Into the Desert: Migration and Humanitarian Aid on the Arizona-Sonora Border

19 images Created 16 Dec 2018

The desert terrain of Southern Arizona is continually one of the busiest areas along the U.S.-Mexico border for migrant crossings and it remains one of the deadliest. At least 129 migrants died while crossing into Arizona from Sonora, Mexico in 2017 and over 3,000 since 1999 according to data from the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants. With a greater Border Patrol presence in border towns like Nogales, AZ—which were formally highly active crossing areas—migration trails are often being pushed further west into the more remote Sonoran Desert around the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation. Here, in the low populated lands southwest of Tucson, water is scarce and trails filled with thorny trees are especially rugged. Leaving water, food, and blankets in strategic areas, groups like Humane Borders and the Samaritans see their work as crucial in saving migrant lives when so many are still dying from dehydration.

Tucson-based artist and activist Alvaro Enciso says that in addition to a lack of water for migrants, “blisters are very common, and if they can not walk, they are abandoned. In the winter, without warm garments, they freeze to death. Many have drowned in irrigation canals—they go down into the canal to fill their bottles but can not get out as the walls are slippery and the current swift.”

Enciso, who makes weekly trips into the desert, is part of a sizable community of activists and humanitarian aid volunteers working collaboratively to help save lives and remember those who died on their journey. While this community began growing as migrant deaths increased in the early 2000s in the post-NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) era, Arizona activists say the interest in humanitarian aid work has especially jumped since Donald Trump became president. Since then, there has also been a push to hire more Border Patrol agents and build a bigger border wall and activists in turn have seen more resistance to their aid work. Humane Borders has seen their water dispensers shot at while others have seen water gallons slashed open; several volunteers with No More Deaths were charged with misdemeanors for leaving water in a wildlife refuge near Ajo and their volunteer Scott Warren was charged with a felony for harboring migrants in January of 2018.

Rev. John Fife, who helped start Tucson’s sanctuary movement for refugees in the 1980s and several humanitarian groups like No More Deaths in the early-2000s, says these type of charges only add to the urgency of the work. “What we have seen is, even since Scott’s arrest, the number of volunteers and the number of people supportive and helping those [humanitarian] organizations has dramatically increased,” says Fife. “And I anticipate that that’s going to continue.”
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