Spirituality underpins migrant activism in US borderlands

  • Alyssa Quintanilla, part of the Tucson Samaritans volunteer group, carries a cross to be installed at the site of the migrant who died in the desert some time ago, in the desert near Three Points, Ariz., on May 18. Ross D. Franklin / AP

  • Members of the Tucson Samaritans volunteer group walk through the desolate Sonoran desert to place crosses at the sites of migrants who died in the desert some time ago, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in the desert near Three Points, Ariz. Faith-based groups working in migrant activism run the gamut from the Tucson Samaritans, which leaves lifesaving caches of water, food and other provisions in the remote wilderness, to Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which operates a shelter, to Methodists providing asylum-seeking families with legal aid and a place to stay, to name a few. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Alvaro Enciso, part of the Tucson Samaritans volunteer group, pauses as he and a group of other volunteers place a new cross at the site of the migrant who died in the desert some time ago, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in the desert near Three Points, Ariz. Enciso says he plants three or four crosses each week. “Can you imagine what their families go through, not knowing what happened to them?” (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • A flag marks a water station set up for migrants by Humane Borders is checked by members of the Tucson Samaritans near Sasabe, Ariz., on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. “I’m not looking forward to this summer,” said Douglas Ruopp, chairman of Humane Borders. “No matter what we do, people keep dying." (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Tucson Samaritans check the border wall, including a small gap in the new construction, near Sasabe, Ariz., on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Opponents that seek to control immigration, such as the Washington-based think tank Center for Immigration Studies, contend the border wall and other barriers are a better way to keep deaths down by keeping migrants out. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Dora Rodriguez, center, who was among 13 Salvadorans who survived in 1980 when another 13 people in the group died in the broiling sun near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, talks with Vicente Lopez, 19, who grew up in Guatemala's Ixil triangle, where government troops in the early 1980s wiped out entire communities suspected of harboring rebels, on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Sasabe, Mexico. At the age of 19, she remained in Tucson and eventually became a U.S. citizen. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Now 81 and retired, the Rev. John Fife III, who was a pastor at Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church, sits in the church's sanctuary as he looks through old photographs from his early days of migrant activism, Monday, May 17, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. Inspiring his work is a passage from the Book of Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • The bodies of a suspected migrants found dead in the desert await identification with limited remains at Medical Examiner's forensic labs in Tucson, Ariz., on Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Terry Stanford, a volunteer with Tucson Samaritans, shakes out a discarded camouflage garment left by a migrant or cartel member near Three Points, Ariz., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Faith-based groups like the Tucson Samaritans leave water and food in the Sonoran Desert. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • From left, Peter Lucero, Eileen O'Farrell Smith, Terry Stanford and Alvaro Enciso, all volunteers for the Tucson Samaritans, try to repair a damaged cross marking the site of a deceased migrant in the desert near Three Points, Ariz., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Tucson Samaritans volunteer Michele Maggiora, center, embraces Eileen O'Farrell Smith, left, as Peter Lucero, right, looks on at the site of a newly placed cross to identify a deceased migrant in the desert near Three Points, Ariz., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Peter Lucero, part of the Tucson Samaritans volunteer group, places a jug of water along known high traffic areas for migrants in the desert near Three Points, Ariz., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Spirituality remains at the heart of borderlands activism, with faith-based groups like the Tucson Samaritans that leave water and food in the Sonoran Desert. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Terry Stanford, background left, and Peter Lucero, right, help David Whitmer, foreground left, get through a barbed wire fence as they and Alvaro Enciso make their way to check on the condition of a cross left to mark a deceased migrant in the desert near Three Points, Ariz., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. They are members of the volunteer group Tucson Samaritans who help migrants in a variety of ways in Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Gail Kocourek, of the Tucson Samaritans volunteer group, pauses as she speaks with migrants in front of Casa de la Esperanza, a new migrant help center just south of the border in the Mexican town of Sasabe on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. “I don’t think anyone deserves to die for trying to make a better life for their family,” Kocourek says. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Unidentified bones found in the desert and suspected to be that of a migrant are assembled together for examination at the Pima County Medical Examiner's forensic labs in Tucson, Ariz., on Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • From left, Alvaro Enciso, Peter Lucero and Michele Maggiora, all volunteers for the Tucson Samaritans, walk through the desert to locate and check the condition of a cross marking the site of a deceased migrant near Three Points, Ariz., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • A new border wall stretches along the landscape near Sasabe, Ariz., on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • A new cross is placed by the Tucson Samaritans volunteer group at the site of the migrant who died in the desert some time ago, Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in the desert near Three Points, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Now 81 and retired, the Rev. John Fife III, who was pastor at Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church, participates in a pro-Palestinian rally in Tucson, Ariz., on Monday, May 17, 2021. Southside and Fife hosted some 13,000 asylum seekers over most of the 1980s, with up to 100 sleeping on the floor every night. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

Associated Press
Published: 6/9/2021 10:09:13 PM

Alvaro Enciso plants three or four crosses each week in Arizona’s desert borderlands, amid the yellow-blossomed prickly pear and whip-like ocotillo, in honor of migrants who died on the northbound trek.

Each colorful wooden memorial denotes where a set of bones or a decomposing body was found. Over eight years, the artist has marked more than 1,000 locations across public lands dotted with empty black plastic water jugs and camouflage backpacks beneath circling turkey vultures.

“Anything out here can kill you,” Enciso said. “A blister, a snake, not enough water.”

Protecting migrants and honoring the humanity of those who died on the perilous trail is a kind of religion in southern Arizona where spiritual leaders four decades ago founded the Sanctuary Movement, a campaign to shelter Central Americans fleeing civil war, and scores of volunteers carry on their legacy today.

Faith-based groups working in migrant activism run the gamut from the Tucson Samaritans, which leaves lifesaving caches of water, food and other provisions in the remote wilderness, to Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which operates a shelter, to Methodists providing asylum-seeking families with legal aid and a place to stay, to name a few.

Enciso’s art project, “Where Dreams Die,” fits squarely in that spiritual tradition, though he believes there’s nothing overtly religious in memorializing the dead.

On a recent day he placed a golden cross where the bones of an unknown male were found Sept. 24, 2020, amid the jumping cholla cactus. The cause and approximate year of the man’s death, about a mile north of state Highway 86, are undetermined.

“Can you imagine what their families go through, not knowing what happened to them?” Enciso said.

Volunteer Michele Maggiora kissed a fist of fresh sage and faced east, south, west and north, then held the fist down for the Earth Mother and up for the Sky Father in prayer.

“I feel like we have to recognize that something happened here,” Maggiora said.

Such activism has roots in the 1981 founding of the Sanctuary Movement, which spread to a dozen Tucson churches and synagogues and more than 500 U.S. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations, drawing on the ancient tradition of protecting people inside houses of worship.

Now 81 and retired, the Rev. John Fife III was pastor at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church back then when his Quaker friend Jim Corbett told him Central Americans were fleeing to the U.S. to escape violence back home.

The men recalled the Book of Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Soon Fife and Corbett, who died in 2001, were smuggling Central American migrants into the U.S. and sheltering them in their homes, despite their wives’ protests. The church hosted some 13,000 asylum seekers in the ‘80s, with up to 100 people sleeping on the floor on a given night.

“I felt that if I didn’t help, I would have to resign as pastor,” Fife said recently in Southside’s worship hall, which was modeled after an indigenous ceremonial structure known as a kiva.

Fife was convicted in 1986 of violating U.S. immigration laws and served five years’ probation, but that didn’t deter him.

In 2000 he helped create Humane Borders, which maintains water stations with 55-gallon plastic blue barrels accompanied by a blue flag visible from a distance. Two years later he co-founded Tucson Samaritans, a ministry of Southside, which along with partner organizations in Ajo and Green Valley-Sahuarita sends volunteers into the wilderness to leave water and food. Fife also had a hand in the 2004 creation of No More Deaths, which staffs remote aid camps for weeks at a time.

“We couldn’t stop what we were doing, because people’s lives were on the line,” Fife said.

Many of those volunteering with the groups are of retirement age, like Gail Kocourek.

Every week the Tucson Samaritan volunteer drives donations of clothes and food to Casa de la Esperanza, a new daytime migrant help center just south of the border in the Mexican town of Sasabe where about 50 migrants a day can get a meal, a shower and clothes. They usually sleep at hotels or guest houses in town.

“I don’t think anyone deserves to die for trying to make a better life for their family,” Kocourek said.

Often traveling there as well is Dora Rodriguez, who was among 13 Salvadorans who survived in 1980 when 13 others died in the broiling sun near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Then 19, she remained in Tucson and eventually became an American citizen.

“And now, 41 years later, people are still dying out here in the desert,” said Rodriguez, who formed a nonprofit called Salvavision to aid migrants in Arizona and encourage people in Central America not to make the dangerous journey. “The only difference now is that there is no longer a civil war. But you still have the aftermath of war – the gangs, crime, corruption.”

Rampant poverty is another reason for leaving, according to Vicente Lopez, a 19-year-old from Guatemala who was staying elsewhere in town. “It’s because we’re so poor.”

Groups that seek to restrict immigration, such as the Washington-based think tank Center for Immigration Studies, contend the border wall and other barriers are a better way to keep deaths down by keeping migrants out.

“I have no question about the good intentions of these groups, and we don’t want people dying in the desert,” said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge and the center’s resident fellow. “But you don’t want to create a magnet for people expecting to find water.”

For its part, the Border Patrol, in a recent statement on the 20th anniversary of the deaths of 14 people in the Devil’s Highway region southeast of Yuma, noted the danger remains: “Smugglers and guides regularly risk the lives of the migrants who pay them thousands of dollars for help to get to the United States.”

Humane Borders, which works with Pima County chief medical examiner Dr. Greg Hess to map the discoveries of human remains, in 2020 documented 227 deaths, including those in Maricopa County, the highest in a decade after the hottest, driest summer in state history. Hess’ office received the remains of 79 apparent border crossers this year as of late May, and activists fear 2021 could prove especially treacherous with large numbers of people launching journeys.

Customs and Border Protection reports that apprehensions of migrants are way up, with 20,246 such encounters in the Tucson sector alone in April – a 674% increase over the same month last year – out of 178,622 along the entire four-state border. Rescues of migrants found in dangerous areas are also up.

“I’m not looking forward to this summer,” said Douglas Ruopp, chairman of Humane Borders. “No matter what we do, people keep dying.”

Yet the danger doesn’t dissuade people like Josue Hernandez Ruiz, a tour guide from the Mexican resort of Huatulco who was laid off during the coronavirus pandemic and ventured north seeking to support his wife and two children. After staying at a guest house in Sasabe, he and a friend planned to set out into the desert without a guide.

“I’m going to use my phone,” Hernandez Ruiz said. “It has GPS.”

In Tucson, activists regularly gather at a shrine to pray for migrants who didn’t survive that journey.

The local cumbia band Vox Urbana pays homage by writing and recording songs about migrants, including one about a transgender asylum seeker named Karolina.

“We are a community of migrants,” guitarist and vocalist Kike Castellanos said, “and it is important to tell the stories of our community.”




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