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CALLING ALL GOOD SAMARITANS. The statistics are astounding.

"In the first nine months of 2002, 133 migrants were found dead in the Southern Arizona desert. That's nearly twice the number found in all of 2001, and more than 10 times the number found in all of 1998."

These numbers come from a report written by a group calling themselves the Samaritans. They're a coalition of 11 faith-based organizations, some 1,200 to 1,500 people strong, conscious of the issues rumbling at the U.S./Mexico border just south of Tucson. They formed a year ago in April and their mission is to save lives, says Linda Ray, one of its early Tucson members and moderator of the group's upcoming training to prepare volunteers for Civil Initiative.

"That's the umbrella term for the Samaritans," explains Ray. "It's all above-board and legal. The size of our collation and our congregations give us legitimacy. The Border Patrol even has a copy of our protocol."

Twenty years ago, when the Initiative began with the sanctuary movement, refugees were seeking political asylum in the United States due to unbearable government oppression. Now, refugees from Mexico are, for the most part, seeking economic improvements to their lives. And hundreds of them will die doing it.

Ray says the number of crossings is climbing due to changes in NAFTA. In January, U.S. producers were given the go-ahead to ship price-reduced produce to Mexico. That eliminated many opportunities for people to farm in Mexico, and folks are streaming across the border in far greater numbers this year.

"And they're not prepared for crossing the desert. It used to be that people would come through urban areas. They could siphon off water from a backyard hose. They could actually run into people who would offer them food," explains Ray.

"Now, they're forced to come through the desert. That's two to six days of walking in 100-plus temperatures totally unprepared. Most are found on the Tohono O'odham reservation. Either their coyotes lie to them or they just believe the legends that promise they'll make it.

"And if they travel by night, it takes even longer. Plus, without light, they're likely to get injured on rocks or cactus or run into animals and snakes that pose even more dangers to them."

So why are people now forced to come through the desert instead of going from town to town?

"It's border policy that's changed everything, not the Border Patrol on the ground," offers Ray.

"Little, tiny Naco now has walls and towers and Border Patrol agents swarming, making it impossible to cross through there. People are threatening groups of migrants, scattering them. It's guys wearing camouflage outfits and guns on their belts."

Border Patrol guys?

"Well, they could be Border Patrol," says Ray. "It could be undercover agents. But these guys were acting inappropriately, especially to women and kids who are just trying to reconnect with family who've sent for them in the States."

Ray is adamant about the Samaritans' relationship with Border Patrol. And it's not what you'd expect.

"Our relationship with them is excellent. We couldn't be out there without their consent. We send upwards of 10 patrols each week out to Highway 86, south near Sells and down towards Ajo on Highway 286. Border Patrol is out there 24/7. With that kind of coverage, they're bound to save lives. If it weren't for Border Patrol, I think there'd be a whole lot more deaths."

The work of the Samaritans is not all that complex: Train people on immigration law, on the role of the Border Patrol and, most importantly, on how to recognize when someone might need emergency medical help. Volunteers are encouraged to take a CPR class. All the Samaritans ask for is a weekly commitment to meetings and some level of participation in the patrols. They assume that people who sign up already know they want to do this work and are OK with the Quaker-like meetings and faith-based philosophy behind the Initiative.

"We're not grabbing refugees in our own cars," explains Ray of their protocol. "We're often just cleaning up the migrant campsites. One time, we found a taffeta dress and high heels. People are truly unprepared for desert crossing.

"There's never a clean-up trip where I haven't been moved to tears. We've found little bottles of Pedialyte, a Spanish Bible, even a psychology textbook."

The Samaritans' aren't just cleaning up the basura grande--big garbage--sites. Their mission is to save lives by offering food and water to hungry and dehydrated travelers, but also to tell them where they are if they've been separated from their group.

"We always ask people if they want us to call Border Patrol for them or to call an ambulance," adds Ray.

When she hears the familiar backlash about illegals taking away jobs from U.S. citizens, Ray borrows a recent line from a comedian.

"Nobody's taking away their Walgreens jobs!"

And she adds, "They're doing farm labor that nobody wants to do. They're doing child-care and housekeeping. And now, increasingly, they're taking care of old people in this country.

"Why not admit that our economy needs these workers?"

One time, says Ray, an unusually insensitive Border Patrol agent even asked her, "Why don't all you old church ladies help really needy folks in Arkansas?"

Ray's response was that there are probably plenty of old church ladies in Arkansas who are doing just that. But the Samaritans work here in their own backyard helping people deal with the ramifications of an increasingly nonporous border.

"We'll be here for as long as it takes," qualifies Ray.

The Samaritans' volunteer training takes place on Sunday, June 29, from 2 to 5 p.m., at Southside Presbyterian Church, located at 317 W. 23rd St. Spanish speakers are especially needed as are medical professionals and those with four-wheel-drive vehicles.

For details, call 620-0725 or e-mail samaritanpatrol@aol.com.

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