No More Deaths volunteers evacuate migrants from 'dire' cold as Christmas nears in remote Az desert

In the desert quiet, a little girl began to howl and cry. Her mother tried to comfort her, but they were both freezing, soaked to the bone in wet clothes and tucked beneath wide advertising banners tucked against the 30-foot-high wall miles in the desert wilderness east of Sasabe, Ariz.

All Friday—just days before Christmas— rain came down unabated and for a while lightning cracked across the sky. But, finally, the rain slowed to a drizzle and the moon pierced through clouds. As the girl cried, a volunteer with No More Deaths, a humanitarian organization based in Southern Arizona, rushed from trucks parked in the mud to help.

She wrapped the child in a Red Cross blanket, and soothed her. Two other volunteers, including one with medical training, assessed the mother — who after sleeping for hours in wet clothes on freezing ground was shivering and hyperventilating. She also cried, and the volunteers tucked the two of them into a Dodge Ram, where the engine roared to life and the heater could warm their cold skin.

On Friday night, Bryce Peterson, a volunteer with No More Deaths,
said hundreds of people were along the border wall, and he warned they were in
danger of hypothermia. However, there had been no response from Border Patrol
since Friday morning, he said, “no emergency response or anything else.”

“It is a very dire situation.”

Neither Border Patrol nor other law enforcement agencies responded to repeated requests for assistance, aid volunteers said. BP agents told the aid workers the condition of the border road meant agency vehicles couldn’t carry out any of the migrants. 911 calls didn’t trigger an emergency response, volunteers said. Some volunteers — despite agents telling them it was illegal to transport migrants — bundled those suffering the worst effects from the wet and cold into vehicles to drive them to a BP station in Sasabe, about a dozen miles away.

For months, thousands of migrants have arrived in remote spots across the Tucson Sector — which spans from the Yuma County line to the New Mexico border — making it the busiest part of the border in October and November. In November, Border Patrol agents took 64,638 people in custody in the sector.

While agency officials have repeatedly said they are “overwhelmed” because of the number of people crossing, the Border Patrol has far more agents now than it did in previous eras. In 1996, the agency had just 5,942 agents and apprehended an average of 129,154 people per month. More than 25 years later, nearly 19,400 agents took 191,113 people into custody in November, or roughly 10 people per agent.

However, the agency once designed around the rapid deportations of Mexican men has struggled with processing and transporting thousands of asylum seekers, including families with children, who increasingly have arrived from countries other than Mexico to the U.S.

In the Tucson Sector, around 30,000 people hailed from Mexico and were taken into custody in November. Another 13,961 were from Central America, including the countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The rest, or around 20,000 were from other countries, including several in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Asia.

In November, Tucson Sector agents took 32,267 people into custody who arrived as families, including parents with children, and nearly 4,000 children who arrived unaccompanied, or without parents or guardians.

Hypothermia risk from rainy desert winter

Among the migrants freezing in Arizona’s Borderlands on Friday were people from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, and Lebanon, as well as Chad and Cameroon.

When exposed to cold temperatures, the human body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced. Extended exposure to cold uses up the body’s stored energy, and the body’s temperature drops. When the body’s temperature drops, the heart, nervous system and other organs can’t work normally and “left untreated, hypothermia can lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and eventually death,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Someone with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of his or her condition because the symptoms often begin gradually,” the Mayo Clinic said.

Along the camp, tucked into a valley near the 30-foot high steel wall, humanitarian workers scrambled to triage and support nearly 300 people. One boy was evacuated after he became “unresponsive,” said one aid worker. “It’s been hectic, terrifying really.”

Many of migrants arrived as early as 5 a.m. and spent most of the day soaked after the winter storm blew in.

No More Deaths volunteers decided to evacuate asylum seekers, telling Border Patrol they would drive men, woman and children to a Border Patrol substation in Sasabe “to get them out of the life-threatening cold.” 

“Volunteers were told that this was illegal,” No More Deaths said. “Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents refused to send personnel to the area, citing road conditions and limited space in vehicles as the reason for their lack of response. They advised volunteers to call 911 if there was a medical emergency.”

No More Deaths volunteers have faced prosecution for humanitarian aid before.

In 2018, Border Patrol agents arrested Scott Warren, a 36-year-old geography professor, and charged him with two counts of human smuggling and conspiracy — accusing him of “harboring” two Central American man at a ramshackle building called “the Barn”  near Ajo, Arizona. The attempted charges ran aground after two juries refused to convict Warren, and federal prosecutors also dropped a misdemeanor charge against him for leaving water.

In 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Bernardo Velasco found four volunteers guilty of federal misdemeanors after they were cited by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services officers during an incident two years earlier. However, their conviction was overturned after they successfully argued they were exercising they “sincere religious beliefs” when they placed water and food for migrants in Arizona’s protected Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in the summer of 2017.

In 2005, agents arrested Shanti A. Sellz and Daniel M. Strauss after they stopped the two volunteers and found three people in the country without authorization in their car. However, that indictment was tossed by U.S. District Judge Raner Collins.

In 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers cited volunteer Dan Millis for littering on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refugee after he left water jugs there, however, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction.

You’re on your own

Near the camps, cell phone service was non-existent and spotty along the border wall. No More Deaths said despite “the constraints of providing humanitarian aid in a place where
cell phone service is limited and the nearest ambulance is two hours
away, humanitarian aid volunteers did place multiple calls to 911.” 

“Through the rainy day and the frigid night, no emergency services
arrived,” they said.

“The message from Border Patrol was loud and clear: ‘You’re on your own,'” the group said.

“Without us volunteers, everybody would have died. Everybody would have died,” one volunteer said.

“With no tarps, no rain gear, no food, and no water, 300 adults, elders, and children would have died from exposure. We were a group of 8-15 volunteers triaging 300 people, trying to prevent hundreds of deaths. We cannot keep this up,” they said. “We are not meant for this. We need bigger resources and responses.” 

Neither Border Patrol, nor U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded to a a request for comment on Friday.

As thousands of migrants began arriving in the U.S. near Lukeville in November, CBP officials said they were “surging all available resources to expeditiously and safely process migrants.”

The agency blamed “callous”  smugglers “peddling disinformation to prey on vulnerable individuals,” and said the agency will “continue to prioritize our border security mission as necessary in response to this evolving situation.

Earlier this month, CBP officials added they were continuing to “surge personnel and resources to the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector to expeditiously take migrants into custody.”

“The fact is we are enforcing the law, and there are consequences for those who fail to use lawful pathways,” a CBP spokesman said. 

“Individuals encountered at the border are screened and vetted, and those without a legal basis to stay are removed,” he said, adding that consequences include a minimum five-year bar on re-entry, loss of eligibility to access lawful pathways, and prosecution for repeat offenders.”

“Importantly, we are targeting the smuggling networks that are preying on vulnerable migrants,” the spokesman said. “We’re undertaking new law enforcement operations to impose consequences on transportation companies, including bus and van lines, used by smuggling organizations and nefarious actors to move migrants through northern Mexico and to our southwest border.”

Agency officials added they are in “constant communication” with local, state, and federal officials, along with “international stakeholders” to address “current irregular migration patterns most effectively.” 

The CBP spokesman added that Homeland Security officials asked Congress for additional resources, including nearly 1,300 additional Border Patrol agents, 300 Border Patrol Processing Coordinators and support staff, as well as more asylum officers, more funding for transportation and a program — known as the Family Expedited Removal Management program — designed to quickly screen families for credible fear claims, and deport those who fail to convince officials they should remain in the U.S.

“We have an approach that we know works: expanding lawful pathways and delivering consequences for those who do not use them, and the supplemental funding request is needed to conduct our mission,” he said.

Miles away, a chance for warm socks

Several volunteers headed to the next camp, driving another four miles east along the border wall. On a high spot, dozens of migrants were tucked beneath banners.

A few came out, including two boys with their mother. She asked if the volunteers had jackets and other warm clothes, including socks. The boys’ jeans were soaked, so they swapped them for sweat pants. Volunteers tucked the littlest boy into a blue fleece blanket, and worked to dry the older boy’s feet. One man found a fleece hat and stuck it on the boy’s head. “Is that better,” he asked. The boy nodded quietly. They checked another man for hypothermia, waking him.

The volunteers brought out pizzas and began offering it to people. Some migrants sat in a warm truck. One man asked for a way to make a fire, showing them his lighter.

The volunteers began tearing into packaging boxes, and helped start a small fire. 

One woman asked the volunteers if they were “immigration,” or Border Patrol agents. When they said no, they weren’t, she asked “Where are they? When will they come to get us?” 

“I don’t know,” the volunteer said.

As the clouds broke, the air grew colder. Volunteers began evacuating the migrants, tucking a few people into a warm car and heading down the border road for a 12-mile journey to Sasabe.