By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
That might be the case. The national coalition now supporting comprehensive immigration reform and at least some institutional acknowledgment of the 11 million or so “illegals” already living here is impressively broad. Stretching from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to organized labor, from conservative Republicans like Arizona Representative Jeff Flake to card-carrying liberals like Teddy Kennedy, there’s a consensus that our laws and policies have to be brought into closer alignment with our real-life demographics. Yet the political initiative seems to be in the hands of the shut-the-border faction. As if there were some way to do that, to dam up the human tide ever swelling in from the south.
Seven miles shy of Nogales, on a quiet back road, when we spot a clump of green-suited Border Patrol agents, bundled in jackets against the early-morning chill, Fife stops our car. One of the Patrol’s equestrian units had come upon and detained a group of a dozen Mexicans, including three women, walking up a trail. They now sit glumly on the ground while other Border Patrol officers, who have arrived in vans, are preparing to load them up.
The three Samaritans with me — Fife, Johnston and Kathryn Ferguson — pile out with bottles of water and bags of crackers in their hands.
“Is it okay?” Ferguson asks the uniformed B.P. agent standing guard over the dozen detainees.
He nonchalantly waves his hand as if to say, “Go ahead.” The water and food are gladly accepted. We learn that the group has come from Mexico City and has been walking for two days and two nights. Ferguson notices that one of the women wears platform-heel shoes and has a swollen ankle. With the Border Patrol looking on impassively, Ferguson tapes up the woman’s ankle.
No question that the Border Patrol agents know exactly who these Samaritan Patrol members are — the same people who were arrested for smuggling last July. Fife is legendary in these parts. And, in any case, the vehicle we’re in is clearly marked with a red “Samaritans” logo on the door. Yet, there is a world-weary détente between the two groups — the U.S. enforcement agents and the church Samaritans. Both sides know each is just doing its job and that the absurdities of the policies they must work within or around make many of their actions seem futile. Thousands of migrants will cross into the U.S. this same week without bumping into either side. The Border Patrol won’t catch most of them. Those it does will be fingerprinted, processed and “voluntarily deported” back into Mexico within a few hours — ready to try again. The Samaritan Patrol volunteers, meanwhile, will find only a few of the many in need.
Fife says that most of the agents soon figure out the gap between reality and official rhetoric. “There are probably four times the amount of Border Patrol out here than there were five years ago,” he says as we get back in the car, the detained Mexicans and their green-suited overseers fading in the side-view mirror. “We’re seeing a lot of newbies — coming in from Montana, New Jersey. All pretty green and pretty gung-ho. All they talk about is catching terrorists. They run into reality and see who they’re really catching, and their attitudes shift.”
Shanti Sellz is a tall, slender native of Iowa. A student at Arizona’s Prescott College, she was doing some of her Latin American studies fieldwork in 2004 near Bisbee, alongside the Mexican border. During her first week there, she says, she was amazed to drive by a dust-covered Mexican family walking along the road, with water jugs in hand, “looking so scared,” and saw that no one was helping them. By summer 2005, she had become a full-time volunteer for the Samaritan Patrol and an activist in the No More Deaths coalition, to which the Samaritans group belongs. She recounts her version of the events that led to her arrest last July 9:
“Daniel and I were on a patrol, and we found nine people about 20 minutes north of the border,” she says. “They had been walking for four days in the desert. Three were in pretty bad shape and clearly needed some help. So in plain view, with clear markings on our car, we picked up those three and headed for Southside [Church], where we had medical professionals — two doctors and a nurse — waiting for us.”
They never made it. Sellz and her partner, with the three migrants in the back of their car, were pulled over by a Border Patrol unit and arrested.
By federal law, the Border Patrol can stop anyone within 25 miles of the border to demand proof of legal residence. Though the agents no doubt saw the Samaritan markings on Sellz’s car, the three men in the backseat were practically an invitation to question the pair. For the agents making the stop, the mere presence of the three undocumented men were sufficent grounds to charge the two Samaritans with aiding and abetting illegal entry of the migrants. The federal prosecutors on the case claim that their case is further strengthened by the admission that the men were being taken back to a church and not to a hospital, even though the church is where the Samaritans often administer medical aid.