Volunteers with the Tucson Samaritans have spent the past 10 years providing humanitarian aid to people crossing the desert over the U.S.-Mexico border. According to media representative Kathryn Ferguson, the group will mark the anniversary with Flood the Desert on Saturday and Sunday, June 30 and July 1. The event begins at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday with a caravan from Southside Presbyterian Church, 317 W. 23rd St. It ends Sunday with volunteer training. For more information, visit tucsonsamaritans.org.
Why is the anniversary significant?
We're not celebrating. That's important to understand. This is actually kind of a sad and depressing thing we do: Go into the desert every day of the year on hiking trails, looking for people—people who are ill or dying. It's a type of search and rescue. We're not allowed to put people in our cars. What we do is difficult. We assess a medical situation if we need to. If we meet people who are in good shape; we give them food and water; and then we never see them again. If they are in need of serious medical attention, we will call the sheriff or an ambulance.
Why mark this anniversary?
Personally ... every person I have encountered in the desert has had an impact on me. My encounters one-on-one are remarkable, and it is largely the reason we've been doing this work. We are responding to the crisis of death along the U.S.-Mexico border. It is continuing, and we shouldn't be out there. This should not be a political problem anymore and should have been taken care of.
So, while Samaritans is not celebrating, Samaritans is declaring that the problem hasn't gone away as it should have.
Yes, it's our 10-year anniversary of putting a Band-Aid on a humanitarian and political crisis. We shouldn't have been out there for 10 years handing water to people.
The caravan taking place—is that typical?
No. Normally, we go out with one or two vehicles every day. The idea really is to flood the desert with people and be a presence. We're a transparent organization, and we want people to know we are out there and know this is still going on. Every day, we see the Border Patrol, Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Interior, ranchers, Minutemen—a big variety of people when we travel 2,000 miles of trails, But this day, we want to be a particularly big presence.
What happens on Sunday?
That morning at Southside (Presbyterian), the minister, Alison Harrington, is going to give a special sermon on the crisis, and people can bring gallons of water. We will also have a Samaritan training if anyone wants to volunteer and go out with Samaritans in the desert.
Do you still have a need for volunteers?
We hear in the media that there are no migrants coming into the United States, but we see people all the time, and those who live out in Arivaca see many, many people coming in every day. We have many volunteers and have a training once a month. We want to remind people that people still come across, still need water—and people die.
Do you do other work to help change immigration policy?
We're doing a big joint effort with other humanitarian groups—getting a letter signed by doctors and nurses in the medical community to support this as an international humanitarian medical crisis. We follow the guidelines of the International Red Cross. We act as a neutral body to get humanitarian aid to people, and now we're trying to get this declared an international humanitarian emergency.
Do you think people forget there is a crisis?
It's hard for people to fathom the numbers. More than 5,000 people have died while crossing the Arizona desert in the last 10 years. Because of intense heat and dangerous terrain, record numbers die of dehydration and injuries. The media has declared that few people are coming in (today). We know that's not true. But perhaps that helps Border Patrol get the message (out). ... More and more remains are found in the desert. People die out there, and perhaps that's part of the problem: Death isn't sexy, so it's easier to report that no one is crossing rather than talk about people who are dying. That's the reality out in the desert, and it's a reality our volunteers see first hand just helping people or finding their remains.