The aromas of coffee and simmering onions waft through the structures of Byrd Camp, No More Death’s desert-aid home base: a half dozen trailers, open-sided cooking and dishwashing tents, a canvas covered medical tent, an eating area with long picnic tables. Murmurings in Spanish and English intermingle with soft laughter or dusty coughs from volunteers’ numerous fabric tents on the periphery of the camp. The vast stretches of hills and mountains of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona are radiantly green and deep red in the early morning light.
No More Deaths, based in Tucson, Ariz., was formed in 2004 in response to the increased number of deaths near the U.S./Mexico border due to border policies (and physical barriers) that direct migrants away from urban centers like San Diego and into sparsely populated and treacherous terrain like the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The nonprofit relies on volunteers to provide direct aid in the form of food, water and medical assistance to migrants crossing through the desert. No More Deaths is also committed to raising consciousness about the militarization of the border (especially in Arizona), addressing current immigration reform legislation, recording abuses by the U.S. Border Patrol and bringing awareness to the links between border policy and the prison industrial complex.
After a breakfast of scrambled eggs with peppers and onions scooped into tortillas and washed down with ground-rich coffee, we will be ready to hike, navigate and bushwhack through the mountains and valleys of the desert as we drop off water jugs, food and socks along the trails for as long as daylight allows. Some volunteers stay for a week, thrashing through the brush, some a month or more during the dangerous summer heat. Some volunteers do this work year round. The work, the people, the desert: it all draws you in and no matter how much shaking of the boots you do when you get back home, the grainy memories of the situation out here remains lodged in the soul.
We congregate around the picnic tables and talk about the day’s tasks ahead. There will be three patrols: The first will do “drops,” spending much of the day in one of the burly trucks to navigate through washes and up and down rain-rutted hills. Gallon jugs of water will be positioned at waypoints usually less than a half-mile from the road — close enough for our convenience but far enough from the Border Patrol accessible roads to provide a modicum of safety for migrant travelers.
Another team will go on a moderate seven-mile hike to drop water and food at more remote waypoints along a well-used migrant trail. The third team will be hiking all day over mountains and through canyons, looking for migrants that may have been left behind by their group due to injury or sickness. There will also be volunteers who will “hold down” camp and tend to those in the medical tent who may be suffering from scorpion stings, severe dehydration, debilitating blisters, and/or exhaustion. The travelers will have a chance to rest and eat and drink before moving on the following day (or take more than a couple of days if their health is severely compromised). Moving on as quickly as possible is encouraged — though it rarely happens, camp is not immune to raids by Border Patrol. With helicopters and fighter jets screaming overhead and the threat of Border Patrol surveillance and possible apprehension of travelers on or near the property, the camp is constantly vacillating between feeling like a war zone and an invisible bubble of safety.