Gene Lefebvre remembers the day in late August 2008 when 20 to 25 Border Patrol agents, half of them on horseback, raided the Arivaca, Arizona campsite of No More Deaths, a group dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance to migrants in the desert.
"They said they had tracked 10 migrants into our camp," says Lefebvre, a retired Presbyterian minister who helped co-found the organization in 2004. "There weren't 10 migrants, and there weren't the tracks."
No More Deaths did have a couple of migrants in the camp's medical tent, but there was nothing unusual about that. Migrants often showed up at the camp seeking first aid or water or food, sometimes getting directed there by local ranchers. The Border Patrol was and is aware of how NMD operates.
Stephen Lemons cover story
But though the migrants were later taken into custody, the Border Patrol seemed to be about something else that day: intimidation.
Lefebvre, in his 70s, was detained as the Border Patrol searched the five-acre site, called Byrd Camp, which is about an hour and a half southwest of Tucson. The site is named in honor of Arizona children's book author Byrd Baylor, who allows the hundreds of volunteers who come to the location each year to use her property as a base for their patrols, in which they leave water and food along the migrant trails that snake throughout the area.
After questioning those present, including a touring group of seminarians, the federal gendarmes thought they had their gotcha moment when they uncovered an old bale of marijuana in a nearby wash.
"It had weevils in it and was moldy," says Lefebvre, clearly relishing the recollection. "Some of the others started laughing when the Border Patrol said, 'Well, you've been using this, haven't you?'
"In the first place, we don't do [marijuana]," Lefebvre says with a chuckle. "In the second, this is old, moldy, yucky stuff. We have higher class than [to smoke] that."
There were storm clouds on the horizon that day; it looked as if a monsoon were about to break bad and turn the wash into raging torrent, preventing the feds from crossing back over. The clouds and the efforts of NMD's attorney, Margo Cowan, contacted by phone, encouraged the agents to leave.
But before they could beat an embarrassing retreat, they had words with John Fife, a tall, lean retired pastor who'd overseen Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church for 35 years before his retirement in 2005. The church acts as NMD's headquarters.
Also one of No More Deaths' co-founders, Fife — who along with Lefebvre helped lead the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s — is not a man who suffers fools gladly.
"I said [to the Border Patrol supervisor], 'What is it you guys think you're doing?'" Fife says. "The supervisor says, 'You have to turn in everyone you run into who's an illegal out here.'
Fife shot back, "You better check with your chief because everyone of your sector chiefs has said that we are not required to contact you at all if we're giving food and water and medical aid to migrants."
The supervisor rode off in a huff. The next day, NMD fired off a letter of complaint to the Border Patrol and to the U.S. Attorney. Fife says the letter was never acknowledged.
The Border Patrol's 2008 raid was not an isolated incident. Since No More Deaths established itself as a presence in Tucson's vibrant social-justice community, it has butted heads with federal authorities annoyed by its work to put water in the desert and assert the human rights of the more than half a million people who cross illegally from Mexico into the United States each year.
NMD volunteers have been ticketed for littering by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers working the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and they've had their water poured out and their water bottles slashed by Border Patrol agents. They've been convicted in federal court by the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office, and in one case, two were arrested for transporting migrants, though the charges were ultimately dismissed.
Yet NMD is just one part of a vast resistance in southern Arizona that places human life and dignity above the dictates of American border policy. Think of NMD as the spear of a non-violent army that includes Samaritan patrols, advocacy groups (such as Derechos Humanos), water distributors (such as Humane Borders), and individuals working on the Tohono O'odham Nation.
The reaction of federal, local, and tribal authorities attempting to control the Arizona-Mexico border is not always hostile to groups who put out water and engage in other activities seen as pro-migrant. NMD leaders say many of their contacts with the Border Patrol, for instance, have been professional and often cordial.
Nevertheless, Fife, NMD's elder statesman, described the group's encounters with the Border Patrol, the federal government's heaviest presence in the desert, as "low-intensity conflict."
"It's a constant little push [and] push back out there," he says. "It depends on the agents, and on the circumstance."
In the calculus of southern Arizona's pro-migrant movement, No More Deaths is made up of people who like to camp out. They are hardcore hiking, Clif Bars-eating, GPS-addicted, four-wheel-driving geeks.
They're also known for getting arrested, ticketed, and convicted. And like conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, they're generally proud and unapologetic, convinced of the rightness of their mission.
Part of it seems borne of the lefty enclave of Tucson itself, an über-crunchy college town where on any given night there's a vigil or a meeting for a group involved in the fight against U.S. border policy.
Consider it the metaphysical opposite of Maricopa County. In Tucson, the political stars are the likes of firebrand activist and Pima County legal defender Isabel Garcia or liberal Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva instead of far-right tribunes such as Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas or Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
As if further proof were needed: In the center of Tucson's downtown is not a statue to some obscure European explorer, but a 14-foot bronze sculpture of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa on horseback.
The Reverend John Fife is another of the town's icons, a man who's been dubbed Tucson's "most beloved felon." That's because Fife's the legendary co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, which gave refuge to asylum-seekers from right-wing Central American states — such as El Salvador and Guatemala — empowered by U.S. foreign policy.
At the height of the movement, Southside Presbyterian, where Fife was pastor, was its epicenter, giving shelter to thousands of families and individuals fleeing Central American civil wars and death squads.
Then, as now, the federal government did not look kindly on Fife's activism. His church was infiltrated by the feds, and he — along with several other Sanctuary Movement activists — was tried and convicted for harboring, for aiding and abetting, and for conspiracy.
Fife received five years' probation, but the movement he helped spawn continued, more vocal than ever, and it turned into a black eye for the Reagan Administration. Years later, the U.S. government was forced to change its policy toward refugees from Central America.
In 2003, Fife and other local religious leaders and activists sought a way to address the escalating humanitarian crisis on the Arizona-Mexico border. As a result, NMD was founded in 2004. That year, the first official NMD desert excursion from Byrd Camp took place.
NMD was, in effect, a citizen response to U.S. border policy and the death and misery that policy has engendered.
In the mid-'90s, the federal government started walling off the border near San Diego and beefing up enforcement in El Paso. Later, urban border areas throughout Arizona, including cities such as Nogales, Yuma, and Douglas got their stretches of walls or fencing. Like a vise, border policy began squeezing mass migration into the arid, remote, and treacherous desert of southern Arizona.
The idea was that the desert formed a natural barrier to migrants, that its rugged terrain would dissuade crossers. The Border Patrol referred to the strategy as "prevention through deterrence." Critics called the policy "deterrence through death."
Estimates of the migrant death toll on the U.S.-Mexico border over the past 15 years range from about 3,800 to more than 5,600. (The Tucson group Derechos Humanos counts more than 1,900 human remains recovered in the Arizona desert over the past 10 years.) But most experts and activists believe many more have succumbed to the inhospitable elements and terrain.
In 2000, Humane Borders responded to the crisis with a network of 55-gallon water drums at stationary locations. In 2002, Fife helped start the Samaritan Patrol, now known simply as the Samaritans, or "the Sams." The Samaritans patrol daily with medics and Spanish-speakers, looking for those left behind in the desert by human smugglers not willing to wait for the sick, injured, or straggling.
Fife says No More Deaths was initially a coalition of existing organizations, with the singular goal of assertively providing humanitarian aid.
"The coalition was designed to push the envelope," Fife says, "to be more aggressive in establishing the right to provide aid and medical care out there.
"Then, in '05, when Daniel and Shanti were arrested by the Border Patrol, it scared some of the [members]," he said. "The coalition began to pull apart, so we said, 'Okay, No More Deaths needs to separate.'"
Daniel and Shanti are Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz, two college-age NMD volunteers. They became famous in the immigrant-rights community in 2005, when on patrol in Arivaca, they encountered three men in very bad physical shape.
It was July, and it had been more than 100 degrees every day for at least a month. Strauss later told Democracy Now host Amy Goodman that 78 migrants had died the week they encountered the men, who had been in the desert for four days, two without food and water.
"One had been vomiting, said he couldn't keep anything down," Strauss told the lefty Webcaster, whose online show is a must-watch for liberals. "He also reported finding blood in his stool over the past day, which is a very dangerous sign of internal problems and failure . . . All of them had blisters on their feet that kept them from walking."
Strauss and Sellz determined to get the men to a hospital in Tucson. On their way, the Border Patrol arrested them on charges of transporting and conspiring to transport illegal aliens. Their case became a cause célèbre in Tucson, where yard signs sprang up with the motto "Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime."
From around the world, postcards poured in to then-U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton's office demanding that he countermand the order to prosecute. Though the pair were indicted and faced up to 15 years in prison, they refused a plea deal. In 2006, a federal judge dismissed the charges, finding that there was no intention on their part to violate the law.
In 2007, the two young activists received the Oscar Romero Award, named for the Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, assassinated in 1980 on the orders of right-wing death-squad leader Roberto D'Aubisson. The award, given by Houston's Rothko Chapel, came with a monetary prize of $5,000 to each recipient. The pair donated half of the money to No More Deaths.
The Sellz-Strauss incident modified NMD's protocol. Only in the most dire, life-threatening circumstances would migrants be taken by car from the location where they are encountered, and only then after it is determined that an ambulance or the Border Patrol cannot make it in time to help. Balancing the protocol is a policy of giving migrants the option of refusing be evacuated or turned over to authorities, up until the point that they no longer are physically able to decide for themselves.
Still, hostile encounters between the Border Patrol and NMD members continue. NMD volunteers are threatened with arrest, and in one incident in December 2009, a Border Patrol agent verbally abused NMD volunteers as he emptied their jugs of water in front of them. Several NMD volunteers interviewed for this story accused the Border Patrol of slashing water bottles — though they admit there could be other culprits, such as ranchers, hunters, or even other federal agents.
For this story, the Border Patrol declined to answer questions related to No More Deaths or to the humanitarian crisis in the desert.
The Border Patrol is not the only federal agency with which No More Deaths has crossed swords: There is also the U.S. Department of the Interior, in the guise of Fish and Wildlife Service officials operating on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a 118,000-acre stretch near Byrd Camp.
The refuge is home to such endangered species as masked bobwhite quail, and the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl. Hunting of non-endangered species is allowed on 90 percent of the refuge, and the area is a favorite destination for bird-watchers and campers.
BANWR is also a major corridor for migrants. About 20,000 traversed it in 2009, according to Jose Viramontes, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. About two migrant bodies a year are discovered in the refuge, Viramontes says.
For years, NMD volunteers have been leaving jugs of water on some of the refuge's 1,300 miles of migrant trails. Although Humane Borders operates three stationary sites on BANWR with two 55-gallon drums of water each — and Fish and Wildlife insists it plans to allow more sites — NMD argues that such stationary facilities aren't sufficient because the migrant trails shift. Also, some accuse the Border Patrol of staking out these sites, in hopes of nabbing their own endangered quarry.
The work NMD volunteers do on BANWR is similar to what they do in the desert surrounding Byrd Camp. They four-wheel-drive and hike to remote areas, follow the migrant trails, leave plastic gallon jugs of water at locations where they anticipate migrants will find them, pick up empties, and return.
Dan Millis was on such a trek in BANWR on February 22, 2008, with three other NMD volunteers, when a Fish and Wildlife officer admonished them for placing water jugs in the wild and ticketed Millis for "littering."
Rather than pay the $175 fine, Millis, with the help of Tucson attorney William Walker, challenged the ticket in federal court, risking a $5,000 fine and six months in prison.
Walker contested the charge by arguing that leaving out full, sealed water jugs to save lives is not littering, that the plastic containers only become litter once opened and discarded. On the stand, Millis argued that he and his group picked up more trash than they left. When he was cited, there were five crates of litter in the back of the truck he was driving.
The U.S. Attorney's Office countered that Millis would need a permit to leave such water on the refuge and cited a garbage problem — including cars abandoned by smugglers — on BANWR.
(Fish and Wildlife spokesman Viramontes estimates that more than 50 tons of trash is left on the refuge annually. With that much trash, some activists wonder why BANWR's managers are so concerned about a few water bottles.)
The decision by U.S. Magistrate Bernardo Velasco was a Pyrrhic victory for the government. Velasco found Millis guilty but gave him a suspended sentence. Nonetheless, Millis has appealed the verdict, and the matter is scheduled to be argued before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on March 2.
The Samaritans found themselves in a similar situation with federal authorities when Kathryn Ferguson, a Sams volunteer, was ticketed in early 2008 by a plainclothes Bureau of Land Management officer. During a confrontation in Arivaca, the officer shoved Ferguson, then handcuffed and cited her for "creating a nuisance." The U.S. Attorney at the time, Diane Humetewa, declined to prosecute.
Despite the incidents, No More Deaths volunteers continued leaving water jugs on BANWR in defiance of Fish and Wildlife's ticketing policy. In June 2009, a federal jury convicted NMD activist Walt Staton of a misdemeanor littering charge. Magistrate Jennifer Guerin sentenced Staton to 300 hours of community service and a year of probation.
A seminary student at the Claremont School of Theology in California, Staton briefly toyed with defying the community-service order, writing to the judge, "When a government fails to respect and protect human rights — or, worse, is itself a violator — it is the responsibility of citizens to act in defense of those rights."
Guerin threatened Staton with 25 days in custody, and Staton ultimately backed down, accepting the community service while appealing his conviction.
In July 2009, 13 humanitarians from NMD, Humane Borders, the Samaritans, the Catholic Church, and other organizations defied the BANWR ban by placing water on the refuge in full view of Fish and Wildlife officers. Their water was promptly confiscated, and they were all cited. Those ticketed included John Fife and Gene Lefebvre.
The day after the 13 were ticketed, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar contacted NMD, requesting that a delegation come to D.C. for a meeting. It included Lefebvre, who said he was impressed with Salazar.
"[Salazar] said he had compassion for the migrants who were dying in the desert and respect for the work we're doing, but that we would have to obey the law," Lefebvre says.
"After that, we got an invitation to meet with the [Fish and Wildlife] people in BANWR and their bosses from Albuquerque. So, obviously, the secretary arranged that."
Lefebvre says NMD is offering to partner with the agency to help it remove trash from the refuge. Recently, the Department of the Interior's regional director wrote to NMD attorney Margo Cowan expressing the department's "commitment to find a solution serving both parties."
A meeting between the two sides took place February 18 in Tucson, but no announcement has been made regarding an agreement. Officially, NMD has ceased leaving water on BANWR, but some of the group's activists continue to do so.
Though Walt Staton's flirt with imprisonment and the ticketing of the 13 activists have been the focus of recent media reports regarding the issue of leaving water for desert pilgrims, it's Millis' experience that offers a potent moral metaphor for NMD's work.
That's because two days before he was ticketed on BANWR, he discovered the body of Josseline Hernandez, a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador.
Josseline went missing two weeks earlier. She was on her way to California with her 10-year-old brother when she became sick and could no longer move with a group of migrants. She urged her little brother to go with the others, telling him she was the big sister and would be okay.
A missing-persons alert was sent by Derechos Humanos, an advocacy group that keeps stats on migrant deaths in the Border Patrol's deadly Tucson sector. Josseline's mother in Los Angeles had spoken with Derechos Humanos, sharing information about Josseline's situation from her brother, who had made it safely to L.A.
Some NMD members were actively looking for Josseline, but Millis was on another mission. He was seeking a shortcut to a spot where he wanted to drop off a supply bin full of food, a spot where he knew migrants were likely to find the provisions.
In a rocky canyon, wet from recent winter downpours, Millis and three other NMD volunteers found the girl. She was dead, her face unrecognizable but her body still intact.
"She had taken her shoes off," Millis says. "I saw her shoes first. They were bright green, so you couldn't miss them. Her feet were, like, in a puddle. There had been rain, so there was a little bit of water flowing through the canyon.
"She probably had some horrible blisters [on her feet], like everyone has when they come across. We know she fell behind. She had been sick, and she was vomiting [according to her brother], and she had taken her jacket off . . . and placed it on the rock next to her."
Pima County sheriff's deputies were called. When they turned over the body, they could see the word "Hollywood" on her sweat pants, one of the identifiers Derechos Humanos had used in its alert. The official cause of death was exposure to the elements.
Deeply affected by the discovery, Millis was further motivated to leave water in the desert. He was angered when the Fish and Wildlife Service stopped him a couple of days later to ticket him for littering on BANWR.
"To go out and try to do something about [deaths like Josseline's] made me feel better," Millis says. "To be accosted by authorities of the federal government, the same government that's making these stupid laws and pushing people out here in the first place, was too much for me."
Like many activists, Millis blames the feds for creating a situation that's caused migrants from Mexico to go through the remotest of desert, where bodies might never be found. Ironically, the former schoolteacher and convicted litterer now works for the Sierra Club, which also opposes the walls and other barriers erected along the 370-mile Arizona-Mexico border.
Josseline Hernandez has become the unofficial patron saint of No More Deaths. Religious groups and reporters often make pilgrimages to the canyon where a shrine to Josseline has been erected.
Prayer cards bearing the image of the slender young girl in a candle-filled church are sometimes given out. And her tale inspired Tucson Weekly reporter Margaret Regan's new book, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands.
Josseline's is one of many stories that help fuel No More Deaths. Another is that of Lucresia Dominguez, a mother of two who was abandoned by her coyote guides when she fell ill. Her 15-year-old son stayed behind with her but eventually left her side to seek help, wandering lost in the desert until he was found by the Border Patrol and repatriated back to Mexico.
NMD joined Dominguez's father, Cesareo, in a search for the missing woman's body, guided only by the recollections of his grandson, barred from re-entering the United States for lack of a visa. Before he found her body, Dominguez's dad discovered three more migrant corpses in the desert.
At a service for his daughter in Tucson, the distraught father praised No More Deaths volunteers.
"I thank God," he told a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, "that . . . I found all these people who helped me and never left me, not even for a minute."
His daughter's story became the stuff of legend. It was retold as part of the independent film 7 Soles, which wove together several such accounts for a drama about duplicitous coyotes guiding a group of migrants toward a Phoenix drop-house. Screenings of the film in Phoenix and Tucson raised money for the organization.
Each NMD volunteer has his or her own personal cache of tragic experiences.
Laura Ilardo, a high school social worker who leads Phoenix's NMD chapter, still shivers at the thought of a "rape tree" she saw while on patrol in Arivaca. The tree was hung with a woman's garments, left as trophies, and the woman's backpack was spilled out onto the earth. It is a common enough sight in southern Arizona, where it is believed that most women who cross are sexually assaulted by their coyote guides.
Another time, in 2005, Ilardo came across a pregnant woman guided by two men. The woman had a bad sprain, and the men had stayed to help her walk as the rest of their party went ahead. Ilardo was raised Catholic but does not consider herself a practicing member of the faith. Still, the encounter with the woman had religious echoes for her.
"It definitely felt like the birth story of Jesus," llardo says. "It brought that home for me, though she didn't have [a donkey], obviously. They were just walking."
Because of strict NMD rules, she and other volunteers did not transport the woman (because her injuries were not life threatening), so they guided her to Byrd Camp. Because her helpers were not ill, they did not enter the camp; only the pregnant woman was allowed in.
Her sprain was treated, and she was given her options: She could turn herself over to the Border Patrol or she could continue on after she had rested and the swelling had gone down.
The woman chose to keep walking.
Because of the citations NMD humanitarians are battling in federal court, No More Deaths' activities hark back to the civil disobedience practiced in the 1960s by anti-war activists.
NMD humanitarians prefer the term "civil initiative," a concept devised in the 1980s by John Fife's fellow Sanctuary Movement leader, Jim Corbett. The principle is discussed at length in NMD's resource book, handed out to all prospective NMD volunteers.
The handbook defines civil initiative as "the right and responsibility of civil organizations to protect and directly assist victims of human rights violations when the government is the violator."
In other words, as the definition contends, "Humanitarian aid is never a crime." No More Deaths members do not regard leaving water in the desert as an offense, any more than they regard any of the migrant-friendly activities they engage in as criminal.
NMD's civil initiative is a call to action, one that draws volunteers from all over the United States, Canada, and Europe to participate in the group's efforts to assist migrants crossing the desert or assist those who have already crossed, been captured, and deported.
More than 3,000 people have volunteered with the organization since 2004. Every summer, peak season for volunteers, NMD averages about 200 participants.
Ilardo's Phoenix chapter organizes massive water drives, called aguatóns, during summer months and collects trucks full of socks, much needed by migrants. Last year, Ilardo says Phoenix NMD gathered 10,000 gallons of water for desert distribution.
Additionally, NMD offers a sort of alternative spring break for college students.
The group anticipates more than 170 volunteers during this year's spring break. Not all will pitch their tents on the grounds of the ramshackle Byrd Camp and hike for miles in treacherous, albeit beautiful, environs. Some will spend time in Mexico at an aid station in Nogales, Sonora. The station is at the Mariposa port of entry, on the west side of the Mexican border town.
It is at this aid station that migrants, just dumped by Department of Homeland Security or privately contracted Wackenhut buses and made to walk into Mexico, can be cared for by NMD volunteers with medical training, as well as by Red Cross volunteers and Nogales locals.
This year's spring-breakers aside, veteran NMD volunteers make regular treks to the aid station — little more than a large tent augmented by a couple of trailers and surrounded by a new chain-link fence. The fence is to keep out so-called polleros, or "chicken wranglers," as coyotes are popularly referred to in these parts.
Tucson nurse Sarah Roberts, a longtime NMD volunteer who also participates in Samaritan patrols, visits the aid station every Wednesday. There she treats the massive foot blisters the migrants suffer, in addition to a variety of other ailments, such as sprained ankles, broken bones, lacerations from falling, and dehydration.
"In the hot weather, we see a lot of dehydration," she says. "And muscle cramps from being out in the desert heat with not enough water, not enough electrolytes."
That the migrants still have these complaints — after being held by the Border Patrol for a short duration or after going through federal court in Tucson (as a small percentage do, under a program called Operation Streamline) — is a sore point for activists like Roberts.
As a result, Roberts and other No More Deaths volunteers catalogued tales of migrant abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the Border Patrol in a 2008 report called Crossing the Line.
Available at www.nomoredeaths.org, the report calls for the humane treatment and care of migrants in short-term detention. The data comes from the Mariposa aid station, as well as from other migrant aid stations NMD partners with in the Sonora towns of Agua Prieta and Naco.
In Nogales, Sonora, the aid station is a model of cooperation between NMD and other aid groups, including Sonoran state agencies such as the International Migrant Affairs Directorate, known by the Spanish acronym DGAMI.
Omar Pinada, a coordinator with the agency, says that though the Mexican government provides the property the aid station sits on, everything else — from the fence around it to medical aid Roberts helps with — is volunteer oriented.
"They give us sugar, coffee, cups," says Pinada of the donations brought by NMD workers to the station. "The government doesn't have the money to buy all this stuff. No More Deaths helps us, so we help them."
After Roberts cares for those at the aid station who need it, she and other volunteers (if any have come with her from Tucson) make a five-minute walk to the nearby comedor (soup kitchen) run by Jesuit priests and Catholic nuns, with the help of the Diocese of Tucson and the Archdiocese of Hermasillo, Sonora.
At the comedor, which offers two meals daily prepared from food donated by charity groups, sometimes more than 100 recently repatriated migrants at a time squeeze themselves into the metal picnic tables there and gobble down whatever stew has been whipped up for them by volunteers.
Afterward, they comb through clothing and other items brought from Tucson by Roberts and other NMD activists. Roberts tends to their medical needs as best she can, sometimes bandaging a twisted leg or a swollen knee. Sometimes offering over-the-counter medications for cold or flu-like symptoms.
During one visit, she says, she fretted over one young man's abdominal pains. She ended up giving him Pepto-Bismol but worried that it could be something worse.
"I can't really do a proper examination here," she muttered.
Despite the frustration, Roberts is driven to help, in part, by the sights she's seen while out on patrol with No More Deaths and the Samaritans. She describes an incident she encountered near the Arivaca camp — an act of charity by the father of a migrating family toward a man whose sprained ankle Roberts had just treated.
"They didn't know each other," Roberts says. "The man with the family noticed that the man with the sprained ankle needed some good shoes, and he gave him his shoes. What courage and compassion."
No More Deaths is hardly an evangelical group, but a strand of religious inspiration runs through the organization, as well as through the entire social-justice community that has arisen to address Arizona's desert mortality rate.
Though many NMD volunteers eschew the term "religious," NMD touts a list of "Faith Based Principles for Immigration Reform" on its Web site. Training sessions for new recruits often take place in Southside Presbyterian's worship hall, modeled after a Native American kiva, or ceremonial room.
On the water jugs that volunteers put in the desert, there are often religious messages in Spanish inscribed for the benefit of the migrants. On some, the three crosses from Calvary are drawn. Yet, during training sessions, Christianity is not proselytized, and no prayers are said.
Gene Lefebvre acknowledges the spiritual element and notes that among NMD's founders were pastors, Catholic leaders, and rabbis. But he stressed that NMD is open to all comers, including non-believers.
"We call it a faith-based group, a group of people of faith and conscience," Lefebvre says, "but we deliberately wanted it to be open and not draw any lines about religion or anything like that.
"Civil initiative is kind of our operating principle," he adds. "We emphasize the work to be done."
Southside Presbyterian was founded in 1906 to minister to Tucson's Tohono O'odham community. When John Fife first came to Arizona as a recent grad from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, he served his internship on the Tohono O'odham Nation, later becoming Southside's pastor.
In the past, his congregants included Mike Wilson, an O'odham tribe member and former Presbyterian lay pastor who now leaves water for migrants crossing the Tonono O'odham's Connecticut-size reservation, the second largest in the United States.
Wilson, who lives off the reservation, maintains several water stations on it. Four are named after Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He regularly leaves 10 separate gallon jugs of donated water beneath the shade of desert paloverdes, forming the shape of a cross on the ground with the containers.
Around his neck dangles a silver-and-turquoise cross, and he speaks of how he is "required" by his conscience to leave water, even though in doing so, he has earned the ire of tribal officials. Officially, Wilson is forbidden from leaving water and has been threatened with banishment from tribal lands for the activity.
He used to have two 55-gallon drums of water at each gospel-named station, but those drums were removed by tribal authorities. Now, he leaves only 10 gallons per stop every couple of weeks.
The only water drums left are on the Mexican side of the fenced border, which is lined with ominous, steel-pole vehicle barriers sunk into concrete.
Wilson's Mexican station is a few yards from the San Miguel Gate at the border, where Tohono O'odham venture over to Mexico and back to the U.S. side, under the ever-present watch of Border Patrol agents.
The border is an arbitrary one to the Tohono O'odham, whose nation was cut in half by the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, wherein the United States acquired much of what is now southern Arizona, south of the Gila River. Since the mid-'90s, the Border Patrol's presence on the reservation has become a ubiquitous "occupying army," as Wilson describes it.
Border Patrol agents on horseback, in helicopters, on dirt bikes, and in jeeps smother the reservation, often stopping tribal members to ask for documents.
They are there for a reason. U.S. border policy, which has walled off cities at or near the border, has created what researchers call a "funnel effect," the upshot being more migrants crossing into barren tribal lands.
This means more migrants dying on the Tohoho O'odham Nation because of the elements and the foreboding desert landscape. ("Tohono O'odham" means "desert people" in the O'odham language.) Wilson is well aware of the big picture, but he holds the leaders of his tribe blameworthy for their part in it.
"Within the last couple of years," he insists, "42 percent of all deaths in the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol have taken place on Nation lands. That's why I've been saying for years that the Tohono O'odham tribal government is morally responsible for contributing to migrant deaths."
Wilson is not a member of No More Deaths. A self-described "independent operator," the ex-Green Beret's work is sponsored by Humane Borders, founded by the Reverend Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church. Humane Borders is best known for its fixed desert water stations, marked by a blue flag, with massive barrels of water beneath.
According to Wilson, the 110 gallons of water in each of his stations went quickly in the deadly summer months. Now, he leaves no more than 10 gallons at a time because he doesn't know if the Border Patrol, tribal authorities, or tribe members will confiscate or harm the plastic containers.
On a recent outing, Wilson found only the caps of 10 water jugs at one station. A migrant would have drunk part of the water and taken the jug or drunk all of the water and left the entire empty container. Wilson surmised that someone emptied all the containers and confiscated them, leaving the caps on the ground. Fresh tracks from dirt bikes were nearby the site, possibly from Border Patrol motorcycles.
Back at his house, Wilson has a whole collection of slashed water bottles recovered during his excursions. He admits some of the damage may be the result of tribe members unhappy with him or with the migrants themselves.
"My battle is not with the Tohono O'odham people, but with the Tohono O'odham government," Wilson avers. "The Tohono O'odham people have a tradition of hospitality. They've always offered humanitarian aid to migrants. But 500 migrants coming across the reservation on any given day has exhausted this tradition of hospitality."
Not entirely exhausted it, of course, considering Wilson's own efforts and those of individuals such as David Garcia, an ex-member of the Tohono O'odham tribal council, who sometimes helps Wilson take water to the desert. Each agrees there are still private acts of generosity toward migrants by the Tohono O'odham people.
The two men say they've met with tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr., who's told them that he supports what they're doing but cannot say so publicly for political reasons. Wilson and Garcia believe Norris is compromised because of the millions of dollars in federal aid the nation receives. To openly support humanitarians putting water out on the reservation would be a risky proposition for him, they claim.
Norris declined to comment on Wilson's actions or on the deaths in the desert.
Wilson insists that the tribe has the infrastructure available to provide water to migrants, as it already does for livestock on the reservation. He's also critical of many in Tucson's social-justice community who do not want to admonish the tribe because of what Wilson perceives as liberal white guilt.
On the other hand, tribal leadership is between a rock and a hard place, argues John Fife, whose links to the nation are old and myriad.
"The Border Patrol is arrogant and authoritarian and dominant in a lot of ways with that culture," he states. "The [Tohono O'odham] leadership is very critical, but they feel they can't do without them."
In reality, the Border Patrol's "occupying army" arguably controls not only tribal land, but all of southern Arizona. South of the Gila River, it is almost impossible to avoid running into Border Patrol. In places where an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer is rarely seen, the Border Patrol is the most visible law enforcement agency present.
For all intents and purposes, the agency, along with its allied federal departments, oversees the region, acting as a sort of super-, anti-migrant, anti-drug police force.
"I think the Border Patrol really would like to have everybody out of the desert so they can do their enforcement with no problem," Lefebvre says. "Everyone's sort of a nuisance to them."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
And yet, as long migrants continue to die, the non-violent army that No More Deaths is a part of will continue to provide humanitarian relief. Driven by religion, members' own consciences, or a shared sense of purpose, such activists refuse to be beaten back by tickets from Fish and Wildlife, Border Patrol harassment, tribal politics, or even convictions in federal court.
Indeed, the more the federal government presses its boot heel down, the greater the response of those in No More Deaths and similar groups. The entire, pro-migrant movement was born of the suffering of migrants, activists say, and it will end only when the suffering ceases.
"Our strength comes from two things," Lefebvre says. "We have a strong community already in Tucson, and when volunteers come [from elsewhere], it's easy to create a strong community in the camps.
"But most of it comes from the migrants themselves. They're the inspiration. Their strength, their courage, their suffering. That is what feeds us."