Fighting for the Life of Migrants in the Sonoran Desert (Photo Essay)

Outside of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, no area along the U.S.-Mexico border is as active for migrant crossings as Southern Arizona, east of Yuma. While the number of migrants heading north has noticeably fluctuated in the past two years based on U.S. Border Patrol arrest data, the number of deaths in Arizona has not. At least 128 individuals died while crossing the Arizona desert last year according to data from the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants.

With a greater Border Patrol presence in border towns like Nogales, AZ —which were formally highly active crossing areas— migration trails are often being pushed further west into the more remote Sonoran Desert around the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation. Here, in the low populated lands southwest of Tucson, water is scarce and trails filled with thorny trees are especially rugged. Leaving water, food, and blankets in strategic areas, groups like Humane Borders and the Samaritans see their work as crucial in saving migrant lives when so many are still dying from dehydration.

Tucson-based artist and activist Alvaro Enciso told Latino USA that in addition to a lack of water for migrants, “blisters are very common, and if they can not walk, they are abandoned. In the winter, without warm garments, they freeze to death. Many have drowned in irrigation canals—they go down into the canal to fill their bottles but can not get out as the walls are slippery and the current swift.”

Enciso, who makes weekly trips into the desert, is part of a sizable community of activists and humanitarian aid volunteers working collaboratively to help save lives and remember those who died on their journey. While this community began growing as migrant deaths increased in the early 2000s in the post-NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) era, Arizona activists say the interest in humanitarian aid work has really jumped since Donald Trump became president. Since then, there has been a push to hire more Border Patrol agents and build a bigger border wall but activists have also seen more resistance to aid work. Humane Borders has seen their water dispensers shot at while others have seen water gallons slashed open; several volunteers with No More Deaths were charged with misdemeanors for leaving water near Ajo and their volunteer Scott Warren was charged with a felony for harboring migrants in January.

Rev. John Fife, who helped start Tucson’s sanctuary movement for refugees in the 1980s and several humanitarian groups like No More Deaths in the early-2000s, says these type of charges only add to the urgency of the work. “What we have seen is, even since Scott’s arrest, the number of volunteers and the number of people supportive and helping those [humanitarian] organizations has dramatically increased,” Fife told Latino USA. “And I anticipate that that’s going to continue.”

The following photos, taken from early 2017 to May 2018, provide a look at the work volunteers are doing daily in Southern Arizona to prevent further migrant deaths in the desert.

Walter and José, migrants from Honduras living temporary in a shelter in Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico, wash pans for cooking. Migrants here receive food and building supplies from humanitarian aid organizations but run the shelter by themselves. (Photo by Max Herman)

Susannah Brown, a volunteer with the Ajo Samaritans who previously worked in the medical field, looks through bags of over-the-counter medication as she helps a migrant with a respiratory issue at a shelter in Sonoyta, Mexico. (Photo by Max Herman)

Camouflaged hoodies commonly used by migrants crossing into the United States are seen for sale outside a store in the border town of Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico. (Photo by Max Herman)

A boy looks through the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico with crosses left for migrants who died at his feet on November 12, 2017 during an immigration-focused rally on both sides of the border. This demonstration was part of a weekend of actions called the SOA Watch Border Encuentro held along the Arizona, U.S.-Sonora, Mexico border region focused on immigrant rights, the demilitarization of the border, and other human rights issues. (Photo by Max Herman)

Discarded water bottles left by migrants seen on the Mexico side of the border wall from Arizona. (Photo by Max Herman)

Under the midday sun, Maria Ochoa with the humanitarian aid organization Tucson Samaritans, searches for signs of recent migrant trails near the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona in February 2017. The Samaritans make runs several times a week near the border, placing water, blankets and other essential items that people migrating from Mexico may need for survival in the often harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert. (Photo by Max Herman)

A heavily weathered bag left behind by migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border in Southern Arizona is beginning to blend into the desert ground. (Photo by Max Herman)

Mirza Monterroso, who manages the Missing Migrant Project & DNA Program at the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tucson, holds up a bag full of cassette tapes, keys, and various items found on an unidentified migrant whose body was found in the Arizona desert in 2017. Monterroso and her team work inside the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner to identify and inform family members of these deceased migrants and as of February 2018, are working on approximately 50 pending cases of bodies found in 2016, 2017 and 2018. (Photo by Max Herman)

Humanitarian aid volunteer Andres Rivera of South Tucson leaves a gallon of water for migrants crossing into Arizona near Ajo in a tree, making it harder for animals and people to destroy the bottle. This area near the Organ Pipe National Monument is one of the most active for border crossings and it’s not uncommon to see official signs warning of “smuggling and illegal immigration.” (Photo by Max Herman)

Stephen Saltonstall of Humane Borders, left, and his friend Charlie Peck dump out a water barrel at one of the water stations left for migrants after they noticed the water had a suspicious white film on it in February 2018. Saltonstall and other volunteers with Humane Borders check the water stations once a week to inspect water use and water quality, but also to see if the barrels have been tampered with. Humane Borders has been active since 2000 when migrant deaths began to noticeably rise. (Photo by Max Herman)

A lock at the Humane Borders Cemetery Hill Water Station was found blown off by gun fire on Sunday, January 8th, 2018. The lock was photographed outside the Humane Borders office in South Tucson on February 9, 2018. (Photo by Max Herman)

Stephen Saltonstall of Humane Borders, right, and his friend Charlie Peck test the water quality at one of the seven water stations set up for migrants southwest of Tucson as the Altar wildfire burns in the distance on the southern end of the Baboquivari Mountains. This Altar Valley area has historically been heavily used by migrants heading north. (Photo by Max Herman)

Artist and activist Alvaro Enciso, middle, leads a small group into the desert northwest of Tucson in February 2018 to place handmade crosses where migrants lost their lives and to leave water for migrants making their way north and west. Encisco makes weekly trips to the desert to place the crosses using data from the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants and has placed hundreds thus far. (Photo by Max Herman)

A cross placed by artist Alvaro Enciso marks the approximate area where a migrant lost their life by drowning in a irrigation canal northwest of Tucson. Enciso says he doesn’t think of the crosses he makes as a Christian symbol. Instead, he explains that, “It’s a conceptual art piece that has an element of compassion and honoring the heroes of this migration.” (Photo by Max Herman)

With assistance from Karen O’Hara and Ron Kovatch, artist Alvaro Enciso, left, secures a cross placed for a migrant named Celia Huaman Pilco whose remains were discovered on August 11, 2010 near a wash in the desert northwest of Tucson. (Photo by Max Herman)

One of the crosses made by Alvaro Enciso left for a deceased migrant along Route 286 in Arizona is seen uprooted and destroyed on February 9, 2018. (Photo by Max Herman)

Rev. John Fife stands for a portrait at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson where he was a longtime minister and was part of the sanctuary movement in 1980s and also helped to start humanitarian aid groups like Tucson Samaritans. He says, “If you look at Southern Arizona, what’s happened since the year 2000 is we have increasingly woven a web of resistance to the violations of human rights by Border Patrol and DHS on this border.” (Photo by Max Herman)

Migrant Trail Walk 2017 participants David Bonilla and Samantha Shipman sit for portraits, holding up crosses in memory of migrants who lost their lives in the Arizona desert. The Migrant Trail Walk is a seven day, 75-mile solidarity walk from Sasabe, Sonora, Mexico to Tucson, Arizona done to raise awareness of migrants who have crossed through the often harsh conditions of the Arizona-Sonora, Mexico border area and to remember those who have lost their lives in doing so. (Photo by Max Herman)

On day four of the Migrant Trail Walk 2017, Brother David, who is based in Guaymas, Mexico, leads the group right before reaching a major Border Patrol checkpoint along Route 286 in Southern Arizona. After walking a few days through the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the group emerges onto the highway for the greatest visibility, periodically raising the crosses they carry in memory of deceased migrants as they shout, “presente!” (Photo by Max Herman)

Participants in the Migrant Trail solidarity walk make their way through the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge before sun rise to get ahead of the June heat in Southern Arizona which is prone to peak temperatures around 95-degrees. (Photo by Max Herman)