The Accidental Outlaw: Volunteering at the US/Mexico Border

Part 1: You can do it and so can I

"The only law in the desert is that there is no law in the desert," began the Legal Advisor. He then proceeded to list a myriad of reasons why we could be arrested. My favorite, "because the Border Patrol officer is in a bad mood."

I am not an activist. I am not even rebellious. I am a law-abiding US citizen and, until that moment, the only place I'd been unhappy to see a law enforcement officer was in my rear-view mirror. So what the hell was I doing volunteering at the US/Mexico border with a group called, No More Deaths? I mean, the name alone is ominous enough.

Three days earlier, my friend Tonia had begged me to join her on a trip to "help illegal immigrants not die in the desert," as she so eloquently put it. Instead of giving a logical response, I rather astonishingly heard myself say "ok." There is definitely a reason why people caution against rash decisions but, you see, I am in the throes of an extended existential crisis, better known as my late 20s. So despite knowing precious little about the situation at the border and knowing even less about what I had actually signed up to do, I hoped that perhaps volunteering here would give my life some fleeting meaning.

I'd read the group's rather ambiguous mission statement before we left: "To end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border through civil initiative: the conviction that people of conscience must work openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights." However, as I listened to the Legal Advisor, I was seriously regretting not having done a little more research. Another common citation, he continued, was for littering. Our patrols would include leaving food and water jugs at specific drop points on trails heavily traveled by illegal migrants. Predictably, the Border Patrol didn't like this.

The week before our arrival, No More Deaths had publicized a water drop in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and 13 members had been charged with littering, they were still awaiting trial. However, other volunteers had been convicted of littering. In one case, even though the defendant's lawyers maintained that the water drop was humanitarian in nature, the federal prosecutors countered, "[the defendant's] actions are not about humanitarian efforts, but about protesting the immigration policies of the United States, and aiding those that enter illegally into the United States." Their supporting evidence included the fact that the group writes "Buena Suerte," which is Spanish for "Good Luck" on the jugs they leave. Them be fighting words?

Not only had I apparently signed up to unintentionally protest against something I knew nothing about, I was also going to be marooned in the middle of the Arizona desert with a bunch of anarchists and hippies. The fact that I was wearing jeans already put me in the minority here, the group before me included a pair in what can only be described as Guatemalan MC Hammer pants. While I knew that silently judging each of them wasn't going to help my situation, I couldn't help myself. It was maddening to have no one but myself (or maybe Tonia) to blame for being in this mess.

We rolled into camp for the first time the next afternoon. The "entrance" was a frayed cord pulled between two lonely posts in the middle of a barren wasteland, no fence or other protection of any kind. "Camp" consisted of a Med Tent, a Kitchen Tent, and a random selection of weathered tables and chairs. I won't go into detail about the toilet, but will mention that it was a communal bucket.

I was woefully unprepared for camping in the desert, most immediately evidenced by my packing decisions. I had spent an embarrassing amount of time searching for new flip flops while forgoing other necessities like a washcloth. Naturally, I stepped directly out of the truck and onto a red ant hill so that was the first and last time I wore my flip flops all week. Yet only the beginning of my wishing I had packed a washcloth.

Our first official day at camp started at a leisurely 6am with a forty-five minute GPS training. This GPS was nothing like the one in my Prius. For those of you not familiar with a real GPS, it is reminiscent of Terrapin Logo. For those of you not familiar with Terrapin Logo, congratulations, you aren't nerds. (It was an early Apple II game where a small green triangle left a trail as it moved across the screen.) Rudimentary, confusing and desperately lacking any turn-by-turn directions.

After our lesson was over, the morning patrols were decided upon. By consensus. All my previous experience with consensus led me to believe it was just a euphemism for not making decisions. Not so here in the desert. Those who knew the area quickly broke down which trails needed to be checked and then we each signed up with surprisingly little debate. I chose the trail described to me as, "You'll be fine, probably."

Eight of us headed off to Jalisco ridge, to be exact, seven newbies and only one guy who had not woken up in the desert for the first time ever that morning. Therefore, I was not impressed when he announced that we would be splitting up into two groups. As I saw it, there was no possible way that one of these groups would not be getting totally lost. And it was definitely going to be my group. We were headed north while Mr. Experience was headed south. Tonia, however, was waxing prophetic about all her prior GPS experience - on a boat. "This is the exact opposite of a boat," I protested. Tonia correctly countered, "There is just as much drinkable water in the desert as there is in the ocean." Fair enough. Off we went.

The idea was this: we hike along the same trails as the migrants and yell in Spanish, "We have food. We have water. If you need help, please call out," while keeping an eye out for anyone in need. Yes, this seemed like an exercise in the futile to me too.

Tonia led the GPS charge and safely navigated the winding unmarked trails to our destination. Success! Now we just had to get back. Maybe a little overly confident, so a little less vigilant on the return trip, Tonia hung a quick right. It felt a little early to me but I could have easily been confusing this cactus with another cactus. I watched the little GPS triangle get farther and farther away from its destination. Finally, I piped up. After a group map/GPS consultation it was determined that we were, in fact, on the wrong trail. Morning 1, patrol 1 and we were actually lost in the desert. My water supply suddenly felt ominously low. Trying not to panic, I calmly reminded myself that in the six years No More Deaths has been operating, no volunteer has ever died out here so I certainly wasn't going to be the first. This was my mantra as we began bush-whacking in search of the correct trail. Me and my forty-five minutes of GPS training now at the helm.

We found the trail and even made it back to the meeting point on time. Holy shit, I totally just navigated my way through the Sahara. I have accomplished things in my life, nothing particularly cataclysmic, but definitely things. Cool things even. However, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I've never before felt like my life was anywhere close to being in jeopardy so this was sort of huge. Maybe I would actually learn something important about myself out on this cactus farm.

All newfound pride in my survival skills lasted approximately twenty-five minutes...

(Click here to read Part 2 or Part 3)