Aid office in Arivaca

More than 100 Arivaca residents and supporters marched to the Border Patrol checkpoint on Arivaca Road in December to deliver a petition demanding its removal.

For the past few years, some residents of Arivaca have been fighting a two-pronged attack to push back against increased Border Patrol activity while assisting immigrants coming through the surrounding desert.

The community formed an aid group called “People Helping People” about four years ago, and for the past two years has operated a small humanitarian aid office along the main drag through the community.

“Living here and having to deal with the situation forces you to figure out how to deal with it and live your life,” Arivaca resident Peter Ragan said. “We need to address it because we live here.”

The office, which is open four days a week, provides a place for locals to get medical supplies, food, water and petty cash to help those traveling through the desert. It also includes a lending library and printed information on border and immigration issues.

“We provide another number to call for help besides Border Patrol,” said Eva Lewis, who volunteers at the office, which is co-operated by Tucson-based No More Deaths. “We let people know that providing humanitarian aid isn't a crime.”

Since starting several years ago, the group has helped formalize what many in the area had been doing for years, Lewis said.

“Locals have been giving food or shelter to people in need informally for a long time,” she said. “This office helps organize and assist those efforts.”

Ragan, who helps run operations at People Helping People, said they have served hundreds of people since opening up the office. It also has been an education center, with several people from out of town stopping in to learn more about what residents endure on a daily basis.

“We provide information and personal experience that you don't hear from the media or the government,” he said.

Pushing back

Last year, the group held a community forum called “Existing and Resisting in the Border Zone,” leading to efforts to organize against Border Patrol checkpoints, including the one on Arivaca Road just west of Sopori School. Ragan said more than half the community signed a petition asking for the checkpoint to be removed. Others, however, staunchly favor it.

“We're trying to maintain the quality of life that most of us moved out here for, which is being chipped away at both by the militarization of the border and the ongoing crisis of people struggling and dying in the desert,” he said.

But others in Arivaca have said the checkpoint and the Border Patrol presence offers security in an often-unforgotten corner of Pima County. Often, agents are the first on the scene of accidents or other emergencies, and residents say going through the checkpoint to get to Interstate 19 is not an inconvenience and that it acts as a deterrent to drug and people smugglers.

After delivering the petition to the Border Patrol, PHP began holding rallies and monitoring events to bring more attention to the issue. One frustration is that the Border Patrol has not released statistics on seizures at the Arivaca checkpoint.

Manuel Padilla, chief of the Border Patrol Tucson Sector, responded to the petition and protests in January. He wrote that he understood the concerns but said checkpoints are “essential tools in helping us protect our nation's borders and enforce immigration laws enacted by Congress.”

“To not use this effective tool would have a substantial negative impact on our ability to accomplish our mission,” he wrote.

Ragan said most of the fear surrounding the border and who crosses is unfounded.

“I have never been intimidated or threatened by anyone traveling through here,” he said.

He said most of the fear or uneasiness actually stems from the presence of the agents, who have jurisdiction to enter private land up to 25 miles from the border without a warrant.

“Folks out here are more afraid of the Border Patrol than they are the immigrants, absolutely,” he said. “You never know what's going to happen when you step outside your door.”

Customs and Border Protection did not respond to an interview request for this story.

For more information about People Helping People, visit phparivaca.org or call 520-398-3093.

Andrew Paxton | 547-9728