Sarah Roberts and I load a Jeep with bottled water, canned beans and tuna, and medical supplies. We leave Tucson and take I-19 south to the ramshackle, off-the-grid town of Arivaca, about 10 miles north of the Mexican border and a little over 30 miles northwest of Nogales, a port of entry. We then drive about an hour into the Sonoran Desert and park. Before we begin walking, Roberts leaves a bottle of water by the Jeep. For someone in need.
We carry our supplies and follow a dry stream to a ruined dirt bank and climb it to a trail and continue uphill into the brush. Just 10:30 this April morning. Already a simmering, unfriendly warmth. Temperatures should reach the 90s today, Roberts says. In the summer, it will be much hotter. Over 100 some days. The U.S. National Park Service recommends that hikers drink one half to one full quart of water every hour in extreme heat. No way can the people we hope to help today carry enough water.
The U.S. Border Patrol estimates more than 6,500 migrants have died near the U.S./Mexico border since 1998. Increased law enforcement has led, some advocates say, to migrants taking more obscure and dangerous routes north through increasingly barren and uninhabited terrain. Their suspicions are well founded. The 1994 National Border Patrol Strategy put forth a plan deliberately designed to make migration more difficult and potentially deadly.
“The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement,” the report reads.
In 2002, more than 200 migrant men and women died crossing into Arizona. Roberts presumes many more lost their lives but that their bodies were never found. That year, she and other immigration activists and people of faith formed Tucson Samaritans, a group of more than 100 volunteers who go out into the desert seven days a week to assist migrants. They leave food, water, socks and medical supplies along known and suspected travel routes.
“We can offer food, water, medical attention,” Roberts tells me. “That’s not violating the law, but we can’t harbor, transport or further their illegal presence in the United States. One time, we came across a migrant who asked, ‘Where is Chicago?’ We explained how far we are from Tucson let alone Chicago. We showed them a map where they were. But we didn’t give directions. That would be considered furthering an illegal presence.”
Roberts grew up in Ohio, raised by “socially conscious” parents. In high school and college, Roberts met “social justice types” involved in migrant rights. Later, she spent part of her college years studying in Spain. In the early 1980s, she chose to earn a nursing degree in Tucson where she had friends. She never left.
It was as a nurse at Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson that Roberts met Janet, a migrant in her mid-20s from the Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. Her mother had cancer. Janet wanted to work in the U.S. and pay for her mother’s medication. However, she broke an ankle crossing over. Left behind by other migrants, she tied discarded clothing to her knees and crawled and hobbled north for four days. At night, she’d look at the sky and see her mother’s face. It rained, and she drank water from puddles. At one point, she reached an empty, unlocked house. Photos of men in military gear on its walls made her feel unsafe and she left. She made her way to a road. A passerby picked her up and took her to the hospital. Because she was not in the custody of the border patrol, the hospital released her after she recovered.
Janet lives in Idaho today. Roberts still hears from her.
The trail we follow out of the wash leads us into Wilbur Canyon, part of the 117,464-acre Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. We pause by a mesquite tree, a rolled blanket beneath it. Roberts nudges the blanket with a stick, wary of snakes and scorpions. Ants scurry over a comb, a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, a small shampoo bottle and empty Red Bull cans. Red Bull and other energy drinks may hold off exhaustion, but they also contribute to dehydration. Near the cans, a black water jug. Black so it doesn’t reflect the sun. We also notice torn slippers with thick soles of carpet. The slippers don’t leave tracks for the border patrol to follow.
I imagine a man or woman folding a blanket beneath a tree, perhaps hiding it from the border patrol, perhaps leaving it for someone else, perhaps out of habit. Get up, fold your blanket, brush your teeth, comb your hair, start your day. Everything I see scattered on the ground is part of a life left behind while a lifetime of habits continues north.
Roberts points to a large, round barrel cactus. It grows at an angle pointing south. Migrants use it as a kind of compass. Walk in the opposite direction from where the cactus points and you’ll be headed north.
A thin, acidic, water-like fluid runs through the cactus. It can make you sick, Roberts explains. Cutting into the cactus exposes a prickly pulp that’s good to eat but full of small stickers. You have to clean it first, Roberts says. Samaritans have pulled thorns from the mouths of migrants who bit into the cactus desperate for food and water.
Another compass point: Baboquivari Peak, a distant, solitary rise of barren rock in the Baboquivari Mountain Range. A telescope, part of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, glints in the sunlight far to one side of it. The range runs north to south. As long as migrants keep the telescope on their left they’ll be heading north, Roberts says.
I squint at the peak and the land between us. I could stand here for an hour and not see anyone or anything other than cacti and mesquite trees.
“Amigos,” Roberts shouts. “Somos Americanos con comida y agua. Estamos con una iglesia.” Friends, we are Americans with food and water. We are with a church.
“No tengas miedo. No somos policías,” Roberts shouts. Do not be afraid. We are not police.
The echo of her voice fades. A breeze rustles the knee-high, pale grass. Birds call and flit past. Pebbles roll down an embankment. The sky remains motionless, cloudless and empty.
One year, two Samaritan volunteers saw vultures in an otherwise vacant sky. Should we stop? they asked themselves. Perhaps it was intuition, Roberts says, but they walked toward the spot the birds circled to a gully. A man called out. He was in his mid-30s and from Honduras. He had injured his legs and could no longer walk or stand.
“Tenemos agua y comida, suministros médicos,” Roberts calls. We have water and food, medical supplies.
Nothing. Roberts starts walking.
“We see less usage of the water we put out overall,” she says. “Maybe fewer people are crossing. Maybe it’s the Trump effect. Maybe it’s the cartels controlling the flow of migrants. We don’t know. Sometimes they stay hidden unless they need the help.”
Not every migrant in need has had the good fortune of a Samaritan stumbling across them. Roberts tells me of the body of a man found drowned in a water tank. Another man died on the side of a road. Still another on a bluff overlooking houses with pools.
In 2009, Roberts received a call from a young Guatemalan man in Oakland, California, whose fiancée could not go on. Credencia Artine Gomez had crossed into the U.S. that summer, part of a group of migrants, but was left behind when she became ill. The young man, Ismael, had not realized she had decided to cross. He had planned to send for her once he was settled. His father was in the Guatemalan military, and Ismael fled the country when groups critical of the military threatened him. Credencia, he learned later from the migrants who had crossed with her, wanted to surprise him.
I just want to find her body, Ismael told Roberts.
Guatemalan migrants who had come after Credencia told him they had seen her remains by a power line pole in Ironwood Forest National Monument park, west of Tucson. Power Line 78, they said. She was wearing a dark red sweatshirt and jeans. She had long, flowing black hair, Ismael told Roberts. A tattoo on her left wrist. Roberts and three other Samaritans searched but found nothing.
How far from power pole? Roberts asked Ismael after the failed search.
Ten minutes west maybe, he guessed.
Roberts went out with another migrant aid group, Humane Borders, and continued the search. They found Credencia’s body by a dry creek just as Ismael had said, about a 10-minute walk from Power Line 78. Had it rained she might have had enough water to survive. The body had decomposed and was dismembered by scavengers.
Roberts flew to Oakland to tell Ismael. He was so distraught, she recalls. He’d lost the love of his life. He didn’t know what to do. He told her he had met Credencia when they were 13 or 14. The knew they wanted to be together even then. He’d always see her walking home from school or playing basketball. They both were athletic. She was 18 when she died. He was crushed. The last time Roberts heard from him, he had moved to Washington.
“Their lives are a form of resistance, I think,” Roberts says. “I’ve seen how people find the strength to not give up. There is so much sadness, but, despite everything, they keep coming.”
We walk a little farther and find a mesquite tree with six bottles of water and five cans of beans. A Samaritan drop site, greetings scrawled on the bottles: Buena suerte. Good luck. Ten un viaje seguro. Have a safe journey.
Not everyone wishes migrants well. Roberts has found slashed water bottles and bottles with red water. Dye or poison? She doesn’t know. She’s also found notes: We hope you die.
Roberts and I examine the bottles. One appears half empty. Someone passed through here. She tells me to leave one of the water bottles we brought and offers a Magic Marker.
I take the marker. I have no idea what to say.
“Bienvenido,” Roberts suggests. Welcome.