TUCSON, ARIZONA (Border Report) — Seventy-six-year-old Ila Abernathy has volunteered for the past 17 years with a nonprofit organization, Tucson Samaritans, whose sole mission is to save the lives of migrants in the Sonoran desert by leaving jugs of water and emergency supplies in places they hope migrants will find them.
Abernathy, a retired English teacher, admits that she doesn’t go on sojourns every day, or as often as she used to now, but she still attends their weekly meetings and she puts on her hiking gear when she can and goes with the other die-hard volunteers through the tough, dry and relentless terrain of the Sonoran desert.
On Tuesday night, Abernathy was among about 50 volunteers who came for the weekly meeting, held at the Southside Presbyterian Church. They passed a collection plate, and volunteer after volunteer told the group where they had been replacing water that past week, reported whether they had come across any migrants, and even discussed what to do if they come upon bones or what they might believe are human remains.
Abernathy came across the shoulder blades of a migrant once on the Tohono O’odham reservation. She and another woman — who were among a group given special permission to search for a missing migrant on the restricted reservation — fanned out in the heat looking down at the hardscrabble earth when they came across the bones, she said. The other woman found the skull.
Most migrants are ill-prepared for the journey. They don’t have boots, rain gear, enough food nor ever enough water, said Gail Kocourek, who currently leads this group of mostly senior volunteers, although she says she isn’t the leader, just its “facilitator.”
On Wednesday morning, Kocourek, 68, allowed Border Report to tag along as she and Carli Flores, 23, who is the youngest member of the group, headed out of town at 7 a.m. to try to find migrants in need of help.
Rain had struck overnight and the sky was spitting. And although the back of their red Four-Runner utility vehicle was packed full of jugs of water, Kocourek speculated that water wouldn’t be needed on this cloudy day.
Although it was late for monsoon season here, the rains had struck hard these past two days, leaving large puddles that Kocourek said migrants would certainly drink if they were stranded in the desert.
Instead of replacing water, she said their goal this day would be to look for migrants who might be cold and stranded and in need of aid.
They packed blankets, food and a special satellite pager that she turned on to alert the rest of the group that they were heading out. If they had not returned by a certain time, the group was instructed to send help for them.
Going to this desolate part of the desert to help migrants, they too are risking their own lives. A flat tire, rattlesnake bite, rollover on this twisty-turny stretch of two-lane road or getting lost on a trail could end their lives, as well.
Putting up crosses to mark migrant remains
Alvaro Enciso, on his own a few years ago, began a project to put up wooden crosses on the spots where the volunteers believe remains of migrants were found. He has put up nearly 1,000 crosses.
Currently, the Colibri Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit based in Tucson has a list with 3,000 missing migrants who are believed to have perished or gotten lost in this part of southern Arizona, the organization’s Interim Director Brian Best said.
Best gave a 20-minute presentation to the Tucson Samaritans on Tuesday night telling them what to do if they find remains and what not to do so as to not disturb the scene and to retain as many clues as possible to help them find and identify the migrants.
Best told them to assess remains in three categories: recently deceased and intact; skeletal and/or bones that might not be human.
“If the remains are new and intact, call 911 and mark the location on GPS, drive to get help if you need to,” Best said.
Within days, he said, the harsh desert conditions with wild animals and searing sun and heat will cause the bodies to decompose, or be destroyed, and then it becomes difficult to identify the remains, he said.
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office investigates all remains found that are brought to them.
It is uncertain how many people have died in the desert. Best’s nonprofit currently works with the medical examiner’s office to help solve cold cases of missing migrants.
Crosses are placed based on the information received from the medical examiner’s office.
Risking their own lives for others
As they drove out of town about 90 minutes from Tucson, Kocourek said that she fully recognizes that what they do is controversial and not understood or appreciated by many. She says she has had friends and acquaintances question what she does.
The volunteers have received criticism by those who believe their efforts are only aiding migrants in breaking the law. Not everybody understands her reasons, but she says it is grounded in her Christian faith.
Border Report reached out to the public affairs office for the Tucson Sector Border Patrol about their thoughts on the Tucson Samaritans.
“Tucson Sector Border Patrol values community partners to include non-governmental organizations,” the agency said in a statement.
When asked what motivates her to keep coming back to this shed behind the church to refill the truck and then trek hours into the Sonoran desert, Kocourek grasps a Virgin de Guadalupe necklace that she is wearing and answers that it is her faith.
It all boils down to Matthew 25: 40 for her: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.‘”Matthew 25:40
“It’s so powerful. When people ask me why I do it, it is because it is the right thing to do for those who have less than me,” she said.
She grew up in a military family and lived in the Philippines as a teen.
“That made me realize how much we have compared to the rest of the world. And it made me realize that sometimes people need help,” Kocourek said.
Kocourek drives these twisty roads several times a week in this red Four-Runner they nicknamed “Josephine.” She knows these roads well and is able to stop and point out the many crosses planted by Enciso.
If someone is unconscious, the group calls for emergency medical help and the Border Patrol. If a volunteer discovers a migrant who is alert, but sick or disabled, they ask the migrant what they want them to do, or how they can help. The group does not go onto federal property.
“The U.S. Border Patrol prioritizes the safety of all people within its area of operation and supports any lifesaving effort that does not violate law or impede law enforcement operations,” Tuscon Sector Border Patrol said in a statement. “Should any person find themselves in distress in the desert, the most effective means to get help is by calling 911 or activating a rescue beacon.”
Kocourek has been volunteering for five years. Tucson Samaritans started in 2002 and Abernathy was a founding member. They patrol roughly 4,000 square miles in southern Arizona. They have helped thousands of migrants, many they never have seen but who were able to stay hydrated due to the water jugs they leave as they hike — sometimes for upwards of 10 miles to extremely remote desert locations.
Not everyone supports them. There are signs in this area, called Altar Valley, where some people have a more law-and-order view of immigration. And there are others, who operate the humanitarian center in the town of Arivaca, a community of 700 people, who do what they can with little funds to try and help the migrants.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com. She is traveling and reporting with a crew on a 10-day tour across the Southwest border from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. Follow them on BorderReport.com.
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