May 30, 2004: Headlines: COS - Haiti: Immigration: Tucson Daily Star: Fresh from a Peace Corps assignment in Haiti, 26-year-old Melissa Kreek last month turned her hopeful attentions to the Mexico-Arizona border

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Haiti: Peace Corps Haiti : The Peace Corps in Haiti: May 30, 2004: Headlines: COS - Haiti: Immigration: Tucson Daily Star: Fresh from a Peace Corps assignment in Haiti, 26-year-old Melissa Kreek last month turned her hopeful attentions to the Mexico-Arizona border

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Fresh from a Peace Corps assignment in Haiti, 26-year-old Melissa Kreek last month turned her hopeful attentions to the Mexico-Arizona border

Fresh from a Peace Corps assignment in Haiti, 26-year-old Melissa Kreek last month turned her hopeful attentions to the Mexico-Arizona border

Fresh from a Peace Corps assignment in Haiti, 26-year-old Melissa Kreek last month turned her hopeful attentions to the Mexico-Arizona border

Groups plan 3 outposts to aid crossers

Caption: Melissa Kreek, left, and Lisa Lieber sign up volunteer Kathryn Ferguson at Hotel Congress to help Humane Borders run its water stations. Photos by A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star

Begin setup of desert camps offering humanitarian help

By Stephanie Innes

Fresh from a Peace Corps assignment in Haiti, 26-year-old Melissa Kreek last month turned her hopeful attentions to the Mexico-Arizona border. Though she'd just come from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, the Missouri native was not prepared for the human desperation and suffering she found in the Sonoran Desert.

"I had absolutely no idea of the sheer numbers - between 1,000 and 3,000 people every day crossing the border from Mexico. It blew my mind," Kreek said.

Since October, 84 people are known to have perished on desolate patches of desert along the international border, a number that is already three times what it was at this time last year, and summer - the season of death in Southern Arizona's borderlands - has not yet officially begun. Last summer, men, women and children seeking to enter the United States were dying at a rate of nearly one a day, succumbing to the punishing heat while traveling on foot from Mexico into Arizona.

With a mantra of "ni una muerte más" - not even one more death - volunteers like Kreek will set up round-the-clock desert camps near the border this weekend. They will devote the next two months to aiding undocumented immigrants with everything from bottled water and Band-Aids to cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Kreek's living expenses will be covered by a Phoenix church but like the other workers, her time will be given for free. Undaunted by triple-digit heat and an empty bank account, Kreek says she's energized by the idea of achieving social justice through action. Others like 22-year-old Jennifer Hill are motivated by a deep Christian faith. Hill says she sees the crucified Christ in the face of each migrant. Both women say the desperation of people willing to risk their lives for work in the United States is horrifying.

"Saving a life is never illegal," Hill said last week as she sat in a small office at Southside Presbyterian Church, 317 W. 23rd St., that was crowded with boxes of juice, peanuts, water and medical supplies for the volunteers.

The workers say humanitarian aid to the migrants trumps immigration law, though critics are already speaking out against the camps, charging that the volunteers are abetting illegal activity and that their good intentions will only encourage more undocumented immigrants to enter the United States.

"People who assist people in the process of immigrating illegally are obviously committing a felony," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a 25-year-old nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.

Stein added that unless volunteers contact the U.S. Border Patrol each time they encounter an illegal entrant, they are no more than political agitators.

The Border Patrol last week met with the volunteers about their summer plans. Charles Griffin, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said the volunteers are not required to determine someone's citizenship, suggesting they are within their rights to offer help with no questions asked.

"If all they are doing is providing humanitarian aid at a given spot, setting up water stations, then we won't become involved," he said. "As long as they are not transporting them. . . . We encourage the general public to report immigration. Your tax dollars and mine are paying me to do just that - that is our mission, to enforce immigration laws."

The workers' three round-the-clock "Arks of the Covenant" camps, planned for locations near Arivaca, Douglas and Why, are named after a wooden box that in the Old Testament symbolized the presence of God traveling with the people of Israel when they were wandering the desert. Organizers are getting calls with offers of help from across the country.

"I just don't think it's something we morally can live with," said Richard Boren, a 47-year-old Tucson consultant and volunteer with the larger "No More Deaths" movement that includes the desert camps. "We cannot let our brothers and sisters from Mexico be seen as expendable."

The camp near Douglas will be manned by volunteers from the international Christian Peacemaker organization. Students from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., will help staff the Why camp, and a third team of rotating volunteers will be stationed at the Arivaca camp. Fifty people have committed to staying at the camps, and the list of volunteers keeps growing.

"It sounds kind of cheesy, but it's healing. . . . It's all affirming," said Holly Thompson, a 32-year-old Seattle native and a graduate student at Arizona State University who is holding down two part-time jobs this summer while she volunteers 30 hours each week with No More Deaths.

"We are very humbled by the outpouring of solidarity and support," said the Rev. Stuart Taylor of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, 3809 E. Third St. "It's been very gratifying that people around the country are responding to the crisis in the borderlands. I think we are prepared to continue doing it as long as there are people dying in the desert."

Hill, a seminary student from Michigan, says the No More Deaths movement unifies and broadens existing local faith-based programs: Humane Borders' water stations and the Samaritan Patrol's traveling medical aid for migrants. She fights back tears when she recalls finding a man barely alive under a mesquite tree in searing heat while she was out with the Samaritan Patrol.

"I think we can bring a lot of attention to this crisis and stop people from being statistically immune," she said. "We can challenge churches to be places of welcome."

Hill speaks about a man named Juan, who slept on her office floor after making a near-fatal journey, mostly on foot, from Guanajuato in central Mexico to Tucson. Juan was a stonecutter - a trade that is now nearly obsolete because of machinery, she said.

"His worn face and toothless smile told me that he had known hardship and was not giving up any time soon," Hill wrote in an essay about Juan that she shares with local churches. "His timidness spoke to me of a gentle spirit. He had five children and a wife back home. He was hungry and jobless, but he needed money for a surgery for one of his sons."

Putting faces to the numbers is also fueling Kreek, who can't forget meeting two Mexican boys in an Altar, Sonora, migrant center.

"They said they were going to walk to Boston," Kreek recalled. "They said they were 18, but they looked 12. They were so naive. They don't have a chance in the world."

During a 12-month period ending Sept. 30 - the end of the last federal fiscal year - 137 people were known to have died on the Mexico-Arizona border, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. The tally has increased each year as stepped-up enforcement near ports of entry like Nogales and Douglas has forced migrants into remote areas. And thousands do continue to make the trek. Since Oct. 1, the Border Patrol has been apprehending illegal border crossers in the Tucson Sector at a rate of nearly 1,400 people a day - and those are only the people who get caught.

Most of the migrants who lose their lives are men between the ages of 18 and 45, often traveling with siblings and cousins, and they die in remarkably similar circumstances.

On March 21, Gabriel Ortega Flores fell ill after crossing the border in a remote area of the Tohono O'odham Nation southwest of Tucson with his brother, Candino. The young men had run out of food and water, and Gabriel died at the age of 27 from dehydration and heatstroke. Four days later, 19-year-old Raúl Ramos Chávez died from heatstroke, also on the reservation, after walking from Mexico with his brother, according to autopsy reports from the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.

No More Deaths organizers want to increase national awareness of young people like them who are ending up in body bags. And the workers want to prevent more casualties by helping migrants both before and after their travels to the United States,

"These are people who are malnourished and dehydrated before they even start their journey across the border," said the Rev. John Fife, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church. "To save lives we need to make sure people have adequate nourishment. That is scarcely a crime."

Fife, whom Dan Stein dismisses as a "hopeless ideologue," has a long history of social activism, including a criminal conviction during the 1980s for helping people from Central America enter the United States illegally.

At that time, people were paying $200 to $250 per person for a "coyote" - a people smuggler - to bring them across the border into the United States, he said. Now the going rate is $1,500 to $1,800, and Fife predicts the border crossers will be paying $2,000 apiece by summer's end.

"It has now in truth become more profitable and less risky to cross human beings over the border than it is to smuggle drugs," Fife said. "The result of militarization is a record number of deaths, not to mention the destruction of the Sonoran Desert."

What's really being destroyed, counters Stein, is the U.S. labor market.

"The working poor for the first time are probably one-fifth of the U.S. work force - they are permanently poor with no way out. At some point Mexico is going to have to take responsibility for their own people because we've got our own refugees here," Stein said.

The Sierra Vista-based American Border Patrol is also critical of No More Deaths volunteers, though president Glenn Spencer takes a more radical stance than Stein, saying that the volunteers are disloyal Americans who are contributing to a "hostile invasion" of the United States by Mexico.

"This is just outrageous," he said, vowing to monitor the Arks of the Covenant camps with high-tech aerial video devices. "They should be arrested."

Such threats do not worry Kreek.

"I often think of how our country would be different if only everyone in junior high or high school was exposed to a Third World country," Kreek said, noting that being part of No More Deaths is already affecting her own life and personal search for faith.

"It has restored my confidence in organized religion in the United States," Kreek said. "They are walking their talk, spending time and energy on their faith and social justice. Standing up for a cause like this speaks to spirituality.

"When 84 people have died in the desert since October, you have to look at what role we play. Just saying 'the law says this' - that is not an explanation."

° Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or at

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Story Source: Tucson Daily Star

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Haiti; Immigration



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