Dead in Their Tracks
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.
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.
“I think our views are gaining ground,” he says as we cross the almost treeless Coronado National Forest. “The policy of deterrence by death is now opposed by more people than ever.”
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.
“When we were being held, our medical people went to the Border Patrol station but were denied access to the three people we evacuated,” says Sellz, who along with Strauss spent 48 hours in custody and was officially charged.
“Omigod,” she adds with a sigh. “What a crazy ride it has been. It’s certainly made me more informed and unbowed. People know we are not a smuggling operation, come on. There’s been a hundred thousand post cards sent in to support us. So, on the community level, I feel optimistic. But you look at what’s coming out on the policy level and it’s appalling.”
The defense team for Sellz and Strauss argued for dismissal of their case in a January pretrial hearing. The local Border Patrol chief at the time of the arrest, they claimed, had given prior assurances that Samaritans members would not be prosecuted for providing their usual sort of assistance, including medical evacuations. The prosecution, however, produced a tape recording of a meeting that contradicted the defense claim. The judge hearing the matter refused to dismiss the case, and the trial is expected to begin April 25.
What’s got some scratching their heads, however, is not the position of the Border Patrol but rather that of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, Paul Charlton, who is prosecuting the case. His boss, George W. Bush, is fighting a political brushfire on his right flank. As the White House — with support of the business lobby and of liberal reformers as well — tries to squeak through a more realistic immigration-reform package, it’s simultaneously stirring a nativist revolt. In a classic intra-Republican battle, it’s Main Street versus Wall Street, the Minutemen versus the moderates, the close-the-border restrictionists to Bush’s right versus the pro-business wing of the party. Why do the Bushies want to further sate their restrictionist, anti-immigrant critics by persecuting the Samaritans? Or is it the opposite case? By throwing the get-tough-on-the-border crowd the bodies of the Samaritans, does the administration hope to win some more maneuvering space, temporarily appeasing these same critics while still pushing for its guest-worker programs?
Charlton himself has earned a reputation among some local observers as a fair and enlightened federal prosecutor who actually “gets” the border issue in all of its bedeviling complexities. Why was he all of a sudden prosecuting two humanitarian-aid workers who, he knew very well, weren’t smugglers? Indeed, if anyone knew what authentic smugglers were all about, it would be Charlton. He’s busted up some of the most violent and pernicious criminal gangs that traffic in humans.
Some theorized that the whole Samaritans case was, maybe, just an unfortunate snafu — that when Sellz and Strauss were arrested, it was a weekend, and that a lower-level assistant to Charlton had green-lighted an indictment that Charlton would have overlooked. Others shrug their shoulders and just wonder.
When I and the small group of other reporters who went out with the Samaritans have dinner with Charlton in Tucson, he seems — in fact — the most open and thoughtful sort of prosecutor. He readily explains the caseload burden that his staff lawyers face because of border-related arrests — as much as 20 times the average of other federal prosecutors. Arizona is now the major entry point for illegal border crossings — of people and narcotics. “We are in the vortex here,” he says. For that reason, he prioritizes his cases, focusing on large-scale smuggling and drug operations, traffickers of children and, recently, on the corruption of local officials. As part of “Operation Lively Green,” Charlton’s office and related federal agencies have nabbed more than 40 National Guard, Border Patrol and Customs officers involved in trafficking.
Nor does Charlton hesitate in saying that current border and immigration policies are out of whack, that enforcement alone is a failed approach and that some sort of liberalizing reform is in order. He doesn’t buy into a hard-line view of the migrants either.
“The vast majority of people coming here unlawfully,” he says in his soft-spoken, deliberate manner, “are coming here to work. They’re coming because they have no other options, and I don’t know that if I were in their position, I would do anything different.”
So why, then, is the federal government going to such an extraordinary effort to prosecute a couple of church workers who were only trying to extend some humanity to three of these same migrants in great need? “I looked at this case very carefully,” Charlton answers. “And I understand a commitment to act on faith. And while I know better than to predict whether or not a prosecution will be successful, I do know there’s enough here so that a jury should have a look at it.”
That is not much of an endorsement of his own case. Confident prosecutors, like cocky football players, never fail to make pre-game forecasts of certain and absolute victory. Throughout the course of this case there has been a lot of public speculation that the charges would be dropped or that a wrist-slap plea deal would be negotiated. But while Charlton isn’t pounding the table and demanding conviction, he doesn’t seem to crack open the door of compromise either.
What everyone knows is that the trial, assuming it goes ahead, and independent of its conclusion, will change absolutely nothing in the current border drama. Nothing has, over the last decade or more. No matter the pronouncements or policies from Washington, no matter how many billions are spent fortifying the border, about a million people a year keep getting arrested as they come across the line. Hundreds of thousands or more don’t get caught. They take up jobs in just about every state of the union now. And the game grinds on.
On a recent weekday evening, just before dusk, the well-known ritual once again repeats itself in the ramshackle Mexican border town of Sasabe, about 90 minutes south of Tucson. In la ladrillera, the old semi-abandoned brick yard, knots of young men, some with their families, begin to gather. They are dressed in dark colors, water jugs in hand, baseball caps drawn tightly over their heads and their backpacks stuffed with bare essentials — a toothbrush, a change of clothes, some cans of tuna. After days of arduous travel through Mexico itself, the men make their final contact here with the “guides” provided by their “polleros,” their smugglers. As night falls, they fan out into the desert hills and quietly walk north along the footpaths already firmly etched into the brush. Their forward march will continue unimpeded, regardless of the outcome of the Samaritans’ trial. And they will soon take up new jobs on the other side, with or without any legal recognition of their work, or even of their existence.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.