TUCSON, Arizona – Alvaro Enciso plants three or four crosses each week in the border areas of the Arizona desert, amid yellow-flowering prickly pears and whip-shaped ocotillos, in honor of the migrants who died during the trek northbound.
Each colorful wooden memorial indicates where a set of bones or a decaying body was found. In eight years, the artist has marked over 1,000 locations on public land dotted with empty black plastic water jugs and backpacks camouflaged under turkey vultures.
âAnything in here can kill you,â Enciso said. “A light bulb, 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 Shrine Movement to shelter Central Americans fleeing the civil war, and dozens of volunteers carry on their legacy today.
Faith groups working in migrant activism run the gamut of Tucson’s Samaritans, who leave vital caches of water, food and other provisions in the remote wilderness, at a migrant shelter operated by the Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona.
Enciso’s art project, “Where Dreams Die” fits perfectly into this spiritual tradition, although he believes there is nothing overtly religious about commemorating the dead.
One recent day, he placed a golden cross where the bones of an unknown man were found on September 24, 2020. The cause and approximate year of the man’s death remain unknown.
âCan you imagine what their families are going through without knowing what happened to them? said Enciso.
Such activism has its roots in the founding in 1981 of the Shrine Movement, which has spread to more than 500 Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations in the United States.
Now 81 years old and retired, Rev. John Fife III was pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson when his Quaker friend Jim Corbett told him Central Americans fleeing the violence were fleeing to the United States.
Soon, Fife and Corbett, who died in 2001, were smuggling Central Americans into the United States and sheltering them in their homes, despite protests from their wives. The church took in some 13,000 asylum seekers in the 1980s, with up to 100 people sleeping on the floor on any given night.
âI felt if I didn’t help I should resign as a pastor,â Fife said recently.
Fife was convicted in 1986 of breaking US immigration laws and served five years probation, but that did not deter him.
In 2000, he helped create Humane Borders, which maintains water stations with 55 gallon blue plastic barrels. Two years later, he co-founded Tucson Samaritans, which sends volunteers into the wild to leave food and water. Fife was also involved in the creation in 2004 of No More Deaths, which runs remote aid camps.
Many of those who volunteer with the groups are reaching retirement age, such as Gail Kocourek.
Every week, the Tucson Samaritan volunteer donates clothing and food to Casa de la Esperanza, a new center south of the border in the Mexican town of Sasabe where around 50 migrants a day can get a meal, shower and toiletries. clothing. They sleep in hotels or guesthouses in town.
âI don’t think anyone deserves to die for trying to improve their family’s lives,â Kocourek said.
Dora Rodriguez is a frequent traveler there, who was among 13 Salvadorans who survived in 1980 when 13 more died in the blazing sun near the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. At 19, she stayed in Tucson.
âAnd now, 41 years later, people are still dying here in the desert,â Rodriguez said.
Groups seeking to restrict immigration, such as the Washington-based think tank Center for Immigration Studies, argue that the border wall and other barriers are a better way to reduce deaths by preventing migrants from entering.
For its part, the border patrol, in a recent statement on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the deaths of 14 people in the area of ââthe Devil’s Road south-east of Yuma, noted that the danger remains: âThe smugglers and guides regularly risk the lives of migrants who pay them. thousands of dollars to help him get to the United States. “
227 DEATHS IN 2020
Humane Borders, who works with Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Dr Greg Hess to map discoveries of human remains, documented 227 deaths in 2020, the highest in a decade after the hottest summer and driest in state history. Hess’s office this year received the remains of 79 people believed to have crossed the border through May, and activists fear 2021 will prove particularly dangerous with large numbers starting their journeys.
Customs and border protection report arrests of migrants on the rise, with 20,246 such encounters in the Tucson area alone in April – a 674% increase from the same month last year – out of 178,622 along the entire four-state border. Rescues of migrants are also on the rise.
âI’m not looking forward to this summer,â said Douglas Ruopp, president of Humane Borders. “No matter what we do, people keep dying.”
Still, the danger doesn’t deter people like Josue Hernandez Ruiz, a tour guide from the Mexican resort town of Huatulco who was laid off during the coronavirus pandemic and ventured north to support his wife and family. his two children. After staying at a guesthouse in Sasabe, he and a friend planned to cross the desert without a guide.
âI’ll be using my phone,â Hernandez Ruiz said. “He has a GPS.”
Unidentified bones found in the desert believed to be those of a migrant are gathered for examination at the forensic labs of the Pima County Medical Examiner in Tucson, Ariz. (AP / Ross D. Franklin)
The Tucson Samaritans check the border wall, including a small gap in the new construction, near Sasabe, Ariz., On Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Opponents seeking to control immigration, such as the Washington-based think tank Center for Immigration Studies, argue that the border wall and other barriers are a better way to reduce deaths by preventing migrants from entering. (AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin)
Dora Rodriguez, center, who was among 13 Salvadorans who survived in 1980 when 13 other people in the group died in the scorching sun near the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, talks to Vicente Lopez, 19, who has grew up in the Ixil triangle in Guatemala, where government troops in the early 1980s wiped out entire communities suspected of harboring rebels, on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Sasabe, Mexico. At the age of 19, she stayed in Tucson and eventually became a US citizen. (AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin)
Now 81 years old and retired, the Reverend John Fife III, who was pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, sits in the church sanctuary as he browses old photographs of his early activism days for migrants, Monday, May 17, 2021, in Tucson, Arizona. Inspiring his work is a passage from the book of Matthew 25:35: âFor I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you gave me something to eat. ‘guest in. “(AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin)
Terry Stanford, a Tucson Samaritans volunteer, shakes up a camouflage garment left behind by a migrant or cartel member near Three Points, Ariz. On Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Faith groups like the Tucson Samaritans leave behind. water and food in the Sonoran Desert. (AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin)