On a rugged stretch of desert wilderness just west of Ruby, the Rev. Randy Mayer asks everyone in his SUV to brace themselves.
“This last stretch here is pretty treacherous, so just hold onto your coffee cups.”
The sheer rock face that somehow passes as a road takes the group deeper into a gulch around Montana Peak and spits the Toyota 4Runner out at the end of a rocky wash, right on the edge of the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
It’s Friday, May 12, the morning after Title 42 – the public health mandate that allowed the U.S. Border Patrol to immediately return some people to Mexico without any processing – was lifted.
The moment has brought increasing attention to the Southern Arizona border in recent weeks amid concerns the day would bring an unprecedented influx of migrants across the border, and questions about how the Biden Administration’s new suite of border enforcement policies would impact the asylum-seeking process in the U.S.
But for Mayer and a handful of volunteers from Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans who pack into the SUV Friday morning, it’s just another search day.
Who are the Samaritans?
Prompted by a mounting number of deaths in the desert, the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans was founded in 2005 on a mission to save lives and relieve suffering in the Arizona borderlands.
Armed with water, food, clothing, blankets, first aid kits and a bright red magnetic “Samaritans” sign on their car, the search teams traverse the desert on backroads. They offer humanitarian aid to migrants they encounter along the way who may be suffering from any number of ailments as they attempt to cross the desert.
At least one member on each trip speaks fluent Spanish and another has medical training. For those needing major medical attention, the Samaritans call 911 or Border Patrol.
Other Samaritan activities include water drops, where volunteers leave or replace gallon jugs at predetermined and permitted sites along migrant footpaths, and weekly trips to the Kino Border Initiative migrant aid station, El Comedor, in Nogales, Sonora.
Mayer, pastor of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita and co-founder of the local Samaritans group, says their volunteers have directly aided hundreds of people over the years, but even helping just one would make their efforts worth it.
“I mean, these people, these families, are all leaving horrible, horrible situations,” he said, describing the many stories of migrants he’s met who are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries.
“My experience in traveling and working in Latin America is that these people are really the salt of the earth, always opening up their homes, opening their hearts to a sojourner… so for me, I feel like I’m just repaying the many acts of kindness and hospitality that I’ve experienced.”
Before driving further along the first road that parallels the 30-foot border wall, Mayer grabs a pen from the dashboard and scribbles the phone number of his attorney on his leg, offering it up for others in the backseat to do the same.
“Just in case I get taken into custody and they take my phone away,” Mayer said. “I’ll sacrifice myself, but someone else might have to preach on Sunday.”
In his 23 years doing humanitarian aid work around the world, Mayer said he’s never been arrested, but it has happened to other Green Valley Samaritans through the years, and new “No Trespassing” signs erected along the border wall have put some volunteers on edge.
The signs refer to an Arizona criminal trespassing statute and are enforced by the Border Patrol by coupling state and federal laws, which allows the agency to crack down on people stopping or camping out along the border wall in the area.
“We’ve have a pretty clear understanding with the Border Patrol. We don’t stop in the gaps or get out of the car unless we find a group that needs support or humanitarian assistance. We’ll give them food and water and try to get them away from the wall, then call Border Patrol, and then as soon as they arrive, we leave,” Mayer said.
“That’s worked pretty well, but each agent is different in what their understanding is, and what they feel about the humanitarian groups. We’re not at all trying to interfere with the work of the Border Patrol. Really we’re just trying to give what assistance we can, and then get out of the way,” he said.
On Friday, reports of vigilante groups near the border wall area – one of which confronted a separate group of Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans during the day, the Arizona Republic reported – were circulating among the volunteers in Mayer’s car.
But aside from seeing two unmarked pickups near the Sasabe Port of Entry, Mayer’s group didn’t see much action – or any Border Patrol agents along the wall near Sasabe – beyond one encounter with a group of migrants.
“That’s the thing about this area, it’s really dynamic. One day, there could be a lot of activity out here, and then the next, like today, it’s relatively quiet,” Mayer said.
The migrant group was composed of about 10 males from Sinaloa, Mexico, who had been camping out near the border wall for days, waiting for an opportunity to cross. Mayer’s group handed out food packs, lots of water and a few pairs of socks for their journey. The group said they weren’t sure when the next leg would begin.
Walking back to the vehicle, Barbara Lemmon, a Samaritan volunteer, retired nurse and Green Valley resident, looked back into the wilderness that lies beyond the wall on the U.S. side.
“Just thinking about our drive here, it’s really difficult to imagine people walking through there,” she said.
In a follow-up message, Lemmon added that while giving aid to those trying to evade detection might not “look good,” their work is focused on saving lives.
“If they cross already undernourished and dehydrated, we will be finding their bodies.”
Beyond Title 42
John Modlin, Chief Patrol Agent of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, said on Twitter that Ajo Station agents encountered several large groups of migrants throughout the weekend after Title 42 was lifted, including a group of 291 on Friday, a group of 208 migrants Saturday and 213 on Sunday.
But in the absence of Title 42, Department of Homeland Security officials say there was largely no immediate chaotic rush of migrants at the border, as some had anticipated.
During a midday press briefing Friday, DHS Acting Assistant Secretary for Border and Immigration Policy Blas Nunez-Neto said the number of border crossings appeared to remain steady in the hours after May 11.
“Overnight, we saw similar patterns to what we've seen over the past several days…we continue to encounter high levels of non-citizens at the border but we did not see a substantial increase overnight or an influx at midnight.”
During a press briefing Monday, Nunez-Neto added that the influx some were expecting after the expiration of Title 42 ultimately came before the policy went away.
“I can tell you that we have averaged below 5,000 encounters each of the last three days and that's less than half of the more than 10,000 we had encountered each day in the three days leading up to the lifting of Title 42, and we have removed and repatriated thousands of people over the last three days," Nunez-Neto said.
During Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher said that Tucson and Phoenix-area shelters received about 1,600 migrants on the first full day after Title 42 ended and have seen roughly 1,400 migrants in shelters every day since.
"We have avoided street releases every day," Lesher said.
"We are working with county- and city-managed hotels, the facilities that we have at Drexel and Ajo, we’ve got about nine buses each day providing transportation, we’re adding some staffing, and the Red Cross is here and will be here as long as they can," she said.
While many immigrant advocates have largely welcomed the end of the Title 42 policy, they say uncertainty still remains about what will happen in the months to come, both procedurally and politically.
Many have criticized the Biden Administration in recent weeks for its decision to replace the public health restrictions with other rules – like requirements that migrants use the CBP One phone app to schedule appointments for asylum claims, or that they first apply for asylum in other countries they’ve traveled through.
On the ride back to Green Valley on Friday, Mayer frequently points out spots on hilltops, beneath bridges and behind the desert scrub where the group has found migrants before.
He stops the car at a white cross a few feet from the edge of Arivaca Road – a small memorial to two migrants, a mother and child, who lost their lives in the desert, and a reminder of what the group's humanitarian work is trying to stop.
In 2021, the Office of the Medical Examiner in Pima and Maricopa counties reported a record 225 human remains belonging to known or presumed undocumented border crossers were discovered along the Southern Arizona border, part of over 4,000 migrant deaths that have been recorded in the area in the last two decades.
Mayer said his biggest concern is what these new border policies might mean for migrants who are turned away from the border, and turn instead to other, dangerous options to get across.
“The issue I see with Title 42 being lifted, and all the new immigration rules Biden has put in place, is it really is going to force migrants out into the desert, and that’s where it’s going to get really dangerous,” Mayer said.
“That’s the real challenge I see with these trespassing signs, too, is it’s restricting what the humanitarian aid volunteers can get out there and do and really making the desert more dangerous. Is that really what we want? A bunch of deaths in the desert? I would hope not, but that might be what we’re looking at this summer.”