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Dead in Their Tracks 

In America's latest border wars, Samaritans are arrested as smugglers and migrants keep dying.

Wednesday, Feb 22 2006
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ARIVACA, Arizona — A few miles from this hard-baked borderlands hamlet northwest of Nogales, we’re trudging uphill through a rock-filled desert gully. Some scattered, empty plastic water jugs, scraps of clothing stuck in the thorny brush and, on the ground in front of us, an abandoned, crude stretcher fashioned from striplings lashed with rags confirm that we’re standing in a path well-traveled by cross-border migrants. Or, if you prefer, illegal aliens.

“Hola, amigos!” shouts out Steve Johnston, cupping his hands to his mouth, his long white hair scrunching onto his shoulders. “Don’t be afraid!” he continues in gringoized Spanish. “We’re church Samaritans! We have water and food!”

Johnston motions our small group to pause and be still, as if we’re straining to hear the flighty rustlings of frightened deer.

click to flip through (5) They come to America: The high numbers of migrant deaths last summer led Arizonas Pima County to rent refrigerated trucks to store bodies when space ran out at the morgue. Photos by Danny Gawlowski
  • They come to America: The high numbers of migrant deaths last summer led Arizonas Pima County to rent refrigerated trucks to store bodies when space ran out at the morgue. Photos by Danny Gawlowski
 

This call produces only silence. Not even a stir. We walk another 50 yards up the ravine, and Johnston repeats his entreaty. Again, no answer. We move on, toward another patch of desert.

With ever more Border Patrol agents and high-tech surveillance fortifying the international divide, Mexican migrants are walking longer and more perilous routes to get into the United States. Last year, a record 473 of them died trying to cross — more than half here in Arizona. The year before marked the previous record. And 2006 threatens to set yet another record.

This is why almost every weekend of the year, and every day during the triple-digit heat of the Sonoran Desert summer, Johnston and 50 or so others who are part of the humanitarian groups No More Deaths and Samaritan Patrol (also called Samaritans) comb the cactus and mesquite of southern Arizona looking for migrants in distress. They offer water, snacks and — if necessary — evacuation for those with medical emergencies. Last year, among the 3,500 migrants the Samaritans encountered, they took 68 of them to a doctor, or back to their base at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, where they were treated by medical volunteers.

Evacuating weakened, lost or dehydrated migrants used to be routine for the Samaritans. But no more. Last July, two Samaritan Patrol volunteers — Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss — were arrested by the Border Patrol with three migrants in their vehicle. Though Sellz and Strauss, both 23, claimed they were merely, as always, taking the debilitated walkers in for medical care, the Border Patrol took them all into custody. Sellz and Strauss were charged with felony aiding and abetting as well as conspiracy. They now face trial and a possible 15 years in prison. It’s the first time law enforcement has cracked down on humanitarian border workers.

The arrests and coming trial have reverberated loudly along the southern border. The issues the case encapsulates mirror the larger national immigration debate, which is now reaching red-hot proportions. Drive around Tucson and you can’t go three blocks without running into one of thousands of yard signs supporting Samaritans: “Humanitarian Assistance Is Not a Crime,” reads one. And just last week, former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman joined the No More Deaths defense team. Feldman, a liberal reformer, retired from the state bench in 2002 after putting in two decades on the job. Local reporters credit the more than 400 opinions written by Feldman with almost single-handedly changing the face of Arizona. His decisions have broadened access to medical emergency rooms, dismantled a crony system of selecting judges, given more power to juries, increased funding for public schools and defended abortion rights, among many other highlights. His writing has been praised for wit and intelligence, and he is destined to be a formidable match for the prosecutors in the Samaritan case.

But switch on AM talk radio in the same city, any city — including Los Angeles — and the airwaves crackle with strident support of the Minutemen border militia and with demands to deploy troops to the border and send Mexicans living here back home. In the U.S. Congress this spring, the most forward-thinking immigration-liberalization bills to come along in decades will compete with the most retrograde and impractical anti-immigration proposals.

“What it all looks like from here is a greater and greater tragedy,” says the Rev. John Fife, Samaritan Patrol founder and former Southside Presbyterian Church pastor, who is now steering our SUV toward Nogales. On this recent Saturday morning, we are one among six Samaritan Patrol groups hosting a gathering of reporters. Shanti Sellz is in one of the accompanying vans, still doing her work in spite of the upcoming trial.

“The number of deaths just goes up every year,” Fife tells me. “We’re convinced that even if the Senate passes a better bill than the House, people are still going to be out here dying. We’re still going to have a lot of work to do.”

And the mere indictment of two of his Samaritans is hardly going to put a brake on the 72-year-old Fife’s operations. In 1986 he was convicted on smuggling charges after spending six months in jail awaiting trial for his work in the sanctuary movement — the underground railroad that offered shelter to Central American refugees fleeing regional wars.

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