Simple action of carrying water in the desert prevents migrant deaths

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The Tucson Samaritan group treks back to their vehicles after their final stop for the day, carrying trash and empty water jugs. (Peter Tran)

Ajo, Arizona — In the Sonoran Desert northeast of Ajo, Arizona, temperatures can soar to mid-90s in late spring and above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. This vast, arid landscape of mountain ranges, arroyos and valleys, typical throughout southern Arizona, is where undocumented migrants make a path to find better life in the United States. This is also where hundreds of unfortunate ones have taken their last breath.

Sr. Judy Bourg, a regular volunteer with Tucson Samaritans, a humanitarian aid organization founded in 2002 as a mission of Southside Presbyterian Church to prevent death and suffering along the U.S.-Mexico border, recalled a jarring experience in late 2017 when she and other volunteers encountered a human skull under a mesquite tree in the desert near Ajo. "Silence fell over our group as we realized what we had discovered," said Bourg, a School Sister of Notre Dame. They contacted the sheriff's office in Ajo, which sent out two deputies to collect the remains. Bourg said the deputies "respectfully removed the skull" and sent it to the medical examiner's office in Tucson.

The Tucson Samaritans are made up of volunteers who drop off food and water in various locations in the Sonoran Desert. They come from various faith traditions or none at all. Using two donated four-wheel-drive vehicles, they carry water, food, emergency medical supplies, communication equipment and maps out to the desert daily to help people who are crossing the landscape.

Helping to end migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert is the reason groups like the Samaritans or No More Deaths came into existence in southern Arizona. The Samaritans' major mission is to provide humanitarian assistance to keep migrants from dying of dehydration.

Joining on this collaborative effort on a late spring day in May were two Franciscan friars, two School Sisters of Notre Dame, a retired registered nurse, a lay Franciscan commercial pilot, a church administrator, and a Quaker who is a member of the Samaritans and No More Deaths.

With temperature in the mid-90s, they carried out two operations. The first was a quick check of locations where they had previously dropped off gallon water jugs just outside Ajo. The second trip was a drive through the heart of the desert east of the town, then along the Coffeepot Mountain, more than 50 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Susannah Brown, a retired nurse and member of Ajo Samaritans, a group started with Tuscon Samaritans' help about seven years ago, led the two-vehicle operation in a pick-up truck loaded with green crates of one-gallon water jugs. While navigating through the rough rocky path, she pointed to a mountain on her left saying, "That's where we discovered remains of one individual." Some students who went on that trip were upset at the sight. "We comforted each other and tried to process the situation," Brown said.

She said the Ajo Samaritans discovered 58 human remains in 2017, which was unusual as they did not see that many in previous years. Brown and her husband moved to Ajo from Massachusetts after her retirement. Although she wanted to volunteer for an international organization such as Doctors without Borders, she said she is content to work with the Samaritans. "I'm just trying to stop these people from dying in our desert," Brown said.

Tucson Samaritans take a break from monitoring water stations. (Peter Tran)
The Samaritans count up the used water containers and replace them with ones filled with water. (Peter Tran)

On the first stop where Samaritans left jugs of water weeks before, the volunteers got out of the vehicles, scouring around the area looking for empty jugs or any signs of migrants using this trail. They found an empty water jug, black. Black plastic jugs are brought from Mexico, while the Samaritans' are clear plastic. The Samaritans replaced the empty jugs with six new ones and covered them with a green crate.

To prevent animals foraging it, they put a few rocks on top of the crate. "Since the desert is so vast, it is hard for migrants to know where we are leaving the water bottles. Our role is to do continuous reconnaissance of trails to identify which are being used by migrants. As a group, we keep track of where, when and how many bottles of water were used and left in the desert," said Bourg, who has joined the Tucson Samaritans on their missions for seven years.

After completing the drop-off, everyone got back in the vehicles. They passed a forest of cholla cactus with giant saguaros standing tall in the background.

Asked if she ever encounters any detractors, Brown said she has heard it all: "Go back to where you belong;" "they come to steal our jobs;" "they deserve to die if they want to risk their lives," she said. At one location where the jugs were placed a few weeks earlier, the group found six empty ones. Upon closer look, they saw each had been deliberately punctured, seemingly from the inch-wide blade of a pocket knife. Someone said, "Whoever did this must be accountable to his actions in the end."

The group repeated the drop-offs at various locations along the way. Bourg said her group rarely encounters any migrants on the trail. "However, we continue because we know that this water will be found by mothers who were forced to leave behind their children because of our unjust deportation policies; we leave water for the young who risk this dangerous journey to find a means to help their families they left behind; we place this water because we believe that all people have the right to live a life free from fear and full of hope."

The Samaritans finally came to an area impassable for their vehicles. With the temperature climbing, everyone carried as many gallons as possible in backpacks and trekked about two miles to a marked dropped-off spot. At this location under a tree and in surrounding area, they found 17 empty gallon jugs, some empty food cans, used socks and other clothing.

"Only God knows what was going on here, but we know someone was using the water," one of the Samaritans said. Although hot and tired, everyone seemed pleased to see empty water containers. After six hours in the desert, the group packed up the trash and empties and started walking back to the vehicles. They could not wait to take the rough ride home.

It was a "good" day, said Bourg, wearing a "humanitarian aid is never a crime" T-shirt, said. "The Samaritans will continue our daily trips to the desert carrying hope to a thirsty and tired people, until not one more person dies."

With that common mission, several organizations carry out similar operations in the Sonoran Desert. Humane Borders, founded in 2000, was one of the first of such groups. No More Deaths began in 2004, and Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans in 2005. Operating independently, Tucson and Ajo Samaritans collaborate periodically.

Ending migrant deaths and related suffering on the U.S.-Mexico border is also a mission of Colibri Center for Human Rights, said Reyna Araibi, who is co-founder and communications manager of the Tucson-based non-profit organization. From January to June 20, 2018, the number of migrant deaths (recovered remains) in Arizona stood at 56, she said, adding that from 1998 to 2017 more than 7,200 people have lost their lives.

Colibri is working in partnership with the Pima County Medical Examiner and the families of those missing by comparing information about missing individuals and those who died and were recovered in the desert. Araibi said their job is to find the missing and identify the dead. Over the last 12 years, they had collected nearly 3,000 detailed reports of missing persons who had disappeared in the desert.

Franciscan Br. David Buer and Sr. Judy Bourg, School Sister of Notre Dame, are part of the Tucson Samaritans. (Peter Tran)
Sonoran desert viewed from a hilltop, looking south (Peter Tran)

Araibi said the cause of death for 45 percent of migrants whose remains are recovered is "undetermined" because of the condition of the remains. For the other 55 percent of the individuals, she said the most common cause of death is related to environmental exposure, either hyperthermia, hypothermia or heat stroke.

Bourg decried the U.S. strategy of "prevention through deterrence" where "urban areas were walled off and checkpoints were placed in such a way that people attempting to cross were funneled into the driest, most remote and brutal parts of the desert, far from roads, resources or possible rescue. In other words, the U.S. used the desert wildness as a weapon."

Bourg spent 11 years in Guatemala where she witnessed the pain and suffering of people who struggled to feed and clothe their children. "Although they were poor, they welcomed me." It was this generosity that moved her to the work of hospitality for migrants.

Upon her return in 1997, she worked at a clinic in Texas for migrants and unaccompanied children from Central America. In 2010, four sisters from her congregation opened a new community in Douglas, Arizona. Their main ministry is to work with deported adult migrants at a humanitarian aid center just inside Mexico's border in Agua Prieta.

Reflecting on her desert ministry, Bourg recalled that "one early morning in the desert we encountered a middle-aged man who was stumbling toward us and collapsed. We were able to revive him, as we had two nurses with us. He said he had walked for days and had no other possessions except a tin pie plate. He ran out of water so he drank his own urine. That's why the pie plate. He decided to rest under a mesquite tree and continue his journey in the evening. I believe we saved this gentleman's life."

She said her "most joyful experiences" are when she sees that water containers left weeks earlier had been used. Another "special poignant memory," she said, is when she found in the words "muchas gracias" carved into the dirt in large letters. After years of advocating for migrant rights, Bourg said, "I find this direct humanitarian action in the desert tangibly rewarding. I believe that through the simple action of carrying water in the desert, suffering is being reduced and lives are being saved."

[Peter Tran is currently the assistant director of the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, Arizona. He is a former editor of the Union of Catholic Asian News at the main editorial office in Bangkok. During his years as a Redemptorist, his ministry was extensively in the field of pastoral care for refugees and migrants here in the United States and at the Vatican.]