The New Underground Railroad

Excerpt from Humane Borders December 2019 Newsletter

The above excerpt was written by a volunteer with Humane Borders, a volunteer organization founded in 2000, that maintains a system of water stations in the Sonoran Desert on routes used by migrants making the perilous journey here on foot. Their primary mission “is to save desperate people from a horrible death by dehydration and exposure and to create a just and humane environment in the borderlands. We locate our water stations on government and privately owned land with permission from the landowners.” Over 3000 people have died crossing the Arizona desert since January 1999 (Humane Borders website).

Migrant Death Map- Arizona (Humane Borders website)

It wasn’t always this bad.   A 1994 Clinton-era Border Patrol strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence” sealed off urban entry points and funneled people to wilderness desert risking injury, dehydration, heat stroke, exhaustion and hypothermia. With this came a dramatic increase in deaths. The Prevention Through Deterrence strategy “directly led to the exponential increase in deaths in Southern Arizona,” according to Martinez, a researcher on the Migrant Border Crossing Study. “The data speaks for itself: There’s a direct correlation between the border buildup and the deaths. It’s undeniable.”

Organ Pipe Cactus National Park where many deaths crossing the desert have occurred.

Kind people living near the border have always provided humanitarian aid to desert travelers, so it is somewhat of a misnomer to call it the “new underground railroad”. What has changed is the Trump administration, arresting people for it. A case that has gotten much attention is that of Scott Warren, who was arrested in January 2018 for by the U.S. Border Patrol in Ajo and accused of “harboring” for having given, food, water, clean clothes, and beds to two men, José and Kristian. José and Kristian had left Central America and traveled for several months across Mexico and then for days across the desert. They found their way to the “Barn,” a property used by humanitarian groups and volunteers that operate in the desert surrounding Ajo. Some days later, Border Patrol Agents entered the property and arrested the three of them.

The rural communities, farms, ranches, wildlife refuges, national parks and native lands along the border has been militarized. Ajo Border Patrol station, has been increased from 24 to 400 agents, with a capacity for 900 agents; Trump has proposed management of this land be turned over to the military. O’odham people at the Quitobaquito oasis were, no doubt, the first humanitarians of this place. They welcomed generations of travelers to the desert spring and shared the water and food that was grown there.

Former Tohono O’odham chair Ned Norris Jr. once estimated that before Prevention Through Deterrence, 200 or so migrants crossed the nation each month; once the strategy went into effect, that figure ballooned to 1,500 a day. O’odham lands became occupied territory, crawling with Border Patrol agents, penned in with vehicle checkpoints and monitored 24/7 with the latest in surveillance technology. As the interdiction industry put down roots, an economy for getting past the border guards ballooned. On the economically struggling Tohono O’odham Nation, the allure of potentially easy money trapped more than a few people in the cycle of arrest, felony conviction, and incarceration that plays out in communities across the country, including those far from the border. More enforcement meant more illicit activity, which required more enforcement — it was self-sustaining cycle with real-life consequences for the O’odham people.

People along the border are fighting back, with lawsuits and protests. And they will continue to provide humanitarian aid as they have done for generations. Scott Warren was recently found not guilty by a jury of his peers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: