by John Allen
Immigration and Refugee Concerns Task Team
In 2012, I spent the month of June working with an organization called No Mas Muertes, No More Deaths. This ministry of the Unitarian Church of Tucson operates humanitarian aid stations in the desert between Nogales and Phoenix.
By the time I arrived that summer 128 people had already died in this region, Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, trying to make the crossing into the United States.
In 1994 Operation Gatekeeper was launched by Border Patrol; the goal was to seal off the safer urban crossing point in hopes that the Sonoran Desert would act as a natural boundary preventing migration. Tragically, the architects of the plan drastically underestimated the desperation of Central American refugees to reach the United States, and since 2001, when the Pima County medical examiner began keeping count, 2,058 people have died trying to cross the desert, mostly of dehydration, heat stroke, and exposure. There are likely hundreds if not thousands more whose bodies were never recovered.
Josseline's Shrine is a well-marked reminder of the human face of this crisis, as it marks the place in the desert where volunteers discovered the body of 14-year old Josseline Quinteros in 2008.
On a given day, we would walk patrols for about 6 hours, calling out into the desolate landscape, "Somos amigos de la iglesia, tenemos agua y comida, y ayuda medica" - we are friends from the Church, we have water, and food and medical aid. Time and time again we would meet people 5 or 6 days into a 12-day hike, out of water and fearing for their lives, who would press on because going to a hospital was even more terrifying. We would encounter people who had been forced by their guides to leave members of their group behind and we would initiate Search and Rescue knowing that whoever we were looking for would likely be hiding rather than trying to be found.
One story that has particularly stuck with me was an interaction I had with a man who was a part of a group of about 12 making the crossing. We encountered them in a small ravine, finding shelter from the sun against a steep rock face. I spoke with him for only a moment, while conducing a simple medical exam and sharing some water.
He told me that he was brought to the United States when he was 4 years old. He had a job, and a family waiting for him somewhere in the Midwest where he had spent his whole life. One day, he was picked up during a raid and deported to Mexico, a place he had no memory of. Where he knew no one.
Here is was, miles out in an deadly desert, dehydrated and exhausted.
All just so he could get home.
Photo from No Mas Muertes website: volunteers hike water out to a remote area of the Sonoran Desert.
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