In some ways, the pandemic has changed my work at No More Deaths. In other ways, it’s exactly the same: Every day we get up early and load up our trucks and go out to different places to leave water. Sometimes that means driving a lot and leaving water in four to five places that are close to the road. Other times, we’ll drive out to one place and hike around 10 miles, round trip, to leave water and supplies in areas that are more remote. We have around 200 water drop sites in southern Arizona, which we track using GPS coordinates. We keep a logbook where we write down exactly what we find when we visit the sites so we can see where there’s more need and make more frequent water drops to those areas.
Before the pandemic, we were a year-round-operating volunteer program. People came from all over the country—and sometimes all over the world—to spend a month with us to do water drops and help with search and rescue. But because of Covid, we’ve stopped accepting out-of-town volunteers. People here are in close quarters, and we really want to make sure that we’re able to operate safely. So we’ve been relying pretty heavily on our local volunteer base in Tucson and encouraging local volunteers to go on water drops with the people they live with. Instead of having a group of five out-of-town volunteers camping for a week and doing water drops, we now have groups of housemates coming out from Tucson daily to put out that food and water.
When we go out on water drops, everyone wears a mask. We’ve also implemented strict hand-washing guidelines, and we’re limiting our exposure to people we don’t live with. We’ve been able to maintain a lot of our sites that way, but the pandemic has impacted the amount of food and water that we’ve put out. So it’s been a bit of a balance. But early on in the pandemic, we recognized that the humanitarian crisis at the border wasn’t stopping, so our work was still essential. We just didn’t see it as an option to just shut down, because of the realities of the extreme heat in the summer, and the way that Border Patrol scatters groups and people get disoriented and lost in the remote corridors of the desert. That’s still going to kill people. So we still need to be out there.
If we run into people when we’re out in the desert, we follow basic wilderness medicine guidelines. Some of our volunteers are EMTs, some are wilderness first responders, some are nurses and doctors. A big concern, early on, was that our volunteers could potentially pass Covid to somebody who might then end up in a detention center. So everyone is masked and gloved, and we carry extra supplies to ensure that we’re not potentially giving somebody Covid.
We also use our water drops to clean up trash and deal with vandalism of our supplies, like our water bottles being destroyed. It’s a pretty common occurrence—I’d say we still see instances of vandalism every week. For a while, it was hard to know for sure who was doing it because you had both Border Patrol and hunters out here, but then we did a big analysis of our logbook across a few years and found that there wasn’t a significant difference in vandalism between hunting season and other times. So, because of how widespread the vandalism is, and how frequent it is, we concluded that Border Patrol was largely responsible. Right now it’s 100 degrees out every day—nobody is out four miles from the road except for Border Patrol.
Over the past few years, Border Patrol has tried to rebrand a bit and focus more on their search and rescue operations, and talk about how they also have a humanitarian mission. But it feels a bit like a ship captain pushing everybody on their boat into the water and then throwing in a few life jackets. They’re directly responsible for the crisis—they’re not an appropriate responder. Border Patrol is one of the least accountable agencies in the United States. They kill with impunity, and there aren’t many ways to provide oversight for them because they work in such remote areas.
With the recent immigration and travel restrictions, we’re also seeing now that they’re not taking as many people to detention centers anymore. Instead, they’re rapidly expelling people, without first going through a formal deportation process, into towns in Mexico along the border at ports of entry that have had no deportation agreement with the U.S. in the past. People who aren’t even from Mexico—people from any country of origin who get picked up by Border Patrol in the desert—are just getting driven down to Mexico and kind of dropped off. And those towns don’t have the infrastructure to accept people coming back from custody, or from the desert.
I’m really grateful for the people who are out in the streets right now fighting against police brutality and calling for defunding. For one thing, Black undocumented immigrants are more likely to be profiled by police and pulled over and put into deportation proceedings than non-Black undocumented immigrants. And I think the connections between policing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Border Patrol are crystal clear: It’s a pretty common story for us to run into people in the desert who were living in the U.S. and targeted by law enforcement for a minor infraction, like driving without a taillight or something, and then ended up in custody or were deported, and are now coming back through the desert. And the flipside of that is that we’ve now seen Customs and Border Protection drones flying over Minneapolis, as well as the Border Patrol being deployed to Washington, D.C. I think the demand to defund is gaining steam, and I hope that it ends up reflected in policy over the next few years, because I think it has the potential to really change the situation out here, too.