ARIVACA, Ariz. – When Leesa Jacobson first moved to this small town on the Arizona border with Mexico, she feared her storefront offices might get firebombed.
In the five years since, she has received anonymous hate letters. Occasionally, people driving by will yell at her or flip her off. Recently, a well-known militia leader moved to the community, dredging up dark memories of a killing of a local resident and his 9-year-old daughter.
But Jacobson, a former librarian, is undeterred. With a group of fellow-retirees, she tries to prevent death and suffering in the borderlands around Arivaca, a community of about 695 people in southern Arizona
Fewer people seem to be trying to cross the border today than in years past ― the number of people apprehended at the U.S. border has dropped to the lowest level in 50 years. Despite this, the number of deaths has remained fairly constant, with a recent uptick. More people died on the border in the first seven months of 2017 compared with the first seven months of 2016, according to the United Nations’ migration agency.
In the last calendar year alone, the remains of at least 151 people were found in the area south of Tucson, according to Jacobson’s group, which records where and when bodies are found in the area. Because some people are never found, the real number may be much higher.
As the border has become more militarized, it has become even deadlier as migrants are being pushed into ever more inhospitable areas, said Jacobson, 65.
“Our backyard ― our beautiful desert ― has become a graveyard,” she said.
Residents of Arivaca, located 11 miles from the border, often come across migrants suffering from dehydration or hunger after a brutal journey through the desert.
“People literally come to our houses and knock on the door, desperate for help,” she said.
The previous day, a young man had come to Jacobson’s door, weak with thirst, his feet bloody with blisters, after he had walked through the desert in the 110-degree heat. Jacobson invited him in and soaked his feet before he went on his way.
“I jokingly say that I belong to the church of people helping people,” she said. “But it’s not so much of a joke.”
People Helping People
An ordained Lutheran pastor who is no longer practicing, Jacobson helped set up People Helping People five years ago when she realized some locals believe it’s a crime to help undocumented migrants in distress ― or might struggle in other ways to help.
“A lot of people in Arivaca live on the edge, so someone coming to their door ― even for a meal for a day or a couple of days ― that can be a burden. So we help with food supplies.”
Her organization, which shares the small Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office with another group, also provides water, medical kits and clothing on a particularly deadly section of the border.
“Humanitarian aid is not a crime ― at least not yet,” she said.
Earlier this month, a bicyclist training for a cross-country marathon on a dirt road winding through the shrubby desert came across a starving migrant who was also severely dehydrated.
Volunteers cared for him until he was well enough to continue his journey, said Dan Kelly, a 72-year-old Vietnam War veteran who began volunteering with Jacobson’s organization a few months ago after he moved to Arivaca from California when his wife passed away.
“We need to honor the people that come to this country – not demonize them,” said Kelly. “These aren’t rapists. These aren’t murderers. These aren’t animals. These are human beings.”
‘No Human Is Illegal’
Most of the residents of Arivaca, a dusty, one-bar town surrounded by a desert of cacti and windblown shrubs, are retirees or ranchers. The nearest elementary school is 23 miles away, and the school bus has to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint to get there.
The one-room storefront office on the dusty main street of Arivaca overflows with informational pamphlets about legal rights and civil liberties, as well as “No Human is Illegal” stickers.
“Arivaca is a ‘live and let live’ kind of place,” said Jacobson, though she acknowledged that not everyone likes what she has started.
The water tanks that volunteers put out to prevent migrants from dying of thirst are often vandalized. And for years, an anonymous letter-writer has been directing vitriolic attacks against her and other local women, widely distributing hate-filled letters that Jacobson says she finds “frightening.”
More recently, a well-known vigilante leader moved into the area from Sasabe, a town on the border about 25 miles away. Tim “Nailer” Foley is a 57-year-old Army veteran who runs the group “Arizona Border Recon,” a volunteer group that is heavily armed.
Foley says his organization is helping border patrol agents. But Jacobson and others describe Foley as a militia leader, and the sheriff in Nogales, Arizona, has described him and his group as “dangerous.”
In an interview with The New York Times last year, Foley said his group has never fired a shot. But his presence has evoked dark memories in the small town.
Five years ago, Shawna Forde, a border activist, and two accomplices were convicted in the 2009 home invasion and shooting death of Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia. Flores’ wife, Gina, was wounded but survived. Forde, who is in prison in Arizona, was sentenced to death. According to prosecutors, Forde believed the Flores home contained drugs and money, and intended to use the profits from the home invasion to fund a border-watch group.
“It broke the heart of this community,” said Jacobson.
Standing For Something
Jacobson grew up in Wisconsin, came to Arizona in 1992 and worked for almost 20 years as a librarian in Tucson. The death rate on the border exploded in the late 1990s, and Jacobson started volunteering with the humanitarian aid group Tucson Samaritans in 2002.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Border Patrol’s “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy are to blame for the many deaths on the border, she said. As NAFTA made it harder for Mexican farmers to earn a living, the U.S. government hardened border transit points, pushing migrants into the desert and along more perilous routes.
“People who are desperate do desperate things,” she said.
When Jacobson first got involved with the Tucson Samaritans, she thought the spike in deaths would be temporary, that immigration reform would soon come.
“And now it’s 15 years later,” she said.
On a recent morning, the church of People Helping People convened in Arivaca. Jacobson warmly greeted Ed McCullough, 85, and Gail Kozourek, 66. Volunteers affiliated with the partner group No More Deaths, McCullough and Kozourek help put out 55-gallon water tanks along the most trafficked trails in the desert, informed by maps created by McCullough, a former professor of geology at the University of Arizona.
Why does McCullough volunteer? “People are dying,” he said simply.
In 2004, McCullough began documenting the routes most commonly used by migrants by walking the trails with a handheld GPS device. In the years since, despite his bum knee, he has walked and mapped more than 2,000 miles of trails in the 40,000-square-mile area.
When a body is found in the desert, he records the location to identify the deadliest routes so that volunteers can search the area for people in need and distribute water along the most-trafficked trails.
“If we’ve saved just one life, it’s worth everything we’ve done,” McCullough said.
For Kelly, the Vietnam veteran, the work is existential in more ways than one.
“We have an opportunity in every lifetime,” he said, “to stand for something.”
Hayley Miller contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A previous version misspelled Leesa Jacobson’s last name.