“Hold on, y’all. This might be bumpy.” The dozen passengers of the red pickup truck affectionately dubbed “the Roja” braced themselves as the road approached a creek bed in southern Arizona. The truck tipped into the gulch, tires growling against the gravel, then climbed back out triumphantly under the baking desert sun. The passengers in the cab cheered and clapped.
After spending months in the Mexican highlands, I wanted to see the borderlands where the United States and Mexico connect. To do so, I’ve traveled to the Sonora Desert in southern Arizona, joining a team of volunteers dedicated to humanitarianism. Today, like most days, we drive these back roads just north of the border equipped with water, food and medical supplies. Known as No Más Muertes, or No More Deaths, the group’s mission is to cut down on the number of casualties in the desert — numbers that have grown steadily as the exodus of migrants from Mexico and Central America into the United States continues.
No More Deaths was founded in 2004 by a diverse collection of faith-based and social activist groups, as well as other concerned individuals who found the current conditions of the southern Arizona border morally intolerable. Since the early 1990s, more than 3,000 migrants have died in the Arizona desert. Every day, somebody dies in the desert. Driven by severe economic desperation and frustrated by U.S. border policy, people steadily continue to brave the brutal journey through the arid wilderness. The volunteers of No More Deaths work to curtail the numbers of people whose lives have been lost in these dangerous, less-protected regions that are so commonly traversed.
“I am an American citizen, and I respect my country’s right to defend its sovereignty,” said one volunteer. “And I am also a human being, a person, and I cannot continue to watch other human beings die in my own backyard.”
No More Deaths does not promote an influx of migrants crossing illegally into the United States; they simply demand a humane border between the United States and Mexico.
And in this day and age, a little bit of humanity is not so unreasonable a demand.
The Arizona desert is a beautiful and unforgiving place. In the summertime, the midday heat can spike to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. While many No More Deaths volunteers are locals, volunteers come from all over world, ranging from clergy members to college students. Rattling along these back roads and walking the cactus-dotted trails in the desert together, people from a diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints unite around humanitarianism. We quickly learn the language of the desert environment — both for ourselves, and for those whose lives literally depend on surviving here.
Volunteering for No More Deaths for a few weeks has given me a front-seat view of the lives and livelihoods surrounding this incredibly conflicted area — a place and a situation that is anything but simple.
“Why did you come to the border?” is a commonly asked question, especially for those of us who are not from the Southwest.
For me, that answer is straightforward: I want to better understand the nature of our physical border with our southern neighbors — especially after seeing so many of the nonphysical ways in which our countries correspond. If I have the ability to help people in danger at the same time, people of any nationality, all the better.
Our truck rounds the corner of one of these seldom-used, washed-out roads and stops suddenly: a 17-year-old boy is standing in the road, waving us down with an empty water bottle.
“Please help me,” he said. “I haven’t eaten or had anything to drink in days.” He could barely stand. The boy’s story was not unusual; coming from Mexico, he had been told that crossing the desert would take about a day. Five days in the desert later, he fell behind and lost his group.
If he hadn’t run into help exactly when he did, his kidneys would have failed.
“We find people in terrible shape all of the time,” said one local rancher. “Families, children, old people, everyone. Many have no idea what they’re getting into when they start. It’s just lucky when we do find them — too many are lost out here and never heard from again. The desert is a dangerous place to cross.”
In the cool of the evening, the group gathers to discuss and process the events of the day. Dusty lawn chairs are arranged in a circle. “After being out here, I have faces where I once had headlines,” said one volunteer.
The bonfire flickers, and a coyote howls in the distance. “The border is more complicated than I expected,” someone else said. “At least giving water is simple.”
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday.