Training to be a Samaritan in Arizona
Last Sunday I went to Southside Presbyterian Church, the first Sanctuary church in 1982 and still offering sanctuary today. The Samaritans walk the trails in the desert with water, food and basic first aid. I am here to learn how to get involved.
" I didn't expect to be doing this for ten years," one of the leaders in the No More Deaths movement blurts out in a recent meeting. No More Deaths (NMD) is a humanitarian aid organization based in Tucson, Arizona whose mission is to end death and suffering on the US/Mexico border. His frustration emerges during a strategic planning meeting. He asks, "what is most important in 2015 to continue to provide life not death and to "resist in the desert."
NMD currently operates a permanent medical facility near Arivaca near the Mexican border. The Border Patrol has entered or "invaded" the medical camp area seeking migrants. The group of young adults and older volunteers talk about the importance of mobile cell phones and boosters, trucks equipped with GPS and water. My head begins to swim with the all the details of what it means to be 24/7 in the desert to keep people from dying.
You may ask - Why do people cross the desert? Answer: U.S. border policy beginning twenty years ago was to erect walls, intensify the number of border patrols and basically, to militarize the border. These policy actions have funneled people seeking to enter the United States into the desert regions - the borderlands - from Texas to Southern California with a heavy concentration of migrants crossing the Sonoran desert.
It is complicated work, as I am learning. Today I am going to a four hour training to become a Samaritan volunteer - see photo. The Samaritans and NMD volunteers both deliver water and food in the desert - every day volunteers head out to known trails and washes to look for evidence of migrants and to place the water and food. There are over 600 volunteers in two Samaritan organizations in Tucson and Green Valley.
Randy Mayer, a border activist and pastor of the Church of Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, AZ tells me, "Pat, in 2000 when we discovered dying people in the desert, we started Humane Borders (another humanitarian organization) that built border stations in the desert and worked with the multiple jurisdictions to get approval for their placement."
Randy adds, "We are constantly changing our strategy and activities to meet the changes in U.S. policy towards the border region."
My volunteer assignment is to learn about all the groups that provide border immersion experiences or study trips from Texas to Southern California. BorderLinks was founded in 2000 to bring university students and religious organizations to the border to understand the root causes of migration and to meet the migrants in Mexico and hear their stories.
I am travelling this coming week to El Paso, Texas and Las Cruces, New Mexico to meet with two other groups that organize border delegations. I am posting links to these organizations on the links page of this website.
Personally I am here to walk the trails carrying water, meet the migrants at El Comedor in Nogales, Mexico and to work in a legal clinic helping people to assemble their documents for the DACA and DAPA programs which provide two to three year protection from deportation, as a result of President Obama's executive order.
One NMD volunteer observed that there is a difference between immigration policy and border policy. Which is most important? Both, is my answer. There are groups here in southern Arizona that are working on both - the advocacy to change the border policies as well as to bring justice to our immigration system.
MY RECOMMENDATION: Get involved in this issue. Find out who is doing what in your community regarding immigration and border policies. Organize a delegation to visit the border. Monitor current legislation to roll back the President's executive order and contact your Member of Congress to ask him/her to resist and think about what makes a person leave their home to cross the desert.
What would you do if you had no money, no job, no id, and no food? What borders (internal or external) would you cross? One answer clearly is to head north to the border.
My life has been about crossing borders and cultures and building bridges across the boundaries that normally divide. Have you crossed any borders in your life?