Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

No More Deaths boosts migrant-saving efforts

Hundreds expected to assist with desert patrols this summer

Seventy-five-year-old retired geologist Ed McCullough walked hundreds of miles through the desert in the last year, carefully charting a web of migrant trails in the hope of saving lives.

The former University of Arizona professor turned his findings into maps for volunteers with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, which will patrol the desert around Arivaca in search of distressed illegal immigrants for the fourth straight summer.

The group kicks off its effort Saturday with an opening ceremony at its round-the-clock camp east of Arivaca, where hundreds from around the country, including doctors and nurses, are expected to volunteer.

New Jersey native Matt Mittelstadt, 27, recently came to Tucson to join No More Deaths after spending a year as a volunteer with the Presbyterian Church Peace Fellowship in Colombia.

Mittelstadt said he first heard about the dangers illegal immigrants face crossing the border from Salvadorans he used to work with at a restaurant.

“I’m humbled by them,” he said.

For years, Arizona has been the busiest and deadliest crossing point for illegal immigrants, who often succumb to the region’s three-digit summer temperatures and harsh, barren terrain.

McCullough put his skills as a geologist to use after his first summer of volunteering with the group three years ago, when he found himself largely wandering the desert.

“It was just pretty much serendipity,” McCullough said. “We would drive the roads, hoping to find people that needed help. There wasn’t any real pattern to it and you have to think, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ ”

McCullough focused on a series of heavily trafficked corridors, each made up of three or four trails that weave and intersect, leading from Mexico between the Tumacacori Mountains to the east and the Baboquivari Mountains to the west. Volunteers go out with one of McCullough’s maps and a hand-held Global Positioning System so they can find their way back.

“Hopefully, we will be able to get out walking these trails and find people before they die,” he said.

The U.S. Border Patrol has recorded 210 deaths of illegal immigrants along the entire U.S.-Mexico border between October 2006 and May 2007.

No More Deaths has intensified the training of volunteers this year, and more than 20 have taken a 72-hour emergency medical course to become Wilderness First Responders. The group will also have bicycle teams and a mobile unit this year to target areas with heavy traffic, and it will continue its partnership with Sonora’s migrant aid office to staff aid stations at the Mariposa and downtown ports of entry in Nogales, where migrants are voluntarily returned after failed attempts to illegally cross the border. The group is seeking donations of socks, shoes, water and food to stock the aid stations.

No More Deaths is still working out the details of its policy on transporting ailing migrants with Robert Gilbert, new chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, said Gene Lefebvre, a retired minister and co-founder of No More Deaths.

The group stopped transporting ailing migrants in July 2005 after federal authorities charged two No More Deaths volunteers with smuggling for driving three illegal immigrants to a medical clinic. A federal judge later dismissed the charges.

For more information about No More Deaths, call 245-7560.

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