Alyssa Quintanilla, part of the Tucson Samaritans volunteer group, carries a cross Tuesday, May 18, 2021, to be installed at the site of the migrant who died in the desert some time ago, in the desert near Three Points, Ariz. 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. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Spirituality underpins migrant activism in US borderlands

Spirituality underpins migrant activism in US borderlands

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — 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 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 a migrant shelter operated by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona.

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. The cause and approximate year of the man’s death remain undetermined.

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

Such activism has roots in the 1981 founding of the Sanctuary Movement, which spread to a more than 500 U.S. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations.

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

Soon Fife and Corbett, who died in 2001, were smuggling Central Americans 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.

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 (208-liter) plastic blue barrels. Two years later he co-founded Tucson Samaritans, which 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.

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

Every week the Tucson Samaritan volunteer drives donations of clothing and food to Casa de la Esperanza, a new center 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 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 now, 41 years later, people are still dying out here in the desert,” said Rodriguez.

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.

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, the highest in a decade after the hottest, driest summer in state history. Hess’ office this year received the remains of 79 apparent border crossers through 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 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 cross the desert without a guide.

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

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Anita Snow, The Associated Press

Immigration

Just Posted

Chris Smith (left), Knud Petersen (middle left), Rose Marie Sackela and Dianne Wyntjes spoke Friday at an informational coal policy rally outside Red Deer City Hall. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Shanna Lydiard complains that her mail hasn’t been delivered for over 10 weeks due to water main construction on her West Park block. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Residents of Red Deer street have no mail delivery for 10-plus weeks

Shanna Lydiard says she doesn’t trust the city’s promises

FILE - Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced that Albertans could start booking second dose shots of the COVID-19 vaccine starting Tuesday night. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Public measures will be lifted: Alberta will enter Stage 3 on Canada Day

Alberta will enter Stage 3 of its Open for Summer Plan on… Continue reading

A massive round dance, involving hundreds of people at Bower Ponds, was a highlight of Canada Day celebrations in 2000. (Contributed photo)
Fireworks without a Canada Day celebration is planned for July 1 in Red Deer

Many residents aren’t in a festive mood, with recent Indigenous graves discovery

Students’ Association of Red Deer College president Brittany Lausen says the government needs to be transparent about why RDC doesn’t have degrees yet. (Red Deer Advocate file photo)
Brittany Lausen earns RDC Outstanding Student Award

Student’s Association of Red Deer College president Brittany Lausen has been named… Continue reading

A supporter of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds a sign during a rally in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Iran's clerical vetting committee has allowed just seven candidates for the Friday, June 18, ballot, nixing prominent reformists and key allies of President Hassan Rouhani. The presumed front-runner has become Ebrahim Raisi, the country's hard-line judiciary chief who is closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iran votes in presidential poll tipped in hard-liner’s favor

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranians voted Friday in a presidential… Continue reading

Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto, left, and President Seiko Hashimoto attend the news conference after receiving a report from a group of infectious disease experts on Friday, June 18, 2021, in Tokyo. The experts including Shigeru Omi, head of a government coronavirus advisory panel, issued a report listing the risks of allowing the spectators and the measurements to prevent the event from triggering a coronavirus spread. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Pool Photo via AP)
Top medical adviser says ‘no fans’ safest for Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO (AP) — The safest way to hold the Tokyo Olympics is… Continue reading

FILE - In this June 12, 2021, file photo, Rajkumar Haryani, 38, who painted his body to create awareness about vaccination against the coronavirus poses for photographs after getting a dose of Covishield vaccine in Ahmedabad, India. Starting June 21, 2021, every Indian adult can get a COVID-19 vaccine dose for free that was purchased by the federal government. The policy reversal announced last week ends a complex system of buying vaccines that worsened inequities in accessing vaccines. India is a key global supplier of vaccines and its missteps have left millions of people waiting unprotected. The policy change is likely to address inequality but questions remain and shortages will continue. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)
How India is changing vaccine plan amid shortages

NEW DELHI (AP) — Starting Monday, every adult in India will be… Continue reading

Chief of Defence staff General Jonathan Vance speaks during a news conference to , in Ottawa Tuesday August 30, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces says it is making progress in the fight against sexual misconduct in the ranks, but much more work needs to be done. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Freeze promotions until military commanders are screened for misconduct: Committee

OTTAWA — A parliamentary committee has called for a freeze on all… Continue reading

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in an update on the COVID-19 pandemic, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Hussen says he is looking to municipalities to reshape local rules to more quickly build units through the government's national housing strategy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Cities should redo planning, permitting to align with housing strategy, minister says

OTTAWA — The federal minister in charge of affordable housing says he… Continue reading

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. On June 1, NACI had said AstraZeneca recipients "could" get Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna for their second shot if they wanted, but Thursday went further to say an mRNA vaccine was the "preferred" choice. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

When Gwenny Farrell booked her second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine… Continue reading

Brooklyn Nets' James Harden, right, is guarded by Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, during the first half of Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Bucks bounce back to defeat Nets 104-89 and force Game 7

MILWAUKEE — Khris Middleton scored 38 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 30 and… Continue reading

Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) brings the puck up the ice against the New York Islanders during the third period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinals, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. Tampa Bay won 2-1.(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Point scores again, Lightning beat Islanders 2-1 in Game 3

Lightning 2 Islanders 1 (Tampa Bay leads series 2-1) UNIONDALE, N.Y. —… Continue reading

Most Read