SAN DIEGO — Emotions were high as nearly 75 people congregated outside a local community center wearing hiking boots and backpacks and carrying dozens of water jugs. This was the rallying point for volunteers joining immigrant rights group Border Angels on its latest trek into the arid Southern California desert to leave food, water and warm clothes for migrants crossing the southern border.
The group has been organizing these “water drops” for 20 years. But these days — with political tensions over illegal immigration at a boiling point and with similar activists in Arizona facing criminal charges — the work has become increasingly controversial.
Even as the volunteers gathered at 7 a.m., they were met with antagonism.
“How about you focus on American citizens!” a passerby shouted, criticizing Democrats for helping “illegals” and ignoring people of color born in the United States.
“No one is illegal!” responded a volunteer.
“This is not a left-wing issue!” yelled another.
This is a humanitarian issue, Border Angels activist Jacqueline Arellano had explained to the volunteers a few minutes earlier. People are dying in this desert, and children are at risk — and yet, Arellano said, people who are providing basic humanitarian aid along the border are now being criminalized.
This month, four volunteers from a similar organization in Arizona, called No More Deaths, were convicted of misdemeanor charges of abandonment of property and entering a wildlife refuge without a permit after leaving food and water in a remote national wildlife refuge infamous for migrant fatalities. The Pima County medical examiner has documented 137 migrant deaths in this area since 2001, although No More Deaths advocates say they believe the number is much higher.
Each volunteer could receive up to six months in federal prison and a $500 fine for crimes that Judge Bernardo P. Velasco wrote eroded a “national decision to maintain the Refuge in its pristine nature.”
Five other volunteers will go to trial for similar charges in the coming months. One of them, Scott Warren, is facing additional felony charges for allegedly providing food and shelter to two undocumented migrants.
Warren was arrested last January, just hours after No More Deaths published a report about Border Patrol’s interference in their humanitarian aid work, along with a video showing Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs and other supplies left for migrants in the desert.
Geena Jackson, a wilderness EMT who has volunteered with the group since 2012, said she believes Warren’s arrest was retaliation.
“The targeting feels very clear,” she said, noting that other humanitarian aid groups have operated in the same area without such a severe response.
Enrique Morones, who founded Border Angels in 1986, said such legal action for providing humanitarian aid along the border is unprecedented.
“Never has there been this sort of anti-humanitarian work climate as there has been these last two years,” he said, attributing the shift to President Trump’s crackdown on immigration.
Representatives for U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not provide comment for this story.
The day after volunteers from No More Deaths were found guilty, an official from the Bureau of Land Management, which monitors public lands, warned Border Angels volunteers that leaving gallons of water in the desert could be considered littering, said Tanya Benitez, the main volunteer leading this group. She said the official told them that Border Angels would need to call the bureau before future hikes to report the exact coordinates where they were leaving supplies, something they said they had never been asked to do before.
Morones is now planning to meet with the Bureau of Land Management, which did not provide comment for this story, to figure out how his organization can continue providing humanitarian aid along the border without getting in trouble.
“We plan to stay within the law, but we also believe that humanitarian aid is never illegal,” he said. “We’re not stopping.”
Border Angels volunteers said they started noticing significant efforts to deter their work in the past year. A month ago, a helicopter circled for at least 15 minutes above a group of volunteers conducting a water drop before a Border Patrol agent met them on foot asking about their activity, said the group’s leader, Kirsten Zittlau, an immigration attorney who volunteered with Border Angels for more than two years. The helicopter was so close, Zittlau said, group members couldn’t hear each other talk.
“They’re trying to do anything to intimidate, to scare us, to stop us from providing humanitarian aid,” said Zittlau.
In March, a Border Patrol agent asked volunteers to see their identification, saying that “illegal aliens” had been spotted nearby, said James Cordero, who was leading the group. He says the agent was searching for undocumented migrants in the group because most Border Angels volunteers are Latino. Ultimately, the agent let the group go without showing identification after Cordero repeatedly asked if he was being detained.
“We have to make sure we stay within our legal rights so we don’t end up in the same situation as No More Deaths,” said Cordero, who has led more than 50 water drops.
Border Angels leads hikes near the border every other month, dropping lifesaving supplies, including blankets, socks and hand warmers during the winter months, when temperatures can reach near freezing in the desert. Their hikes are open to the public because it’s important for people to see what is happening here, Cordero said.
On a recent Saturday, he led 13 volunteers on a five-hour hike around prickly cactuses and giant boulders just off Interstate 8, about an hour outside San Diego. As the group walked through the desert, they stumbled across dozens of empty backpacks, probably abandoned by migrants who did not want to appear transient when they arrived in a populated area after days or weeks in the open air.
Tattered sandals littered dusty paths. Some hikers found socks that appeared soaked with blood and a pair of damp blue jeans with a label that read “Lucky You.” Others found a set of women’s white, lacy undergarments beneath a thin layer of muddied sand, prompting several volunteers to become emotional.
“It stops you in your tracks when you see that,” said Cordero. “When you see stuff like that, it makes it more personal, because you know that person went through something. You don’t know what, but they went through something.”
Near each cluster of discarded belongings, Cordero and others placed the gallons of water and other supplies, hoping that the next migrant passing through might survive the final leg of their journey.