Mexican immigrants trying to cross the great divide

US soldiers and vigilantes are cracking down hard on illegal border traffic. But the millions of Mexicans still willing to risk death to emigrate have an unlikely new ally.
Click to follow
The Independent US

As Doug Roupp drives slowly out of the empty car park behind the small, stone church in a quiet part of southern Arizona he is praying for an uneventful day.

Every morning during the summer, while the sun is still nestled behind the desert mountains, Roupp, a 52-year-old school teacher from Massachusetts, loads bottles of water and bags of food into a white SUV and sets out on a long, daily drive that takes him deep into the state's vast, scorched wilderness and closer to the border with Mexico.

His self-appointed mission is to search for illegal aliens in distress: people who, while attempting the dangerous and increasingly fatal crossing into the States through some of the hottest, harshest terrain in North America, get lost, break bones, pass out, or emerge from days in the desert in need of immediate medical assistance.

For providing such help, he and the other hundred- plus volunteers in the Samaritans aid organisation (there is no connection to the British charity of the same name), face surprising challenges: loud and vocal abuse from private citizens - either zealous individuals or organised anti-immigration groups - as well as potential arrest by the Border Patrol, the US government agency responsible for protecting and patrolling the 1,900-mile-long border with Mexico .

"No matter the criticism, we have to do whatever we can to save these people's lives," Roupp says as he turns on the radio to listen to the early morning traffic reports. "Tragically, too often, we find people who are dying, and these days that includes women and children."

The relentless march north from Mexico of illegal aliens, or "migrants" as the humanitarian volunteers prefer to call them, is a subject about which more and more Americans now have an opinion. Earlier this year, there were headline-grabbing mass demonstrations in dozens of cities across America as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to call for significant immigration reform and legal rights for the country's estimated 11 million undocumented workers.

Over the past decade, several factors have been responsible for bringing the issue of migration to the boil: the North American Free Trade Agreement has resulted in many Mexican farmers being driven out of business; more than 40 per cent of the population live below the official poverty line; the events of 9/11 resulted in an increase in the number of Border Patrol Agents as well as the increased "militarisation" of certain parts of the border (with the establishment of long, imposing fences and constantly manned checkpoints).

Combined, these factors have both increased the number of illegal aliens trying to enter America to find a job, any job; ensured that those already in America remain rather than return to their homeland, as coming and going is no longer the easy journey that it used to be; and increased the mortality rate of those attempting to cross as they are forced to take the most tortuous and lethal routes to avoid detection. (omega)

The statistics are staggering. Along the whole border, which touches four US States - California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas - more than 1.1 million illegal aliens were captured and returned to Mexico in 2005. More than half of those people were captured in the desert lands in Arizona, which also claimed the most lives. As the number of people trying to cross increases (there were less than a million arrests in 2002 and 2003), so too do the number of deaths.

Since 1998, more than 3,000 people are known to have died trying to cross the border. While in 2002 there were 320 documented deaths, last year a total of 472 bodies were recovered. In the past 11 months, in Arizona alone, 124 people have died making the journey. Those deaths include more than a dozen women and children as young as three years old.

"As the border gets more and more difficult to cross, we are finding more and more women and children are attempting to come up to be with their husbands," says Roupp, who estimates that women now make up 30 per cent of those trying to enter America illegally.

Actually crossing the border is easy. In Arizona, where it is 370 miles long, less than 100 miles is divided by checkpoints or fences. People are driven or walk to an open part and take a step across an invisible line and find themselves in America. However, the barren, undulating land extending infinitely before them is where the danger lies. This is desert wilderness. There are no highways or towns; no obvious trails. Just dry riverbeds, an abundance of spiky cacti, thorny mesquite bushes, little shade and even less water.

Anyone trying to avoid the thousands of Border Patrol agents, or the hundreds of armed Minutemen - volunteers who camp in the desert to turn back or turn in illegal aliens - has to cross a minimum of 12 miles of uneven, unmarked, rocky, challenging terrain in temperatures that can range from below freezing at night to well above 40C during the day. Take a wrong turn and you could be walking for 50 miles before you reach any sign of civilisation. It is not physically possible to carry enough water to make the journey safely, so most people pay smugglers, known as "coyotes", to get them across as part of a group and to find water en route (the going rate for getting someone from Mexico to Phoenix is around £800). However, if an individual gets separated from the group, or gets left behind by the fast-moving and merciless coyotes, they quickly become lost, dehydrated, and it is then that their real fight for survival begins.

"We find people who have been lost in the desert for four or five days," says Roupp, cranking up the air conditioning in the SUV.

While the increasing number of Mexicans attempting to cross the desert has driven some Americans to start anti-immigration, vigilante groups, the sharp increase in the number of deaths among the migrants has spurred others to form or join humanitarian groups, including the Samaritans, Humane Borders, and No More Deaths.

"It's a matter of human rights for a lot of people," says Roupp. "It's also a patriotic thing for a lot of people. The US should be doing the right thing in this situation and while they're not, we're going to do our best."

The "we" Roupp is referring to is the heterogeneous army of more than 200 people who all give up their time to aid (critics would say abet) migrants in need. Over the two days I spent in the desert the volunteers I met included: a young, middle-class West Virginian student who was spending her entire summer holiday here; an elderly woman who owned land which migrants regularly crossed; a slow-talking, white-haired local pastor; an anarchist with "Burn the Flag" tattooed on her knuckles; and a 64-year-old physician who also volunteered at a clinic for the homeless (I didn't meet any Mexican-Americans although Roupp told me there are at least 10 in the Samaritans).

"For many of us, it's such a complex issue that we just want to find something that we can do that is simple and straightforward," says Roupp who, for the past five years, has given up every day of his summer holidays to work with one or more of the groups. During "the death season", June to August, when the summer heat is at its most fierce, Samaritan volunteers undertake 200-mile daily patrols looking for migrants. (omega)

After driving for an hour and seeing nothing but hundreds of scattered, drained water bottles all along the dusty roadside, we are flagged down by a woman Roupp recognises as a volunteer from No More Deaths.

Nearby, sitting under a small mesquite tree, is a middle-aged Mexican man. He is clearly in distress. Roupp pulls over and, after getting a bottle of water from one of the coolers, heads over to talk to the tearful man who has his shirt half-unbuttoned, and a pair of worn leather boots sitting by his side. His feet are covered in oozing blisters and his legs are swollen.

Roupp, who speaks fluent Spanish, learns the man's name is Miguel. He is a 47-year-old farmer from southern Mexico. He has been walking, in his old boots with no socks, for four days. Overnight, the group he was with and their coyote abandoned him because he was no longer able to keep up. Hearing the sound of cars, he hobbled to this road as daylight broke and watched for over an hour as people drove past, ignoring him, until the No More Deaths volunteer pulled over. Roupp explains he has to call an ambulance.

"In the past we could put migrants in the car and take them to the hospital ourselves," he says. "Now we are just not allowed to do that. The Border Patrol told us, 'If you pick someone up, we are arresting you.'"

Last year, two humanitarian volunteers were arrested while medically evacuating three migrants from the desert (on the advice of a doctor). They are now awaiting trial on charges of aiding illegal aliens, felony charges that carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Miguel rapidly devours some cheese and crackers that Roupp gives him as we wait for the ambulance, then he starts crying again. "He's scared," says Roupp. "He wants to know if he will be beaten up by the ambulance staff or the Border Patrol."

Miguel tells Roupp he left his farm in southern Mexico to try to come to America to find work with a friend already here, cleaning a restaurant. The ambulance arrives and Miguel is loaded on to a stretcher and taken to the local hospital. I ask what will happen to him.

"It depends on the doctors," says Roupp. "They might report him to the Border Patrol or they might not." The tone of his voice suggests that everyone in this part of America knows what they are dealing with here and many make individual choices about how to handle the migrants they encounter.

After the ambulance has left, Roupp drives miles into the desert down a dirt track to a location he knows migrants have used as a camp during the day when it is too hot to travel.

Less than three minutes after getting out of the SUV to survey the scene of abandoned clothes, backpacks, trainers, jeans, and rusted, empty tins of tuna and fruit salad, we hear a helicopter approaching.

"This happened the last time I came out here," says Roupp. "We must have stepped on one of the Border Patrol's underground sensors." Sure enough, it is a Border Patrol helicopter and it circles us low enough for the pilot, peering through his sunglasses, to see we are a group of white people and to be able to read the Samaritans logo on the jeep. The Border Patrol has hundreds of underground sensors buried all over the desert. They also use vehicle patrols and unmanned drones to locate their human prey.

We wander through the detritus that those crossing this brutal land have left behind. The pages of a Spanish version of the New Testament flap in the breeze. A bra hangs from an Ocotillo cactus. A few disposable nappies peek out from a torn, black plastic bag.

There are countless camps like this scattered throughout the vast desert and many much further from roads than this one. In order to help those crossing deeper in the wilderness, the group No More Deaths has, for the past two years, maintained a summer base in the desert, in an area where several bodies have been found.

I've been invited to spend a night with the volunteers there, led by the jovial Steve Johnston. Johnston, 61, a former alcoholic and drug addict, once worked for Penguin Books in London but now dedicates his life to working for non-profit groups. He spends most of his summer at the desert base.

"Last summer, we saw 3,800 migrants pass through this area," he reveals, sitting in an old fold-up chair by the side of his ancient camper van. "We gave (omega) food and water to 1,700 people and we had 68 people medically evacuated because they were dying."

It's not easy living in the desert. Showers are taken beneath water bags hung from trees. Meals are mostly cold food and you have to continually swat away flies. It is unbearably hot during the day and scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes make the place a challenge at night. Yet more than 150 people have volunteered to help out and stay at the base. Why do they do it?

"To help stop the deaths," Johnston says, bluntly. "Last summer, I heard six people say, 'You've saved my life.' In your entire life if you hear that once..." He stops talking as his voice cracks.

What does he say to the argument that his work actually encourages illegal immigration?

"We've never run into anyone out here who knew who we were, or why we were here," he says "Everyone is totally surprised. I'm certain we have no impact whatsoever on encouraging people."

The following morning, at 5.30am, we trek far out into the desert to look for any migrants who have got into trouble overnight. Due to the heat during the day - it is almost 40C by 10am - migrants walk through the night and rest in any shade they can find while the sun is up. As nearly every plant has spikes in the desert, and there are steep hills and dry river beds to traverse, walking at any pace in the dark is dangerous.

"We see a lot of people with sprained ankles or broken bones," says Johnston as we trudge into the desert. On this morning we don't find anyone. Johnston suggests that if we really want to see the faces of the migrants who are so sharply dividing opinion in this country, we head for the border-straddling town of Nogales where, on the Mexican side, surprisingly, US volunteers also run a humanitarian operation.

Nogales is where the hundreds of Mexicans captured daily by the Border Patrol in this part of Arizona are bussed and then forced to walk back into Mexico. Here, next to the first phone booth on the Mexican side and within shouting distance of America (which sits on the other side of a high, solid-metal fence that is watched over from the US side by armed members of the National Guard), No More Deaths has erected a flimsy tent from which they distribute free sandwiches and water to newly deported migrants.

While giving water to a dying man you happen upon in the desert may be an unquestionable act of humanity, how do these Americans justify feeding and helping strengthen people, many of whom, the volunteers themselves acknowledge, are about to try once again to enter America illegally?

Maryada Vallet, a funky 23-year-old university graduate from Los Angeles, doesn't see any problem.

"A lot of the people brought here are suffering from heat exhaustion," she says, revealing that while the Border Patrol may, on occasion, offer some water, it certainly never offers food. "The policy makers totally underestimate the desperation of the people who are crossing. The people found dying in the desert have probably tried a few times already and they are going to keep trying in worse and worse physical condition because they feel they have no choice. If we can give them any sort of humanitarian assistance here, then maybe they won't cross again immediately."

More than 30 Mexicans, nearly all wearing jeans and trainers, appear from the US side of the border and walk slowly on the narrow path towards the phone booth. Escorted off a chartered bus moments earlier, many want to call someone to tell them of their fate. Others carry on walking, heading into the centre of the town or westwards, back towards the unfenced desert. They are a mix of twentysomethings and the middle-aged. They all have looks of resignation on their faces rather than anguish or despair.

Several wander over to the white tent before them, beckoned by the Spanish-speaking US volunteers. Many remain hesitant, but a woman encouraged by her three-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son comes to pick up free granola bars, sandwiches and water.

After watching her children eat, she tells Vallet that she was trying to cross to meet up with a cousin who could find her work. After being in the desert with her children for two days, all of them in clothes more suitable for shopping on the high street than hiking in the desert, and after walking for two nights, they were picked up by the Border Patrol early in the morning. She hadn't decided if she would try again.

"The majority of the people we see here will try again," Vallet says. "And if giving a bottle of water is the least we can do, and it might save a life, then we'll carry on doing it until the political situation changes."