Bordering Chaos

As the issue of illegal border crossers continues to escalate in local and national news, a closer look at activists near the border provides unparalleled insight into the deadly and often chaotic lands lying between the border and our cities. John Dickerson took a trip into the dry desert arena for a front-row seat where he found several people looking for the illegal crossers, but with very disparate intentions.

It’s 6:00 a.m. and Glenn Spencer is testing the aileron flap on his Cessna 206, dubbed “the border hawk.” Spencer is preparing to fly over the Arizona-Mexico border, eyeing the desert floor looking for “illegals” and broadcasting a live video feed over the Internet. He says we are being invaded.

Where Spencer sees invaders, 22-year-old Maryada Vallet sees hungry and nearly dying mothers, children and fathers pursuing the American Dream. She walks past a Nissan Pathfinder known as “the desert rat,”. deciding instead to load up a white Isuzu SUV as she prepares for her Samaritan patrol. Vallet, a well-spoken, White girl from Peoria, will spend the rest of her morning distributing food, water and medical aid to blister-footed illegal immigrants traipsing the trash-lined wilderness between the Mexican border and Tucson.

Her mission has provided her with a close-up glimpse into the horror faced by many of those unprepared for the arduous trek. She has seen the oil spots left by bodies of migrants who have paid the ultimate price. She has endured the smells of decaying bodies left in the wake of miles-long hikes. Mothers and children are dying.

By the time Spencer taxis his Cessna onto the runway and Vallet pulls her squeaking Isuzu onto a rocky trail, Arizona rancher John King has been herding cattle and checking water tanks for several hours. His family has owned the King’s-Anvil Ranch since the early 1890s. He never used to find bodies on his property. Six were found last summer alone. He calls Border Patrol daily to come detain alien trespassers or to pick up their bodies. They just keep coming. Mothers. Children. Drug smugglers.

As Homeland Security and Border Patrol attempt to seal off major border cities and crossing points, more illegal immigrants are risking their lives on this desert journey. It is well known that coyote guides who charge immigrants thousands of dollars often leave women, children and the injured to die in the desert. It is an economic exodus, a deathtrap, and according to Governor Napolitano, a state of emergency.

As federal and state governments scramble to plug a leaky border and address the more than 12 million undocumented workers, Arizona residents are patrolling the desert with conflicting goals. Some carry guns. Others carry water and first aid kits. Some track the immigrants. Some feed and clothe them.

Law-filled Anarchy in the Wild West

In the month of July 2005 the relentless desert heat claimed the lives of 78 immigrants in Tucson’s Border Patrol sector alone. The medical examiner rented a semi-trailer equipped with a freezer to hold the bodies. All tolled, 460 immigrants baked to death in these barren corridors last year, enough to fill about seven buses.

On the morning of July 9, 2005, Emil Hidalgo-Soliz wandered north, he thought, toward Tucson, his sanity consumed by the 110-degree desert heat. The bacteria in the cattle tank water he’d drank caused eruptions in his alreadydehydrated stomach. Walking on burst blisters the size of baseballs, his body had become a stark shadow of itself just days before when he optimistically embarked on his impossible journey. Soliz was throwing up when No More Deaths volunteers Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss helped him into the backseat of a Subaru station wagon. He and two others were near death.

Sellz, 23, had spent the previous day searching the desert for the remains of an abandoned immigrant mother. She found two other bodies during her search. The reality of death fresh in her mind, upon seeing Soliz, Sellz didn’t hesitate. Soon she and Strauss were driving with three illegal immigrants in the backseat, red Samaritan signs fastened to the side of the Subaru as it sped down dusty roads.

Minutes later, Strauss and Sellz were arrested by Border Patrol for abetting the illegal crossers. The two, both college students, spent the night in a holding facility before moving to a federal prison. They’re now being charged with conspiracy and aiding illegal activity, federal crimes with a maximum sentence of 15 years.

Humanitarian activists aren’t the only Arizona residents who’ve run into the law while dealing with illegal border crossers.

Ranch Rescue vigilante Casey Nethercott recently lost his 70-acre Douglas, Arizona, ranch after two illegal immigrants sued him for abuse. Nethercott had detained the two men while on a ranch patrol and ignored their lawsuit. The judge ruled in the immigrants’ favor, handing Nethercott’s property over as payment for damages.

King’s-Anvil Rancher Pat King is concerned that Americans aren’t allowed to properly guard their private property on these wild desert plains.

“We all say all these things about how terribly the U.S. is treating these people,” King says. “This is my country, and I love my country, but my country sadly has no respect for me.”

King deals daily with knifed cattle tank lines, hundreds of pounds of trash on her property and fear of leaving her home unattended.

“On April 15, if our income taxes aren’t in, somebody is toting up the penalties and interest we have to pay,” King says. “But on April 16, we’re in a noman’s land here. Laws are to prevent chaos. Within 50 miles of the border, from San Diego to Brownsville Texas, we have chaos. We have a landfill and a lawlessness that defies description.”

The Humanitarian Activist

Driving the same Samaritan patrol that landed Strauss and Sellz in a federal prison, Maryada Vallet, an Azusa Pacific graduate, navigates the No More Deaths SUV onto a rocky trail. Last weekend Border Patrol found four migrants dead from hypothermia after a 40-degree desert rain.

Vallet will come with blankets and food, whether it’s legal or not. She parks near three light blue, undamaged water tanks and finds them half-empty. She often finds the tanks intentionally vandalized, the 20-foot signal flags bent to the ground. Nothing but desert and mountains lie between her and the faraway horizon.

Immigrants travel under the cover of night and rest during the day. Vallet and No More Deaths volunteers come by day shouting, “food, water, medical aid.” The night is too dangerous. Guns. Robberies. Murders. The dark veil of the expansive desert.

Vallet sings a Spanish offer for help, making her way down a trash-lined trail that strings through blonde desert grass, barbed cholla cacti and green-limbed palo verde trees. “We are not here to hurt you. We are with a church. We have food and water,” she says.

Vallet and No More Deaths volunteers don’t call Border Patrol when they find migrants. “If they don’t want us to, we respect that. Calling Border Patrol is not our job,” Vallet says. “We must remain neutral like any human aid organization.”

Arizona Director of Minutemen volunteer Stacey O’Connell disagrees. “I’ve seen the families come across with infants and toddlers,” O’Connell says. “I commend (No More Deaths) for giving food and water, but what I don’t see them doing, more times than not, is not contacting the proper authorities. So the issue is their final intent.”

O’Connell adds that Minutemen also hand out food and water. “On the other hand, the Minutemen call the Border Patrol,” he says.

Back in the desert, Samaritan patroller Vallet stops between emptied Red Bull energy drink cans and a stack of hollow water bottles. For Vallet, these are not roads and trails; they are Alejandro and Oscar, stories of south Mexican coffee and corn farmers who had no idea the desert was so vast and so dry.

“I found one woman sitting under a tree,” Vallet says. “She was my age exactly, 22. She had two kids, a threeand a five-year-old, who had medical conditions. She hoped to work here and send money back.”

Like many whose legs find cactuses or ledges in the night, the woman had fallen amid a dark, frantic rush. Her group didn’t stop. She was baked too dry to cry anymore when Vallet found her. Like nearly every day of last summer, Vallet used a satellite phone to call a doctor and a nurse. She described the woman’s condition and symptoms, answered questions and administered first-aid.

Vallet doesn’t know exactly how many immigrants she has driven to emergency rooms and clinics, but the blue-eyed, light-haired Peoria native knows she has spent hours at their bedsides. They were certain to die if left in the desert. Vallet stays with them in emergency rooms through the night.

The National Security Activist

From 500 feet, the desert floor doesn’t look nearly so cruel. Gazing out the window of Glenn Spencer’s “border hawk” Cessna, it looks more like a soft tan canvas than a rock wilderness of sand, cacti, snakes and scorpions.

Spencer, who resembles Christopher Walken in his early 60’s, also looks a bit like General Norman Schwarzkopf when he pulls his army-style cap down low on his brow. He pilots the plane and speaks through an aviation headset to Mike King, a former National Guard sniper now aiming a digital video camera out the side of the plane.

Spencer and King make Minutemen volunteers look like boy scouts. Where Minutemen tote guns and radios, trying to plug the bulging dike of illegal immigration, Spencer flies his “border hawk” hundreds of feet above, spotting illegal intruders and reporting them to U.S. Border Patrol.

“Ninety-nine percent of the border is just barbed wire,” King says. The Arizona-Mexico border reflects off the black face-visor of his Air force helmet as he leans, camera in hand, out the side of the plane.

“Every time we fly, they’re here,” King adds. “Wait. That’s one. I’ve got two walking on the road. Border Patrol must have scared them back last night.”

“Got em?” Spencer asks.

“OK,” King confirms. OK means King successfully zoomed the camera on the two men walking along Border Road. The image was sent live to the American Border Patrol headquarters, where other volunteers contact the U.S. Border Patrol with the coordinates and broadcast the video on American Border Patrol’s Web site.

“There’s the Humane Borders’ 50 gallon water jugs,” King says of the same style light blue barrels Vallet had parked the Samaritan SUV near. “They’re aiding criminal activity,” King adds of humanitarian aid groups like No More Deaths.

“I have photos of smugglers using the water canteens,” Spencer says. “Since they put the water stations out, the number of deaths has gone up.” Spencer’s personal vendetta with the border began about 15 years ago, during the L.A. riots. “I watched my old neighborhood trashed, burned, vandalized. Watch the videos. Most rioters weren’t black. They were Hispanic illegals,” he says. That, Spencer says, is when he realized California had been invaded during his lifetime. He worries that the entire U.S. will be conquered.

“In 35 years, L.A. went from the finest schools to the bottom of the rankings. Healthcare, hospitals, traffic, everything has suffered. If you want to have the rest of the U.S. like southern California and L.A., keep it up,” Spencer says. In July of 2004, Spencer and his volunteers made their point by smuggling a fake “Weapon of Mass Destruction” in a backpack across the Arizona border. To Spencer, the border is not about farmhands, landscapers and dishwashers. It’s about national security.

Spencer pilots the “border hawk” west to a small huddle of shacks on the Mexico side of the border. “The Tijuana taxi vans drop off at these shacks,” he says. “Then the migrants walk to the mountains. It’s so overt. They arrive with 15 passenger vans on Border Road.”

“I’ve got a group,” King announces. “Oh yeah, that’s a big one, about twoo’clock. There’s a good 10 or 15. They’re lying down, trying to hide.”

King chuckles in self-satisfaction as the ant-sized migrants take to the ground at the sound of the plane. Spencer banks a tight turn, setting the plane almost on its side so King can aim his camera directly down at the 10 or so migrants now squirming under a cluster of trees in a wash.

“The funny thing, when they lay down, they make themselves bigger targets,” King adds.

To Spencer and King, these are not job-seeking underprivileged fathers huddled under blankets with water bottles and backpacks. These are soldiers, conquistadors out to claim what they think is rightly their Mexican property: Arizona.

“Every night 3,000 come across our border,” Spencer says as he turns the plane toward the airport. In 15 minutes he and King have spotted and videoed three immigrant groups crossing the border.

Another Night, Another Day

Hours later, as shadows begin covering the Arizona desert, dehydrated migrants start taking to the trails. At their two-bedroom Tucson rental, Samaritans Shanti Sellz and Maryada Vallet prepare for another day patrolling with first aid, food and water.

Awaiting her federal trial for conspiracy and aiding illegal activity, Sellz still drives Samaritan patrols, and when she finds nearly-dead immigrants, she still takes them to a clinic. “I feel this work is extremely necessary, and I’m not going to stop,” Sellz says.

Miles away and only 1,000 feet from the border, Glenn Spencer is sitting at his computer command center, updating his Web site and posting an article about 20,000 Latino protestors who took to the streets in Phoenix. He’s also happy to report that American Border Patrol has secured an infrared camera that can detect border invaders from an altitude of 25,000 feet. Night patrolling is now possible.

Back at the King’s-Anvil Ranch, Pat and John King are just lying down after another long day of ranch work. The dogs are barking, and that’s perfectly normal. They hear someone walking across the front yard.