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In Arizona, 'Los Samaritanos' leave water, food on trails used by immigrants

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; 3:55 PM

GREEN VALLEY, ARIZ. -- "Somos amigos," called Shura Wallin, ducking low into the shade beneath the highway overpass. "We're friends," she said again in Spanish, calling out to anyone who might be hiding. "Don't be afraid."

At a time when state and federal governments are focused on tightening the border to keep out immigrants who cross illegally from Mexico, Wallin and her colleagues help people who make the trip. They leave water and food along well-known foot trails. They distribute maps that show the water sites and search for trekking migrants. Sometimes, they find dead bodies.

Their efforts are at odds with a new Arizona law that makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally. One of the staunchest advocates of the hard-line approach, Gov. Jan Brewer (R), met with President Obama behind closed doors on Thursday afternoon at the White House.

Brewer contends the law, known as SB1070, is necessary to fill a federal leadership vacuum on immigration reform. Obama, who has called the measure "misguided," has directed the Justice Department to assess the law's constitutionality.

While the debate goes on, Wallin and a group of 140 volunteers who call themselves Los Samaritanos work against brutal heat and an unforgiving desert landscape where 61 migrants died in the seven months ending April 30. In a region split by the increasingly fortified U.S.-Mexico border, they say they are doing moral deeds in the face of a simple reality: Migrants keep coming.

"Most of the people we find are broken, beaten down, sobbing, so lonesome, broken. They just want to go home," said the Rev. Randy Mayer, pastor of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Ariz., home to Los Samaritanos. "We're just trying to stop people from dying. Somebody will say, 'What don't you understand about "illegal"?' Well, it's more complicated than that."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, who have caught 168,000 illegal immigrants since Oct. 1 in this section of southern Arizona near Tucson disapprove of the effort.

"Anyone who encourages illegal activities adds to our workload," said Robert L. Boatright, deputy head of the 90,000-square-mile Tucson region. He said the maps and supplies give border crossers a "false sense of security."

"That's an incentive," he said, "but they might be on the wrong trail or the water might be gone."

Don Severe, an activist in Green Valley who favors strict penalties for many border crossers, put it another way: "How would you feel if one of these people you helped went on and raped or killed your granddaughter?"

The debate over the border has intensified since the murder of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz, who some suspect was killed by an illegal immigrant, and Arizona's adoption of a law that empowers police to request identity papers from anyone suspected of being here illegally. The law, due to take effect July 29, is being challenged in federal court.

Wallin, a retiree who helped run homeless shelters in California, calls the desert "beautiful but deadly." She points to the dry, rocky ground and the thorny brush. From weekly visits to the other side of the border, where she talks with Mexicans who have been deported or defeated in their efforts to cross into the United States, she knows the stories of exploitative smugglers and dangerous treks.

"I can't live here knowing that people are almost literally dying in my back yard and not do something to help," she said during a recent search mission that took her south to the Mexican border town of Sasabe. "I don't want to put blinders on and pretend it's not happening."

Wallin and Mayer packed one of three Samaritanos vehicles with water and food one recent morning and drove to familiar stopping points on the trail from the border, 40 miles away. Near a railroad track that stretches south to Nogales, they inspected two blue barrels of water left by a similar organization.

Wearing T-shirts that said, "Humanitarian aid is never a crime," They crossed the tracks and ducked into a thicket of trees and scrub brush that offered shelter from the blistering sun and the Border Patrol alike, picking up empty water jugs and scouting for evidence that people had recently been there.

At their next stop, beneath an Interstate 19 overpass, they found water containers, including one painted black to avoid catching the shine of a federal flashlight. As they walked along a dry river bed, calling their greetings, they found a discarded jacket and an empty box of anti-dehydration tablets, but no migrants.

The pair made their way west through the remote landscape, stopping to talk with two security guards hired through a private contractor, waiting in a bus rigged like a mobile jail to haul away captured immigrants. Wallin and Mayer passed green-and-white Border Patrol vehicles and steel towers topped with surveillance equipment.

In Sasabe, on the Mexican side of the border, the asphalt gave way to dirt roads. When a man motioned to ask whether they had water, Wallin stopped to hand out water and new white socks to a half-dozen laborers who said they were on their way south from Arizona.

The Samaritanos stopped in a small one-story building to speak with an official from Grupos Beta, a wing of Mexico's immigration authority. The official estimated that 200 people a day were climbing the nearby fence or driving into the desert to go around it.

"We try to convince them that it's dangerous and tell them to go home," the official said. "But they say, 'It's the United States.' "

On many Sundays, a man stands outside Mayer's church and protests the rescue and relief efforts. He wears a sign that says, "Good Samaritan, Bad American." After 12 years working along the border, Mayer is mindful of the complexities of the national immigration debate. But as he sees it, he is facing a moral imperative.

"It degrades me as a human being," Mayer said, "when I can't be compassionate to another human being."

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