohono O’odham reservation.

The increase in deaths coincides with Arizona’s recent bitter legal fight over HB 1070, the law signed in April which places the burden on individuals to prove they are in the country legally and preempts federal authority in enforcing immigration law. A federal judge issued an injunction in July against most of the law’s provisions until its constitutionality can be tested in court. Last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that similar laws in Hazleton, Pennsylvania were unconstitutional.

The number of deaths have increased even as illegal immigration has fallen dramatically in the past ten years. The economic downturn and high unemployment rates may have deterred immigrants from coming here, both legally and illegally. In addition, the federal government’s stepped-up border patrol forces, combined with local and state crackdowns on illegal immigrants, may have slowed the flow of people across the border.

But these tougher measures have also pushed the most desperate of these immigrants to take their chances on the more remote areas of the Arizona mountains and deserts. Which is why, Father David and Millsap believe, the number of deaths have climbed this past year. Many of the bodies are too decomposed or mutilated by animals to ever be identified.

Kat Rodriguez of Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, a nonprofit advocacy organization which collects data on the deaths, says she gets calls all the time from desperate people looking for loved ones who had crossed the border. Recently she spoke with a mother looking for her 13-year-old son. The coroner had recently received the remains of a body that might be the child. The body had a missing front tooth with other teeth grown in. Rodriguez called the woman to ask for a photo of her son smiling. “Why smiling?” the woman kept asking. Rodriguez was trying not to say. Finally, she explained as delicately as she could, for dental identification to help identify the remains. The mother broke down in tears. Rodriguez hung up the phone and cried.

Guilty of the Gospel

Samaritans is not specifically a religious humanitarian organization, but many of the Samaritan volunteers such as Brother David say they are motivated by the words of Christ—this is simply a manifestation of their faith.

Formerly known as Samaritan Patrol, the organization’s roots are in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. A religious and political campaign, the movement provided safe havens for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict in response to restrictive federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.

More than 500 churches eventually declared themselves official “sanctuaries” and provided food and shelter to refugees in defiance of federal law. Various denominations included Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, United Church of Christ, Catholics, Presbyterians, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Mennonites, and Quakers.

The first sanctuary was here in Tucson in 1985 at the Southside Presbyterian Church by the Rev. John Fife, who hung signs outside the church: “This is a Sanctuary for the Oppressed of Central America,” and “Immigration: do not profane the Sanctuary of God.” The church gave shelter to thousands fleeing the Central American death squads. In 1986, Fife was one of eight activists convicted on alien-smuggling charges and served five years’ probation. His fellow defendant, Sister Darlene Nicgorski, argued for her First Amendment right to practice her religion, saying, “If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of the gospel.”

Today, Fife is pastor emeritus at the church. In 2002, he helped found the Samaritan organization.

Worn-Out Soles

Both Brother David and Millsap have been participating in these patrols for about five years. We drive down to the Senoita checkpoint along the border, near the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where a new stretch of fence running along the border is visible. But we do not see anyone.

The recent immigration crackdowns are only one piece of the larger picture that Brother David calls “the push-pull factor.” Lack of job opportunities in Mexico and Central America pushes migrants from their homes. They are pulled to the U.S. because of demand for cheap labor. One of the major pushes came in the ’90s with the passage of NAFTA, which opened the door to many agri-businesses to move farms down to Mexico, putting small farmers out of business. And while the number of undocumented border crossers is down, Brother David says, it will be virtually impossible to eliminate them as long as the opportunities for jobs exist.

As we continue to search for people along the road, Millsap complains that no politician wants to acknowledge these deaths:

“Most of the people dying down here aren’t criminals,” he said. “They’re coming here to work our crap jobs. And a strategy of securing our border that doesn’t address our pushes and pulls, is going to be a failed strategy.”

“It’s a shame. We depend on migrant labor, our economy does, and ultimately, most of the people who cross the border here make it. So, it’s a win-win. We can pretend like we’re doing something to secure our labor. Our labor supply isn’t taken from us. We still have that migrant labor available to us. It certainly poses the question, what the heck are we doing down here?”

“I think this issue really challenges who we are as Americans,” Brother David says, agreeing.

Millsap and Brother David estimate that they find someone in need of help about one time out of ten. Some of the people are so exhausted or injured they’re happy to have Samaritans call border police. Others are just in need of water and push on. Even when people want to be found, in such a large area, the odds aren’t great that they will cross paths at the right moment.

Which is why organizations like Samaritans and No More Deaths try to leave water in places where people can find it. However, the Indian Nation has refused permission to the humanitarian groups to place water and volunteers have also received resistance from the federal government. Last week, a judge overturned a lower court decision against a No More Deaths volunteer that had ruled that leaving water jugs on a national wildlife refuge constituted littering.

Border police say they do not monitor the water stations. While this undoubtedly saves lives by allowing people to safely seek out water, it also illustrates that this is all a futile game. Can’t tag you while you’re on base.

Millsap slips the vehicle into four-wheel drive and steers our vehicle onto a stretch of sand and dirt roads where 12 of the 57 bodies were recovered in July. A wild and beautiful area, it is filled with jumping cacti, which glow gold in the afternoon sun, but possess thorns that seem to leap out and penetrate at the lightest brush. Near the trail used by migrants we find an abandoned pair of blown-out sneakers, which look as if they’d been stabbed repeatedly with knitting needles.

On our way back to Tucson, we pass a man standing at the edge of a side road. Millsap makes a U-turn and Brother David puts down his window. “Necisita ayuda?” he asks. “Necisita agua?”

The man shakes his head no and smiles, but he accepts the orange Brother David offers to him. Brother David jumps from the car and fetches a water and Gatorade for the man.

“Just in case,” he says.