Border Patrol arrests migrants seeking humanitarian aid

As temperatures in the Southwest soar, advocates worry about border crossers.


Last week, as temperatures in southern Arizona exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, four Mexican men crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Heading north into a remote stretch of the Sonoran Desert, they braved poisonous scorpions and rattlesnakes, searing temperatures, and rivers that can surge unexpectedly, growing weaker as the heat and dehydration took their toll.

After several days, the men arrived at a camp run by the group No More Deaths, or No Más Muertes, located on property owned by best-selling children’s book author Byrd Baylor, who allowed the group to set up a permanent base on her land more than a decade ago. The camp sits near the community of Arivaca roughly 11 miles north of the border; it’s a place where volunteers provide water, food, and emergency medical care to migrants making the treacherous journey across the desert.

On the afternoon of June 15, approximately 30 armed Border Patrol agents arrived at the No More Deaths camp to arrest the four men in what volunteers described as a “military-style operation.” The arrests followed a three-day showdown prompted by a volunteer’s request: The Border Patrol agents would need a federal warrant to search the property. After finally getting their warrant, the agents swooped in while a helicopter carrying a U.S. Customs and Border Protection video crew descended on the camp, filming footage of the arrests that was being broadcast on the agency’s Twitter account in real time.

Down at the camp, the volunteers became deeply disturbed by the spectacle: , they say, the raid could deter future migrants from seeking help.

No More Deaths volunteers hike through a stand of ocotillo in the Sonoran Desert.

And what’s more, they say, the fact that Border Patrol agents secured a search warrant to gain entry meant that the new administration’s harsher stance on immigration enforcement would add to the thousands of human bodies currently scattered in the Southwestern borderlands. 

“The choice to interdict these people only after they entered the No More Deaths’ camp is direct evidence that this was a direct attack on humanitarian aid,” John Fife, one of the group’s founders, says. , he explains how the migrants arriving at the camp are especially vulnerable at this time when “the weather forecast is for record setting deadly temperatures.”

Since Donald Trump was elected president, between November 2016 and April 2017, southern Arizona’s Pima County has registered 71 migrant deaths—almost double the amount registered in the same period a year earlier. Illegal immigration had slowed long before Trump took office, from an average of 1.1 million people caught annually between 1980 and 2008, to . But the number of people dying as they make their way across the border has stayed relatively steady, as increased security has pushed many migrants to travel through more remote parts of the desert.

“We see very few deaths in the eastern part of the state these days,” says Mike Kreyche, a retired librarian who updates the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, a database tracking migrant deaths in Arizona. The database is an ongoing collaboration between the Pima County Medical Examiners Office and Humane Borders, a Tucson-based human rights organization.

Most are dying in the wilderness areas southwest of Tucson, including Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range — treacherous country with few public access roads or services. In total, there have been 2,817 recorded deaths since 2001.

A group of volunteers stand disappointed after they find their water has been destroyed.

The fact that migrants are crossing through increasingly dangerous terrain is no coincidence. In 1994, the Clinton administration issued the so-called prevention through deterrence” policy, a border security strategy that envisioned the Southwest’s wildest landscapes as a weapon against illegal immigration.

As the number of unauthorized migrants coming through the border rose in the early 1990s, particularly through well-traveled “corridors” such as Nogales and California's San Diego area, the Border Patrol faced growing pressure to alter its traditional border-management practices. Previously, border enforcement meant apprehending migrants near roads and neighborhoods adjacent to the border, and . The new approach would concentrate enforcement — including the construction of walls, and the deployment of Border Patrol agents and surveillance equipment — into urban areas, which would in turn push migrants into “geographically harsher…[and] more remote and hazardousterrain.

By the year 2000, Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the then-named Immigration and Naturalization Service, told The Arizona Republic that “we did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.” Time would prove that it was quite the contrary: Many migrants continued to endure those risks and are still willing to do so — leading to more deaths.

You can’t really carry enough water with you, so people will get lost and die of dehydration,” says Kreyche, who’s been helping migrants since the 1980s, when an influx of Central American refugees arrived at the U.S. border fleeing civil wars. Later, Kreyche moved to Arizona and helped the Tucson Samaritans, another humanitarian aid group working in the borderlands. Two years ago, he joined Humane Borders’ efforts to maintain the database in an effort to find migration patterns and better focus his life-saving efforts.

Over the years, Kreyche and hundreds of other volunteers have tried to mitigate the increased risks by stashing water deep into the desert and distributing posters in churches, shelters, and other locations south of the border that list the dangers that migrants face trying to cross illegally into the U.S. At times, Border Patrol agents have interfered with those efforts. In 2012, for instance, jugs meant for the migrants. But in recent years the agency had abided by an informal agreement allowing migrants to seek medical help at the No More Deaths camp without fear of arrest.

For Kreyche, last week’s raid marks a new era in how the enforcement agency operates. “They’ve harassed that camp on other occasions but not to that extent,” he says. In a past incident, Border Patrol agents stationed themselves on a hill overlooking the camp for several days. Most striking about the recent action, he adds, is that the entire operation showed all the signs of being staged. Instead of arresting the four men at the border when they were first spotted, agents tracked them for four days through the desert and then swooped in using an unprecedented” show of force. “It’s ridiculous to have all those vehicles and agents out there – never mind the helicopter,” says Kreyche.

Vicente Paco, a spokesperson with the Tucson sector Border Patrol, says they had no opportunity to arrest the men before they reached the camp. The migrants, he explains, were walking too fast for the agents to catch them.

Still, No More Deaths volunteers are concerned that the siege-like display will frighten other migrants from seeking potentially life-saving help at the camp. For Kreyche, that means more lives will be lost to the desert; measured in a cluster of red dots on a map of southern Arizona so dense that in some parts it appears black.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN. 

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Take over the reins of a dynamic grassroots social justice group that protects Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - Winter Wildlands Alliance seeks an experienced and highly motivated individual to lead and manage the organization as Executive Director. Visit for...
  • Background: The Birds of Prey NCA Partnership is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization based in Boise, Idaho, which was established in 2015 after in-depth stakeholder input...
  • Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor of Native Americans and the News Media The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is...
  • AWF seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at
  • The Southwest Communications Director will be responsible for working with field staff in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to develop and execute detailed communication plans...
  • An intentional community designed for aging in place. Green built with Pumice-crete construction (R32), bamboo flooring, pine doors, T&G ceiling with fans, and maintenance free...
  • (CFROG) is a Ventura County, CA based watch-dog and advocacy non-profit organization.
  • Take your journalism skills to the next level and deepen your understanding of environmental issues by applying for the 2019-2020 Ted Scripps Fellowships in Environmental...
  • The San Juan Mountains Association is seeking a visionary leader to spearhead its public lands stewardship program in southwest Colorado. For a detailed job description...
  • The Cascade Forest Conservancy seeks a passionate ED to lead our forest protection, conservation, education, and advocacy programs.
  • Mountain Pursuit is a new, bold, innovative, western states, hunting advocacy nonprofit headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming. We need a courageous, hard working, passionate Executive Director...
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for the Willis McDonald, IV...
  • Couple seeks quiet, private, off-grid acreage in area with no/low cell phone service and no/low snowfall. Conservation/bordering public lands a plus. CA, OR, WA, ID,...
  • Former northern Sierra winery, with 2208 sq.ft. commercial building, big lot, room to expand.
  • The dZi Foundation is seeking a FT Communications Associate with a passion for Nepal to join our team in Ridgway, Colorado. Visit
  • Available now for site conservator, property manager. View resume at
  • Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details:
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.