Eli Imadali for HuffPost

The Border Crisis Doesn’t Pause For A Pandemic

Residents of Arivaca in southern Arizona are fighting to save migrants’ lives — and scrambling to protect their own — as the coronavirus sweeps the nation.

For some residents of Arivaca, a dusty Arizona town just 11 miles north of the Mexican border, an unexpected knock on the door in the dead of night is as familiar as a coyote’s howl.

Thousands of migrants have crossed into the U.S. from Mexico in the last decade, following trails that zigzag through the rocky desert nearby. Most pass through without encountering an Arivaca resident. But if the journey proves too difficult, migrants may take a risk and ask for help.

The border crisis hasn’t paused for the coronavirus pandemic. Border agents apprehended nearly 30,000 migrants at the southwest border in March. And though some of the town’s roughly 700 residents may be unsympathetic toward undocumented immigrants, many Arivacans have dedicated their time and resources to help keep them as safe as possible.

Humanitarian aid volunteers in Arivaca are adjusting their operations accordingly ― doing their best to keep migrants and themselves safe during both a public health crisis and a refugee crisis.

“COVID is a complicating factor,” said Porter Witsell, a volunteer with People Helping People in the Border Zone, an Arivaca-based organization that provides humanitarian aid to migrants. “But it doesn’t mean that people aren’t still making this journey, that people aren’t still suffering and dying on this journey.”

People Helping People works closely with No More Deaths, a migrant advocacy group headquartered in Tucson, to coordinate food, water, legal and medical support for dessert crossers in need. 

The People Helping People humanitarian aid office is empty in Arivaca at sunset on April 15.
The People Helping People humanitarian aid office is empty in Arivaca at sunset on April 15.

Volunteers operate PHP’s humanitarian aid office on Arivaca’s modest central road, steps away from the artists’ co-op and across from La Gitana, the town’s only bar.

Because of coronavirus concerns, volunteers have adopted a stringent set of protocols that includes wearing surgical masks, washing their hands every 30 minutes and constantly cleaning and re-cleaning surfaces.

“The work hasn’t changed,” said Leesa Jacobson, who co-founded PHP in 2012. “But the complication of doing the work has increased. ... [The virus] just puts another load on people who are sometimes already hard-pressed to do what they do.”

Arivaca is an aging community, and that’s reflected in PHP’s volunteer corps, said Jacobson, who is 68. About half of the volunteers are 60 and older, one of the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19. While those older volunteers take special care to protect themselves during the pandemic, their younger counterparts have stepped up to help keep the office open every day.

Witsell, a 30-year-old East Coast native, is one of them. She also works as an EMT at Arivaca’s fire department and volunteers her medical expertise to help treat injured migrants who show up to the aid office.

Part of her volunteer work typically includes traveling to the northern Mexican town of Sasabe, about 25 miles southwest of Arivaca, to give out harm reduction supplies to migrants preparing to cross the border.

A sign for the only medical clinic in Arivaca marks a junction at the end of town.
A sign for the only medical clinic in Arivaca marks a junction at the end of town.

Witsell and a fellow aid worker hand out water purification tablets and socks ― it’s extremely important to keep your feet healthy during this journey, they explained ― and provide guidance on how to keep cell phones charged and which numbers to call in case of an emergency.

Since the U.S. and Mexico agreed last month to temporarily close the border to nonessential travel in an effort to curb contagion, Witsell hasn’t been able to make those trips.

“I’m super concerned that people don’t have access to life-saving resources and information about what the journey could be like,” she said. 

And it can be incredibly dangerous: Migrants may go days without food or clean water in the desert. Over the last two decades, the remains of thousands of migrants have been recovered in southern Arizona, according to data compiled by the Pima County Forensic Science Center.

We’re the only community in 35 miles or more in any direction. As tiny as we are, we’re the place to come if people need help and they do. Leesa Jacobson, co-founder of People Helping People in the Border Zone

In order to prevent such deaths, humanitarian aid volunteers place supplies along the trails. Sometimes, they’re thwarted. According to a 2018 report from No More Deaths, U.S. Border Patrol agents vandalized water left for migrants 415 times over a 46-month period.

Now, the pandemic has become yet another obstacle for volunteers making the supply drops, said Paige Corich-Kleim, a spokesperson for No More Deaths.

“We’re trying to do everything with less people and trying to maintain as much social distancing as we can but also recognizing that there are parts of our work that require interaction,” she said.

Amassing supplies has also been a challenge, she said. Vendors have been unable to fulfill some of the group’s bulk orders for gallons of water and canned beans in recent weeks. They need things like hand soap and bleach, but are struggling to get enough.

“The things we’re looking for are the things that everyone is looking for right now,” Corich-Kleim said.

‘It’s Like A Built-In Death Penalty’

While President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies have resulted in fewer border apprehensions in recent months, they haven’t deterred all migrants and asylum-seekers. Instead, the increased militarization of the border has caused them to cross through even more dangerous areas, Witsell said.

“Prevention through deterrence is designed to push people to the most remote parts of the desert,” Witsell said. “It’s like a built-in death penalty: If you can escape it then maybe you have a shot.”

U.S. Border Patrol trucks sit parked on the main road in Arivaca on April 15.
U.S. Border Patrol trucks sit parked on the main road in Arivaca on April 15.

The Trump administration has ramped up its border wall construction in Arizona during the pandemic, to the ire of many border town residents. The administration argues that a border wall will prevent further spread of the virus. Epidemiologists note that the barrier won’t help mitigate the outbreaks already popping up in every state.

The administration has also cracked down on humanitarian aid workers in recent years. Border Patrol agents arrested a No More Deaths volunteer in 2018 and charged him with harboring undocumented immigrants. Before a federal jury acquitted him last year, he faced up to 20 years in prison for providing food, water and shelter to two men from Central America.

Still, even beyond Arivaca’s coalition of volunteers, many residents provide humanitarian aid to migrants who show up on their doorsteps in distress. PHP offers supplies to those residents to relieve some of the financial burden.

“We’re the only community in 35 miles or more in any direction,” Jacobson said. “As tiny as we are, we’re the place to come if people need help and they do.”

“We see the people who are incredibly lost or in really bad physical condition to the point where they’re willing to risk everything they’ve been through to come to somebody’s house and knock on their door for help,” Jacobson said.

What happens next is based on luck. While more Arivacans than not are happy to lend a hand, Jacobson said, others may tell the weary travelers to get off their property. Some call Border Patrol.

Residents reported seeing an increased Border Patrol presence in the area in recent weeks. Though U.S. Customs and Border Protection said last month that its agents “always” wear personal protective equipment when interacting with migrants, some Arivacans said they’ve witnessed agents apprehending migrants without wearing masks or gloves.

What’s more, Jacobson worries residents will be more reluctant to interact with migrants during the pandemic for fear of contracting the virus — even though, compared to Mexico, the U.S. has more than 100 times the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Hunkering Down In A ‘Hippie Retirement Community’ 

As of Thursday, there were no known cases of COVID-19 in Arivaca. Surrounding Pima County, however, has reported more than 760 cases and at least 52 deaths. Many Arivacans fear it’s only a matter of time before the coronavirus hits their community.

Because Arivaca is an unincorporated community and has no official town council or police force, residents have taken it upon themselves to support and provide care for one another amid the pandemic.

Dan Kelly, a 74-year-old retiree with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stands at his Arivaca home on April 15. Kelly ha
Dan Kelly, a 74-year-old retiree with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stands at his Arivaca home on April 15. Kelly has made close to 150 masks for fellow Arivaca residents since the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Dan Kelly, a 74-year-old Vietnam War veteran, is part of a local task force spearheading the town’s coronavirus response. As part of its effort, members have distributed handouts with information about the virus, made hundreds of hand-sewn masks and organized shopping trips to pick up medication and provisions for older residents. 

“One of the remarkable things about this community is that, regardless of ideology, we can and do look for ways that we can proactively support the needs of the community,” Kelly said. “The heart of Arivaca is in our capacity to come together.”

Like in so many towns across the country, the virus has turned daily life upside down for many Arivacans. Children are not in school, though school buses drop off free lunch for many of them during the week. La Gatina, the town’s lone cantina, is open only for takeout.

“People are very anxious not just about contracting the disease but a lot of worry and apprehension about jobs and finances,” Jacobson said.

If an outbreak did occur in Arivaca, it could have disastrous consequences. Many residents don’t have health insurance. There’s one health clinic in town with one doctor who sees patients three days a week. The closest hospital is about 45 minutes away.

“If something is seriously wrong with people they’re either ambulanced or airlifted,” Jacobson said. “Our medical care is adequate for most people but it does have limitations.”

Jamie Bauer, a 69-year-old retiree, at the People Helping People humanitarian aid office, where she volunteers helping migran
Jamie Bauer, a 69-year-old retiree, at the People Helping People humanitarian aid office, where she volunteers helping migrants in Arivaca, on April 15.

Jamie Bauer, a 69-year-old who splits her time between Arivaca and Taos, New Mexico, said the lack of nearby medical care has made her question whether she could live in Arivaca year-round in the future.

“I’ve experienced how it is when you’re old and living here, it’s not always easy,” Bauer said. “I don’t know where I’ll live when I get old but the community is so close here. I think it could be better than a lot of places because we all look out for each other here. We are a tight group. It’s a hippie retirement community.”

Bauer, like so many of her neighbors, has hunkered down in her home with a stockpile of food. She still hangs out with friends ― at a distance ― from time to time and volunteers at the aid office.

For some residents, having to self-isolate isn’t a major change. Jacobson lives about 2.5 miles away from the town center on 10 sprawling acres of a desert that is at once beautiful and deadly. 

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said. “I am here for the duration ― hopefully, it’s a longer duration. I’m trying not to get COVID-19 because I want to stay living here.”

She has her two dogs and a tortoise named June to keep her company. Plus, there’s always the chance an unfamiliar person will come knocking on her door.


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