Saving lives on the border

Clark County volunteers trod Arizona desert carrying food, water for undocumented aliens sneaking into U.S. from Mexico

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



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The Arizona desert is beautiful, fragile -- and deadly. "Every green thing wants to stab you or cut you," said Chuck Nokes.

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A little white cross in the Arizona desert marks the last resting place of a 13-year-old girl from Mexico. She died of dehydration while trying to sneak into the United States. She was separated from her parents along the way. Nobody knows what happened to the parents.

“The youngest, the oldest, the sick, they’re the ones who don’t make it,” said the Rev. Andy Oliver, 45, who is pastor of a new Methodist church in Clark County called The Crossing. Oliver discovered the makeshift gravesite while volunteering in August for No More Deaths, a humanitarian mission that tries to save the lives of undocumented aliens who risk everything to get here.

Why would the family have scattered? Hard to say. They may have been “buzzed” by a United States Border Patrol helicopter, Oliver said, or chased by Border Patrol agents. They may have figured that moving separately would make them less detectable, and simply lost one another. Chances are they were walking under cover of night, Oliver said, when getting lost in the rugged terrain would be easy — too easy.

The desert is beautiful, fragile — and deadly. “Every green thing wants to stab you or cut you,” said Oliver’s friend Chuck Nokes, 50, who also volunteered for the eight-day mission.

According to No More Deaths, the Border Patrol pulled 183 dead bodies from Arizona’s border counties between October 2010 and September 2011. An August story in the Arizona Daily Star said that while the sheer number of illegal immigrants attempting the crossing is way down, “they’re still dying at historically high rates.” That’s largely because border security is tighter than it used to be — driving those who do try toward riskier, more dangerous terrain.

“I just thought, in my own little way, if I can help somebody live, as a Christian, that’s what I should do,” said Oliver, who is pastor of a new Methodist church in Clark County called The Crossing.

“I don’t have a lot of skills but I can haul water,” Nokes added.

Gray area

Hauling food and water is the heart of what the No More Deaths volunteers do in the Arizona desert. They’re not out to make political statements, or assist lawbreakers, or make the Border Patrol’s job more difficult. All they want to do, they say, is prevent desperate people from dying.

At least, that’s true of the Clark County group of three, according to Jill Campbell, who also went. (Campbell is the sister of Columbian publisher Scott Campbell). Campbell, 53, said she was aware of the diversity of volunteers on hand in August: everybody from Occupy protestors to college students to conservative churchgoers who really don’t pay attention to politics.

Still, the volunteers acknowledge occupying a gray area, and that their mission is certainly controversial with some. Volunteers undertake careful orientation as to their legal rights and limits. “I’m just hiking with water jugs,” Oliver said, and offering sustenance to other hikers “who I happen to run across who may be in trouble in the desert.”

Volunteers from all over the nation come for stints of days, weeks or months, and stay in a small tent village that’s 55 miles south of Tucson and 13 miles north of the Mexico border. Food, supplies and basic medical facilities are available to anyone who happens to wander into camp.

Mostly, though, No More Deaths volunteers are driven to trailheads where they head into the terrain carrying food, water and GPS devices. They may hike anywhere between a mile and 10 miles per day. They might not encounter anyone, they said; they may simply leave their supplies at likely drop-off spots.

They may well stumble upon heaps of used-up supplies — empty water jugs and food containers, backpacks and torn clothes — that have been abandoned by “hikers” on the move.

“Muchas gracias hermanos por la comida y el agua,” was scrawled on the lid of one emptied tub of food Oliver found. “Que dios los bendiga a todos ustedes.” That is, “Thank you, brothers, for the food and water. May God bless you all.”

“They write things, sometimes thanks, sometimes just happy, smiling faces,” Campbell said.

Border Patrol

Sometimes matters get more complicated — like when No More Deaths volunteers come upon Border Patrol agents and arrests are under way. The Border Patrol has been known to destroy detainees’ supplies and slash water bottles, Oliver said. One time, he said, he approached and offered provisions to a person under arrest. The Border Patrol agent on the scene stopped him — but when Oliver pulled out a “refusal of humanitarian aid” form to begin documenting the situation, the agent relented, he said.

“I’m not trying to intervene in the arrest,” Oliver said. “I’m just trying to bring food and water to someone who’s suffering.”

Other Border Patrol agents he met were friendly and even supportive of what No More Deaths was up to.

“Most of them were compassionate,” Oliver said.

Contacted by phone, an Arizona-based spokesman for the Border Patrol said his agency shares the overall goal of No More Deaths.

“We are committed to working with them toward a common goal, which is diminishing deaths at the border,” said manager Victor Brabble of the Southwest Border Joint Information Center of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “We’ve met with them in the past and we do try to continue meeting with them regarding issues they bring up. We all want a safe, secure border.”

Does No More Deaths make the Border Patrol’s job more difficult? Does the Border Patrol resent the assistance they offer “hikers”?

“We don’t resent them,” said Brabble. “Do we agree with everything they say and do? No. We have differences of opinion. But we will continue to try to foster a relationship with them.”

Oliver, Nokes and Campbell all say they plan to volunteer with No More Deaths again next summer.

Justice and judgment

Although they weren’t in Arizona to get political, the three finished their mission by heading to federal court in Tucson to watch arraignments of large groups of illegal immigrants. They found it shocking.

“They come in shackled in leg irons,” Oliver said. “Ten at a time. Seventy people a day.” They’re in terrible condition, he said. They may not have had a chance to use a bathroom. Most have never seen a courtroom before, and speak no English, and really have no idea what’s going to happen to them.

They’re instructed to plead guilty, Oliver said; for the most part, they are sentenced to time served and shipped back across the border — sometimes to places far distant from the places they came from. That’s supposed to deter repeat tries, Oliver said.

One meeting still haunts Oliver. He said an older couple approached the pickup truck he was in and said they hadn’t had any water in a whole day. “They had absolutely nothing,” he said. Their daughters were in Los Angeles, they said, and they were trying to get there. The group they’d been with had been buzzed by a helicopter, and scattered. Now they were lost. Oliver handed over gallons of water, an ace bandage for one sore knee, and his best wishes.

Later on, he saw the same couple sitting, exhausted, by the side of the road. They still had their water — and nothing else. They were facing a turning point, he realized: the decision whether to press on, or turn back, or just let themselves get arrested.

“I don’t know how you make a decision like that,” he said. “I’ve never had to do that.”