op-ed
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Charged with Possession of a Conscience
by Vivian Pettyjohn
04 January 2006

Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz, two young humanitarian volunteers are facing federal prison terms. They were arrested while taking to the hospital three migrants found vomiting and bleeding in the desert.

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Jesus Dominguez, 15 years old, was disappointed when his mother decided to go to the US. Jesus, like many his age, did not want to leave his friends. But because he was the man of the house, he couldn't let his mother and sister walk alone, so he went.

As Claudine LoMonaco wrote in the Tucson Citizen last July,

"I wanted to stay home," he said.

Home is the village of San Martin Sombrerete in Zacatecas. Jesus' father works in Texas, and it was hoped the family could reunite. They crossed with Jesus' 7-year-old sister Nora. When Lucrecia Dominguez became ill on the third day of the journey, the group of village friends they were traveling with continued on with Nora. Jesus stayed behind to be with his mother.

"She kept begging me to go on without her, but I couldn't leave her," Jesus said.

When she lost consciousness, Jesus struck out alone to try to find emergency help. Three days later, Border Patrol agents found him lost, wandering and disoriented in the desert. Although Jesus was dehydrated, in shock, suffering from heat exhaustion and terrified about his mother's status, the agents gave him a little water and then left him at the federal line in Nogales, a practice known as "expedited removal." Once there, Jesus placed a frantic call to his grandfather for help.

No More Deaths volunteers Daniel Strauss and Shanti SellzIn another part of the Sonoran desert, Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz, both 23, woke up in their camp on the dark desert floor and prepared to face the dawn of a blistering July day.

They conferred with another team in their open desert campsite and double-checked the communication equipment that links them to a network of volunteer medical professionals. These teams work for No More Deaths, one of several humanitarian organizations committed to ending the suffering in the Sonora desert.

Strauss and Sellz spent the entire day hiking in 115 degree heat through dry washes and trails in search of people who are sick, injured, lost, or those who are dying of hunger, thirst or heat exposure -- people like Jesus and his mom. When the teams find them, they call the emergency medical provider for instructions on how to proceed for treatment.

This particular Saturday, Strauss and Sellz found a group of 3 migrants who were suffering from drinking stagnant cow tank water. Migrants who are literally dying of thirst often drink from cow ponds as they get desperate. Ingesting water contaminated with bacteria and cow dung causes severe vomiting and a diarrhea that can be fatal. The on-call doctor instructed Strauss and Sellz to take the vomiting migrant to St. Mary's Emergency Room. They were arrested en route by the Border Patrol, charged with transport of illegal aliens, and now face a 15-year sentence in federal prison. [1]

Local Arizona medical professionals and international humanitarian aid organizations expressed outrage that humanitarian aid workers were criminally charged for providing life saving help. "Most kids their age spent the summer poolside or at the mall. Daniel and Shanti spent their summer saving lives. Daniel and Shanti are not criminals, they're heroes," said Lea Hutchens, a local ER nurse. [2] Aid organizations from Amnesty International to Christian Peacemaker Teams have issued statements supporting the pair's work on the border and calling for the dismissal of all criminal charges.

What is it that drives the "crossers" to take such drastic action, compelling humanitarians such as Sellz and Strauss to devote their lives to rescuing them?

People who don't live on the border ask it this way: "Why do the migrants cross? Why do they drag their children into the desert? What is wrong with these people?"

There's the lure, of course, of a more affluent life. But most people don't willingly face the odds of brutal beatings, rape and death just to be able to purchase more stuff. When people take these chances, it’s usually because they have few options. And their desperation is often taken advantage of by "coyotes" or desert guides, eager to get their money. Crossers are often led to believe that the hike is an easy one, the distance not far at all, and their ultimate destination within a day's walk. Crossers sometimes report naively that they are walking from Arivaca, AZ to North Carolina, a walk that the coyotes assured them can be accomplished in a day.

Most migrants seek work in order to be able to feed their families. Many crossing the Sonora on foot today come from Honduras, Guatemala, and Chiapas -- the coffee producing areas of Central America and Southern Mexico. With the advent of NAFTA, coffee prices fell so low that most farmers have had to abandon their coffee plants.

In 2004, when prices for 100 lbs of coffee plummeted from $120/ $140 to $50, farmers could no longer buy basic supplies or pay field hands. Farm work, the staple employment of most rural Central American residents, now pays about 4 dollars a week, not even close enough to feed a family. The people who once depended on these farms now live in poverty.

In Guatemala, 75% of the population lives in severe poverty. In Chiapas, where again, three quarters of the population live in poverty, 70% live in poverty so extreme that they are not able to acquire the food, water or shelter needed for basic survival. Two-thirds of the shacks in which poor people lived lacked electricity, drinking water and drainage as Tom Hayden states in his article Seeking a New Globalism in Chiapas.

For the millions in extreme poverty, emigration is often the only avenue to basic survival. The application process for a US work visa is long, complex and prohibitively expensive, so they attempt to enter the US on foot instead.

But the human cost is high. From October 1, 2004 through September 30th, 2005, 282 immigrants are known to have died coming across just the Arizona sector of the Mexico-US border. Some bodies were found within 4 miles of the Arizona line. They had walked from Honduras or Chiapas (700-1000 miles) to the border and died before they were able to cross. Twenty-nine additional deaths only appear in the Mexican Government's records –for a total of 311 deaths at the Arizona border this past year alone. The 311 number does not include the bodies that will never be found or the people who died along the migratory route from Central America.

Cesar's Cross: Placing Unknown Child of God on the cross, CPTers conducted the memorial before Cesar's body was identified.Cesar's Cross: Placing "Unknown Child of God" on the cross, CPTers conducted the memorial before Cesar's body was identified. Photo courtesy of Christian Peacemaker Teams. CPT is a program of Brethren, Quaker and Mennonite Churches and other Christians that support nonviolence.

The Center for Central American Resources in El Salvador has documented that 25,000 individuals were lost during the three year period from 1997 to 2000 as they trekked north from the Southern and Central American countries.

How did they die? Here are some of the postmortems: hyperthermia, dehydration and exposure to the elements lead the list; motor vehicle accidents, gunshot wounds and blunt force trauma complete it.

Speaking in December at a Tucson border conference, Claudia Smith, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, somberly described how immigrants die in the desert.

Some "simply go berserk and their bodies are found by following a trail of clothes," she said. "Others, very conscious of their death, take their clothes off, make a little pillow, and lay down to die, tucking whatever identification they have under their clothes. It is a horrible, horrible death, and they just realize they cannot go on.

These current policies are "not only morally unacceptable, but also a violation of various international agreements which we have signed, guaranteeing that we would protect life," Smith said. "We don't have the right to enact strategies that ensure that hundreds of people will die."

There's a popular myth that says that the people who cross into our country are drug dealers. The truth? The overwhelming majority of them are working families. Many of the dead are young people, even children. Samaritan Patrols teams such as Sellz and Strauss' often evacuate infants as young as 6 months from the desert. Many of the bodies of young women were found to be in advanced stages of pregnancy. It is estimated that 20% of all deaths of border crossers are women and children.

Many workers with humanitarian aid organizations like No More Deaths or Samaritan Patrols report that they feel driven into the desert by evidence that many of the crossers are women and children. They find it difficult to rest at night knowing that even one child might die in agony of heat exposure 10 miles from their backyards. Luis Urrea in his book Devil’s Highway describes what death from “exposure” really entails:

Your heart pumps harder and harder to get fluid and oxygen to your organs. Empty vessels within you collapse. Your sweat runs out....Your temperature redlines ---you hit 105, 106, 108 degrees. Your body panics and dilated all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off. You blush. Your eyes turn red: blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimson. Your skin gets terribly sensitive. It hurts, it burns. Your nerves flame. Your blood heats under your skin. Clothing feels like sandpaper. Some walkers at this point strip nude. Originally, BORSTAR rescuers thought this stripping was a delirious panic, an attempt to cool off at the last minute. But often, the clothing was eerily neat, carefully folded and left in nice little piles beside the corpses. They realized the walkers couldn't stand their nerve endings being chafed by their clothes.

Once they're naked, they're surely hallucinating. They dig burrows in the soil, apparently thinking they'll escape the sun. Once underground, of course, they bake like a pig at a luau. Some dive into sand, thinking it's water, and they swim in it until they pass out. They choke to death, their throats filled with rocks and dirt. Cutters can only assume they think they're drinking water. Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream. Proteins are peeling off your dying muscles. Chunks of cooked meat are falling out of your organs, to clog your other organs. They system closes down in a series. Your kidneys, your bladder, your heart. They jam shut. Stop. Your brains sparks. Out. You're gone. [3]

The doctors and nurses who have cared for these patients are some of the most passionate and devoted volunteers in the desert. Many of them are mothers or fathers who recoil from the idea of anyone's child dying like "a pig at a luau." Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz are such people.

Compassion drove these young people into the desert burdened with water, food and medical supplies on days where temperatures can soar to 115 degrees or more.

When we teach our children to respond with a sense of personal responsibility to the suffering of others, we all win. Our society should not criminalize these students - we need thousands more just like them.

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Epilogue

Shanti Sellz was part of the rescue patrol that drew many civilian volunteers whose hearts were deeply moved by the story of Jesus and his mother. The body of Lucrecia Dominguez was found in July by a search party that included members of No More Deaths.

Sellz and Strauss are scheduled to appear in Tucson Federal Court January 5th, 2006, with a trial date set for January 20th.

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Notes:

[1] See press release from the US District Attorney in Arizona for official penalty information for related charges.
[2] Hutchens, Lea. Personal interview. 22 July. 2005
[3] Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Devil’s Highway. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2004.

Vivian Pettyjohn is a member of Samaritan Patrols and active with migrant health organizations.

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ePluribus Contributors, Editors and Fact Checkers: Xicano Pwr, Standingup, Kfred, WanderIndiana, INMINYMA, JeninRI, BeverlyinNH, and lilnubber.

Photography: courtesy of No More Deaths and Christian Peacemaker Teams.