On a hot day in May, 2017, a friend I’ll call Nancy went out to the desert to place crosses where migrants had died.
She went with a group that included a few seminary students on a border study trip, and an older, married couple who volunteer with the Samaritans, a Tucson-based nonprofit that works to prevent migrant deaths.
With the students in a van and Nancy and the couple in their pickup truck, the group caravanned on a two-lane highway several hours west of the city, across the massive Tohono O’odham reservation, to reach remote regions of Sonoran Desert where more than two thousand people have died from sunstroke and exposure over the past two decades.
At the far side of the reservation, near the mining town of Ajo, the highway curves south, toward the border. The caravan followed it briefly before turning off onto a dirt road heading west. Driving slowly to keep the dust down, the two vehicles ventured across the desert another eight or so miles, until finally reaching a mesquite grove near where a migrant’s body had been found. They parked and got out to pray, plant small crosses, and take photos.
The group was heading back when, several miles back down the road toward the highway, the driver of the van saw a man lying in the road in front of him.
The driver quickly stopped, jumped out, and ran to the prostrate migrant. Nancy and the older couple did as well. The man, barely conscious, was perhaps in his mid-20s, dressed in dusty jeans and T-shirt and carrying a near-empty water jug blackened to prevent reflections visible to overhead surveillance. He gasped in Spanish that he’d been in the desert about two weeks and had run out of food several days before.
The students, waiting in the van, put some food together from their supplies. One of them got out and offered it to the migrant, but he was too weak to eat.
Fearing the man would die without medical attention, the group talked about what to do. They decided transporting him in the van was too risky. The students could all be arrested, their electronics seized, and their program shut down. It quickly became evident that, if aid were to be rendered, it would have to be by the married couple.
The couple debated quietly. Being caught driving the man, even taking him to the hospital to save his life, could result in charges for transporting an alien and loss of their truck. Worse, their arrests could endanger the work of the Samaritans, who relied on a reputation for staying within the law in order to be allowed to render aid to migrants in distress.
The husband said he didn’t want to risk it, and that perhaps they should call the Border Patrol. The wife said she believed calling the Border Patrol would only cause more suffering for the man and for themselves. There was a pause.
“We’re taking him,” the wife said.
The couple lifted the man into the cab of the truck. The caravan started back down the dirt road. Nancy — now in the van with the students — said the tension grew palpable as they approached the paved road. They anticipated being met at the intersection by a phalanx of Border Patrol agents.
By some miracle, they were not. The highway was empty in both directions. The vehicles turned north and headed back to Tucson. As they approached the city, the couple with the truck went a different way to avoid the checkpoint. A few days later, Nancy texted them to find out what happened. “All okay” was the response.
Migrant camp raided
A few weeks after this encounter, on the mid-afternoon of June 15, 2017 — the hottest June ever recorded in Southern Arizona — about 30 Border Patrol agents driving trucks, riding quads and piloting a helicopter descended on the No More Deaths humanitarian aid camp on private land near Arivaca, Arizona.
Arivaca is a small town about 12 miles north of the border and 150 miles east of where Nancy’s group had met the man in the road.
Armed with arrest warrants, the agents searched the camp and took away four undocumented migrants. Officials later said they’d tracked the men for four days from where they’d tripped a sensor 18 miles away.
The agents had followed the men to the camp, staked it out and waited two more days for a judge to sign the warrants. They said the delay gave the men ample time to turn themselves in, thus preventing the raid. But the men refused to leave, so it commenced.
The camp, open since 2004, had been raided before, but activists said agents’ actions this time violated International Red Cross guidelines, which the Border Patrol had agreed to abide by. The Border Patrol said it made no such an agreement. Either way, the raid has resulted in migrants avoiding the camp, for fear of arrest.
That’s not enough for some folks, who want both the No More Deaths volunteers and the property owner, 90-year-old writer and activist Byrd Baylor, arrested. A letter in the Arizona Daily Star a few days after the raid insisted the camp should have been dismantled: “This is not about aid, but about their mission to facilitate the illegal entry into the United States of illegal aliens,” it read.
The border presents a number of moral questions: What is our responsibility to our neighbors? What is our responsibility to people fleeing violence and persecution? What is our responsibility to people fleeing poverty and crime?
And, for people like the couple who encountered the man in the road, how much of our personal safety and freedom are we willing to risk to stop what we consider officially-sanctioned barbarity?
It is a dilemma that’s been faced before: During the sanctuary movement, the civil rights movement, World War Two, pre-Civil War America, and many other times and places.
Most people, of course, say it’s not their problem and turn away. The law must be obeyed. But for a few, that’s an insufficient response.