Longform

Blood's Thicker Than Water: As Thousands Die in the Arizona Desert as a Result of U.S. Border Policy, an Army of Activists Intervenes

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.

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."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons