Back to Mexico

No More Deaths and the state of Sonora team up to give aid to unsuccessful border crossers

One morning in Mexico, a few feet from the border, Alicia Bruno de la Paz, a 40-year-old mother of three, is sitting inside a broiling white tent.

It's 94 degrees, coolish for an August day in the Sonoran Desert, and the long tent is open to the air at either end. But the fierce sun overhead is heating it up by the minute. De la Paz is hot and exhausted, but at least she's better off than she was the day before, when she'd been wandering lost and alone in the rough desert of Southern Arizona.

Now she seems perplexed, if not a little amused, by the scene unfolding before her, in this tent in Nogales. The U.S. Border Patrol had picked her up and sent her back to Mexico in short order, but now a young American is crouched improbably on the ground in front of her. In a gesture that echoes the biblical image of Jesus washing the feet of the downtrodden, the American bathes the Mexican's blistered feet in a basin of cool water.

The young woman doing the washing is 23-year-old Maryada Vallet. She's a volunteer with No More Deaths, a coalition of Tucson activist groups that for three summers has tried to stanch the annual toll of migrant deaths in the Arizona desert. This year, the group tried a new tactic: In cooperation with the state of Sonora, the Americans set up aid tents on the Mexican side of the border, in both Nogales and Agua Prieta, to minister to the "voluntarily returned" migrants freshly disgorged from the U.S. Homeland Security buses.

"We want everyone to have a liter of water and a little bag of two burritos," says Vallet, an emergency medical technician. "We do a lot of first aid, checking vitals. We call an ambulance if necessary."

Many, like de la Paz, have already undergone a long and difficult journey by the time they get caught by la Migra.

"They need help," Vallet says. "The reality is most will try crossing the border again. They'll do whatever it takes. If they try immediately, with blisters and dehydration, they'll be more at risk."

The volunteers are also collecting migrants' stories, in hopes of compiling a report that will document immigration trends as well as any complaints against the Border Patrol. While Vallet works on her feet, binding up her blisters, de la Paz tells a tale that's become all too familiar.

A native of the Mexican state of Chiapas, de la Paz got herself to Altar, the wild north Sonoran town overrun with coyotes and migrants from all over Mexico and Central America. Casas de huespedes--migrant flophouses--have sprung up on almost every street, and the plaza is ringed with vans and taxicabs waiting to take travelers to the border.

"A coyote recruited me," she says in Spanish. She managed to make a good deal: She paid no money up front; the guide agreed to accept $1,700 from her nephew in Tennessee only after she'd safely arrived in the United States. She has no complaints about the guide and his partner. "The coyotes treated me well."

The group of 14 migrants and two coyotes crossed the border near Sasabe in the cool of a Sunday evening and walked all night, keeping the peak of Baboquivari always to their left, to the west. The country there is hilly and pockmarked by rocks, and its trails are thick with the prickly branches of low-lying mesquites. De la Paz saw none of the dead the desert regularly claims, but, she says, "I saw two graves," hidden away in the slopes.

The group hiked all day Monday, and through the next night, taking occasional rests. "My shoes were too small," she says, and all those downhills soon gave her blisters and damaged her toenails. Still, she kept up with her fellow travelers until Tuesday morning, when they were spooked by a Border Patrol helicopter hovering overhead.

Everyone scattered into the desert. Most of her fellow travelers were men, she says. "They ran so fast, I couldn't keep up." She was left alone, and terrified.

Hobbled by her inflamed feet, she managed to get out to Route 286, the ranch road that goes north from the border at Sasabe to Three Points. Before the Border Patrol found her, she hoped for help from drivers zipping by. "Only one stopped," she says, gave her some water and then sped away.

"People are afraid," Vallet tells her in Spanish. It was just last summer, after all, that two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested for driving migrants they said were ailing and in need of medical care. (Last week, a federal judge dismissed all charges against the pair.)

De la Paz nods. She's familiar with border politics and border fears. Before she ever got to Nogales, she says, she'd seen images on TV of the infamous metal fence snaking between Arizona and Sonora in Nogales. And back home in the coastal town of Tapachula, Chiapas, clear at the other end of Mexico, she lives close to the Guatemalan border, where hordes of desperate Central Americans play cat-and-mouse with Mexican border agents, in a mirror image of the American border chaos.

Chiapas routinely loses its own people, too. In Tapachula, "The men have left," she says, "and the women clean houses and work in kitchens."

For half the year, her husband, José Antonio, and their 17-year-old son, Didier, go north to pick grapes in a vineyard outside Hermosillo, in Sonora. De la Paz does laundry for hire in Tapachula, but lately, she's been joining the grape migration herself, moving for six months at a time to the workers' barracks at the vineyard, and leaving 11-year-old Lester and 10-year-old Emili in Tapachula in the care of her sister.

This year, though, she formed a new plan. She'd go farther north, to the United States, to join her nephew in Tennessee, where she would do "cualquier trabajo," whatever work she could find. She'd stay just two years, long enough to earn enough money to build a house of her own.

But the mortgage for this dream house--the perilous journey--could have cost de la Paz her life. Now, marooned in Nogales, she has no money and no way she knows of to get back home. Many migrants dropped over the international line by the Border Patrol try to cross again within a few days, but she has no intention of returning to the desert.

"Nunca," she says, shaking her head. Never. "No vale mi vida." It's not worth my life.

The same day that Alicia de la Paz plunged her feet into Vallet's healing waters in Nogales, Kirsten Fike, a young National Guardswoman from Pennsylvania, collapsed in Yuma, a couple of hours to the west. Fike, a 36-year-old single mother, had spent just two hours in the 104-degree heat, stretching some netting along the international line. She died the next day, leaving behind a 13-year-old son.

Death comes easily in the desert, but most who die are migrants not unlike Alicia de la Paz, aspiring laundresses or construction workers from a more benevolent climate who stake everything on a plan to staff the hotels and building sites of America.

So far this fiscal year, between Oct. 1, 2005, when the Border Patrol starts counting, and Aug. 30, 146 of them died on the highways and in the desert of Southern Arizona. They perished in the Tucson sector, says Jesus Rodriguez, a spokesman in the Border Patrol's Public Affairs Office, the piece of Southern Arizona that stretches from New Mexico almost to Yuma.

But the death totals are always a matter of grim dispute. The Tucson activist group Derechos Humanos, working with county medical examiners, tallies 171 for this fiscal year, and their numbers so far only go through July 31.

In any case, the carnage so far is lower this year than last. For the same period last year--Oct. 1 through Aug. 30--the Border Patrol tallied 198 deaths. Of course, all these numbers only include the dead who have been found.

The Border Patrol arrest numbers are down, too: 368,000 apprehensions this fiscal year so far, down from 408,600 in the same time frame last year. Rodriguez says the drop in both categories suggests that greater enforcement is beginning to work.

"It's a combination of a lot of things," he says. "We have 2,400 agents sector-wide, (compared to) 2,000 agents sector-wide last year. We have more technology, more helicopters patrolling the area. We have an extra set of eyes and ears in the National Guard," first deployed to Arizona this summer.

"I hope the word is spreading that it's getting harder to cross. And I hope the message is getting through that it's dangerous."

Vallet blames a "failed border policy" for the deaths, and argues that it's hard to pin down exactly why fewer people have lost their lives. Stepped-up enforcement could have played a role, but it's been cooler this summer than last, with more rain. Some border watchers have speculated that the migrant bulge has begun to move west, to Yuma, or even to California east of San Diego.

"Everyone wants to claim credit," she says. "But it would be cruel to say it was a `victorious summer.' People are still dying, and one death is still too many."

Still, the No More Deaths folks count their humanitarian efforts as at least a partial success. They operate on Mexican soil under an official agreement with the Sonoran State Commission for the Care of Migrants, which has its own reasons to be concerned about the waves of migrants dropped in its towns. A small army of 75 alternating volunteers staffed the Nogales tent 24-7 for six weeks during July and August. They started their stint with a "truckload" of 18,000 one-liter bottles of water, and just 3,000 remained at the end of the six weeks.

"Our priority is water," Vallet says.

They also made and distributed some 800 bean burritos a day and gave out donated shoes and socks. Medically trained volunteers performed basic medical evaluations, testing diabetics' blood sugar, measuring blood pressure, taking temperatures. Everyone was able to bathe swollen feet, apply medicine to fungus-infested toes, put bandages on blisters.

Sometimes migrants would rest for an afternoon on one of the cots in the tent, or "during the night, if women and children were dropped off, they could go back to the commission office and sleep awhile."

Several dozen migrants were taken to a local hospital, either via a funky SUV that belongs to No More Deaths, by ambulance or by courtesy of the Grupo Beta, Mexican border guards.

The original agreement between No More Deaths and the State Commission called for the tent volunteers to work just through July and August, the deadliest months. But at a meeting three weeks ago, both sides agreed to continue the effort, but on a more modest scale.

"This is such good work, and there's such a need for it," Vallet says, but the around-the-clock watches were "so intense" that the hours have been curtailed and the night shift eliminated. Instead of 24 hours a day, the volunteers will staff the tent 16 hours daily, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"We'll have a trial period, and continue to do this as long as possible," Vallet says. "We're still sending volunteers and supplies, but our Mexican partners are doing more of the logistics now," recruiting volunteers in their own country among university students and church members, and getting donations of tortillas. "They're spending a lot on bus tickets" to send people at least part of the way home.

"The partnership being founded was a big success. It will last, and it will continue to do a lot of work."

On the morning that de la Paz turns up in the tent, the Border Patrol has unleashed a small flood of those people back into Nogales. More than 200 souls pour out of four Homeland Security buses. And that's just between 8 a.m. and noon. (Rodriguez says the Border Patrol does not keep statistics on the numbers shipped to Mexico each day.)

The travelers trudge along in the heat on a bridge through no-man's land, over a deep wash cut in half by the border fence. They arrive in Mexico on foot, to the casual scrutiny of a couple of uniformed guards. Only occasionally do the guards ask for papers.

Mostly men, they're dressed in dusty jeans, plaid shirts and sneakers. Some are still carrying the ubiquitous migrant backpack, but others, empty-handed, have lost everything in the failed journey. One man, a scar etched into his face, crosses himself as he steps back onto Mexican soil.

The United States drops the migrants off at the truck port of entry in the barren western end of Nogales, a tangle of highway ramps and offices. With no tiendas or vendors to welcome them home, they walk down a ramp to the aid tents. A couple of Mexican volunteers, Gilbert Flores and Felipe Eriberto, both of them stranded deportees with no place to go, greet them in Spanish.

Rodriguez says the Border Patrol always gives water and sometimes food to detainees, but the new arrivals eagerly grab the water bottles and foil-wrapped burritos piled on a table. They greedily tip their heads back to drink. Several peruse flyers alerting them to a free meal given out at a local Catholic church, and to shelters where they can stay free for three nights.

Some want to talk, and they linger, sitting down on a curb to eat and swap stories. Others, glad to be out of custody and on their own, take what they need and hurry down the hill into town. But some have problems, and soon the white tent fills up. A half-dozen volunteers flutter around, directing the able-bodied to a box of donated shoes, offering them their pick of clean white socks. Those suffering from assorted ills of the feet sit down and accept a foot bath from volunteers on bended knee.

One 20-something, a fluent English speaker, gives his name as George. "I've been in the United States since I was 14," he says.

Now he's stuck here, with a diagnosis of fungus under his damaged toenails.

A 19-year-old girl, swathed in a sweatshirt too warm for the summer, is feverish, and she's ushered into the tent with her uncle and a few cousins. At first, volunteer Jason Odhner, a student in a certified nursing assistant program, is alarmed by some large white bumps on her arm. The young woman is baffled by his kindly efforts to stick a thermometer in her mouth, and she begins to cry. But she starts to feel better once she gets out of the heavy sweatshirt and into a donated T-shirt. She manages to explain that the bumps are not a sign of some virulent disease, as Odhner feared, just warts she's had for years. She slips away warily with her family.

Abelino Hernandez Espinosa, 55, takes a little longer to recover. A guitarist from Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, he has high blood pressure, and he's feeling dizzy and faint. He had walked through "la tierra de los indios," the Tohono O'odham reservation west of Tucson, before getting caught. La Migra, he says, treated him well enough, and the Border Patrol agents who arrested him were concerned enough about his condition that they took him to St. Mary's Hospital. But they waited around until he was discharged from the emergency room--with written instructions to follow up with his doctor in a day or two--and sent him back by bus to Mexico.

Hernandez had been headed for Alabama, where his sister works in a McDonald's, he says, and where he intended to get in on the post-Hurricane Katrina construction boom. But like de la Paz, he found that he's a little too old for a desert hike. He wants to return home to his wife and his three grown children, he says, pulling a photo of the whole family from his wallet. Arizona is nothing like green Veracruz, a lush state on the Gulf of Mexico, and he wants no part of another desert trek.

"Es muy feo en el desierto," he says. It's ugly in the desert.

No More Deaths never gives out money, but the best news Hernandez--and Alicia Bruno de la Paz--get all day is that the Sonoran State Commission for the Care of Migrants sometimes will buy migrants bus tickets back home.

Vallet loads up de la Paz into the rickety No More Deaths SUV, along with a high school volunteer from suburban Philadelphia, and steers it through the crowded Nogales streets, passing schoolkids and women doing their marketing, past farmacias and carnicerias in pastel-painted buildings. De la Paz, cheered up now, looks on with interest.

"This is a pretty town," she declares.

The commission's office is in a red-and-white stucco building on the populous east end of town, in a red-light district near the pedestrian border and the tourist trinket shops. The bruise-colored border fence hugs the slopes on the other side of the street. The American volunteers have used the office as a base all summer, storing up the mountains of water bottles there, and even sleeping in cots in one of its rooms.

José Antonio Rivera Cortez, the commissioner, knows firsthand the tragedies of border life, having once worked in Tucson as the Mexican consul. On this particular day, he's been called to Magdalena on family business, but his volunteer assistant, Xochitl Barreras, a law student in Nogales, is energetically running the place, making phone call after phone call, tapping away on the computer.

"Our mission," she says in Spanish, "is to help immigrants, to give them care, to help them return to their families and places of origin."

The city of Nogales and the state of Sonora jointly put together money to buy bus tickets to send people back, she says. They'll buy tickets only as far as Mexico City, though, and they won't buy tickets to towns along the border, to avoid the appearance of helping their countrymen enter the United States.

"We can't help people cross," Barreras says firmly. "We won't send them to places along the border. People who live close to the border, we can't help."

They can stay free in the city's migrant shelters for three days. The commission workers make a stab at finding them jobs, but with so many desperate people pouring into town, the competition is fierce. Homeless and jobless--and hundreds or even a thousand miles from home--not a few migrants try to cross again, Barreras readily acknowledges.

If border communities in the United States are burdened by the migrant onslaught, so are their counterparts in Mexico.

"It's a problem for Nogales," Barreras says. "So many migrants arrive here. Many stay here, become hobos or bums, and cause problems, even rob people."

But if bus tickets out of town help Nogales ease a spiraling social problem, they can be a lifesaver for stranded people like de la Paz.

Barreras beams, and she invites the Chiapas woman to sit down at her desk. She compiles data, entering de la Paz's name, age and hometown. The commission can't buy her a ticket all the way back to Tapachula; that's fine with de la Paz. She just needs to get to Hermosillo and back to the grape vineyard, where José Antonio and Didier no doubt are worrying over what's become of her.

While Barreras works the phone to inform the bus company another passenger is on the way, Vallet tells de la Paz she can get cleaned up in the bathroom. The volunteer issues her a brand-new tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, deodorant and a clean T-shirt. But when de la Paz goes to the dingy, dirty bathroom, she faces still another setback: no running water. Often, in late morning, Vallet apologizes, the water stops running in Nogales. Instead of a shower, or even a sponge bath in the sink, de la Paz must make do with one of the all-purpose liter bottles of water to wash with.

When she emerges, though, she's all smiles. She feels "mucho mejor." Much better. Then it's back to the office to settle down and wait for the labyrinthine Mexican bureaucracy to play out. Barreras has a million things to do: an official letter to type on the computer and print out, authorizing the ticket, and phone calls to make, to find someone to drive de la Paz to the bus station.

Vallet has work to do, too, back at the tent, so the Philadelphia high school student volunteers to sit and wait with de la Paz. The woman from Chiapas doles out hugs all around.

"Muchas gracias," she says with a smile. "Thanks for helping me."

Along the border, more customers await Vallet and the other volunteers. A young black man from Guerrero, a southern state with a historically black population, has happened upon the kindly folks at the tent, and he regales them with his plans. He has not even tried to cross yet. He's 22 years old and in high spirits about his big adventure.

Giving his name only as Benjamin, he boasts that he hitched a ride all the way to the border on the tops of trains, sitting outside on the dangerous roofs, where bandits prowl. He's headed for "Nueva York," he declares in Spanish. "I know it already from television."

In New York, he says, there will be cars--he moves his hands in pantomime, pretending to steer--and money. Sure, there are cars and money in Guerrero, he agrees, "but not for me."

He can't pay for a coyote, and he foresees no problem walking across the desert alone. Flores, the Mexican volunteer, tries to put the kibosh on Benjamin's bravado. "There are snakes and gangsters," Flores argues. Benjamin brushes off the warnings, saying, "I know the risks, but I have no choice." Still, his face clouds when the experienced migrants sitting nearby tell him it can take days and days to cross the desert.

And then he admits he hurt his hand atop a train. It could be broken. A volunteer takes a look and fires up the SUV; the two of them head off to the hospital. As they drive away, the Veracruz guitarist starts asking about the free bus tickets he's been hearing about. The volunteers put their heads together to plot how to get him to the office and Barreras, when they hear a rumbling noise. They look up.

Another Homeland Security bus has just pulled up on the other side of the wash, and dozens more migrants are beginning the slow walk over the border, back to Mexico.

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