Volunteers reach out to save migrants
U.S. says they're stoking false hopes

09:44 AM CDT on Wednesday, August 24, 2005

By ANDREW BECKER / The Dallas Morning News

ARIVACA, Ariz. – Andy Sellers anxiously drives the woman north in a dusty 1992 Nissan Pathfinder dubbed "the Desert Rat."

Just 12 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, he passes the first of five U.S. Border Patrol vehicles. He can't help but think of the two colleagues arrested weeks earlier on charges of transporting illegal immigrants – just what he was doing.

Mr. Sellers, 23, is one of hundreds of volunteers with the humanitarian group No More Deaths. Their goal: to aid lost, abandoned or injured illegal immigrants.

"I was a little nervous when I first saw the Border Patrol," Mr. Sellers said after delivering Ana, a 28-year-old illegal immigrant from Guerrero, Mexico, to a makeshift clinic in Tucson, Ariz. But that feeling vanished, he said, because "I don't think I'm doing anything wrong."

As the United States wrestles over immigration policy, No More Deaths has stretched the definition of humanitarian aid into what law enforcement calls aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. Between June 13 and Aug. 13, the group made 463 assists – providing food, water, medical care and evacuation, if necessary.

En español: Una mano amiga en la frontera
Jose Garza, a spokesman for the Border Patrol, says that No More Deaths goes beyond humanitarian aid and may be putting more lives at risk.

"Smugglers are using these groups to lure illegal immigrants, saying, 'Americans put food and water out there,' " he said. "It gives a false sense of security."

Furthermore, landowners in the area say they're fed up with the constant flow of pedestrian traffic, the destruction of their property, the trash littering the desert and the sheer lack of privacy.

"People are fed up," said Joe Coates, who lives about 28 miles north of the border. "If you were to ask 10 of my neighbors if they care migrants are dying out there, eight of them would say they don't care."

But volunteers with the group, which has camped out in the Sonoran Desert for the last two summers, say that what they are doing is legal and saves lives along the busiest path into the country for illegal immigrants.

The Border Patrol recovered 61 bodies last month in the Tucson sector, a 261-mile stretch from the Arizona-New Mexico border to near Ajo, Ariz. That's more than twice the number recorded in July 2004. And there are probably more, officials say.

"Most migrants we come in contact with don't know who the hell we are," said Virginia Weeks, 22, of Albany, Ore., a recent Colorado College graduate. "It's nearly impossible for us to find anyone. This is not the most effective way, but we'll be out here until the policy changes."

An early start
The day's patrol starts with a 5 a.m. wake-up nudge from Steve Johnston, No More Deaths camp coordinator for the week.

After breakfast, two teams split up, based on experience and Spanish skills. Two people remain in the camp. Patrollers stuff water bottles and "migrant packs" – plastic bags full of crackers, applesauce and other easy-to-eat snacks – into their backpacks.

Just after 6:15 a.m., Mr. Johnston, 60, of Tucson, guides one team out in the donated Pathfinder. For three hours, they search the well-worn migrant paths – mostly dry creekbeds in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

As the sun begins to bake the earth, Mr. Johnston parks the truck in a turnout next to a dirt road and grabs his pack out of the back. He picks up a well-established trail and briskly walks past spindly ocotillo and jumping cactus.

"Hola, amigos! Somos Americanos!" he shouts. "Con agua y comida! No tengan miedo!" ("Hello, friends! We are Americans! With water and food! Don't be afraid!")

With a new volunteer in tow, Mr. Johnston follows the path only to find the migrant camp deserted. Clothes, water bottles and backpacks litter the ground. He picks up a pair of jeans.

"I'll take these home and wash them, then donate them," he says, leaving a jug of water and a couple of migrant packs before returning to the Pathfinder.

As he steers the Desert Rat along a highway often used as pickup spot for migrants, Mr. Johnston recalls driving the stretch of road recently with Shanti Sellz, one of the two volunteers arrested July 9 while taking three illegal immigrants to a medical facility.

Ms. Sellz, 23, of Durango, Colo., and Daniel Strauss, a 24-year-old sociology graduate of Colorado College, have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of illegally transporting an illegal immigrant and conspiracy to transport an illegal immigrant. If convicted of both counts, they face a maximum of 15 years in prison.

At the time of the arrest, several volunteers were helping a man from Zacatecas, Mexico, search for the body of his 35-year-old daughter, who died crossing.

They spotted turkey vultures circling and detected a rancid smell as they passed. They stopped and discovered a decomposing deer.

"We were so relieved," Mr. Johnston said. "I've never been so happy to see a dead deer in my life."

A week later, the father found his daughter's remains just a few miles away – nearly a month after she died.

Retreat from the heat
Back at the camp, around 10:30 a.m., the volunteers rest under a tent that doubles as a kitchen and conference room. The group suspends its search between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for lunch and to get out of the scorching sun.

Mr. Johnston explains that a bad blister equals death if an immigrant can't keep up with the desert guides, known as coyotes.

That's been particularly true this summer when the monsoon season arrived late. For three straight weeks in July, temperatures hit at least 100 degrees.

The medical examiner's office had to rent a refrigerated semi-truck to handle the increasing number of corpses – 50 to 60 over the capacity of 120 in the cooler where they're usually kept, said Dr. Bruce Parks, the chief medical examiner in Pima County. At least half of those are bodies of illegal immigrants.

Back on patrol in the blazing afternoon sun, Kate Howe gets a call on her cellphone.

The owner of a taco stand in town has found Ana, the woman from Guerrero, hiding under a lean-to behind her building. Afraid that she might get in trouble with the Border Patrol for harboring an illegal immigrant, the owner wants the volunteers to take Ana away.

Along with a few other volunteers, Ms. Howe, another recent Colorado College graduate, drives to the site and examines the half-dollar and quarter-size blisters on the bottoms of Ana's feet before calling a nurse. She provides the necessary treatment, then helps her to a shady patch of grass off the taco stand owner's property.

Guided by the town's lights, Ana had hobbled all night through the Sonoran Desert to reach Arivaca. But she could go no farther. Her ultimate destination: Pennsylvania.

Weighing options
Nearby, the volunteers huddle between sport utility vehicles. Mr. Sellers squats next to Ana and offers to drive her to Tucson, 56 miles northeast. She can rest there and get medical attention.

She says no.

A few minutes later, he asks if she wants to go to a medical clinic at a church. This time she accepts. But can she make a phone call first?

Not yet, Mr. Sellers says. Allowing her to use the phone puts him at risk of breaking the law. He's not going to notify the Border Patrol either. The volunteers call the Border Patrol only if the immigrant requests it. In fact, if an immigrant slips away into Tucson after a medical evacuation – as Ana does a few days later – they don't notify law enforcement.

"We are not an arm of the government," Mr. Johnston said.

Some local residents believe that all the efforts are just Band-Aids for the larger problem of Mexico's economy.

Mary Kasulaitis, whose family has lived along the border since 1879, said locals provide immigrants food and water year-round. They just don't advertise it.

"I wouldn't do what they're doing, but I'm not holding it against them," Ms. Kasulaitis, 57, said of No More Deaths. "They want to help."

And volunteers for No More Deaths are certainly not alone in their patrols.

Roughly 70 of the 2,400 agents in the Tucson sector are assigned to the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue team, or BORSTAR. The agents have paramedic and emergency medical technician training, and provide food and water to immigrants.

With helicopters and other resources at their disposal, they can cover more ground than No More Deaths volunteers. But their ultimate goal is law enforcement.

In the last 10 months, agents have made 810 rescues. Of those, 336 were in July, nearly five times the number in July 2004.

Even with its resources, BORSTAR can't find everyone before it's too late. A helicopter pilot spotted a body in a narrow wash nearly seven miles from the closest road. The man had been dead for about two weeks.

A Pima County sheriff's deputy and four Border Patrol agents led by Mark McKay gathered around 6 p.m. to take the body out as lightning flashed in the distance. After placing the man in a white body bag, some lit cigars to mask the smell of the man's decomposing body. Then they carried him a few hundred yards and placed him in the back of a Border Patrol truck.

Mr. McKay, a Border Patrol agent and supervisor for 20 years, said he had no problem with the volunteers as long as they don't interfere with his agents.

'A moral obligation'
For several years before No More Deaths established its desert camp, volunteers attached to church groups had offered aid to immigrants. They set up water stations in the desert or drove established trails and pickup routes to hand out clean socks, food and water.

"We have a legal right to do what we're doing and a moral obligation," said Margo Cowan, a No More Deaths attorney. "We're in the epicenter ... of a war zone."

Ms. Cowan agrees that the volunteers' efforts might be a superficial solution to the problem, but they have no plans to stop.

"One Band-Aid is better than none," she said. "One life is better than none."