Aleida K Wahn J.D.

The View From Here

Leaving Life-Saving Water: My Day With the Border Angels

When love has no borders

Posted Feb 03, 2017

Border Angels, Jordan Verdin, used with permission
Source: Border Angels, Jordan Verdin, used with permission

Can a life really be saved for $1.50? That is the cost of one gallon of water at my local grocery store. According to Border Angels, the answer is a definitive “Yes!”  Every month Border Angels lead guided trips of volunteers to the desert to leave gallons of life-saving water along migrant crossing routes. This is just one of the humanitarian acts this non-profit organization performs in their mission of advocating for human rights, humane immigration reform, and social justice with a special focus on the United States and Mexican border issues. Finding that over 11,000 people have died in the desert due to dehydration since the harsher enforcement policy of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, Border Angels’ water drop program seeks to end this cycle of death. Instituting water drops in 1996, with an official water program established in 2002, a handful of volunteers has burgeoned to hundreds over the years. Upon learning of this organization, I signed up for their January operation. Our undertaking was straightforward: travel 90 miles from San Diego to Ocotillo and leave water and provisions in the desert.

On Saturday, January 21st, I joined approximately 100 volunteers, each bearing one gallon of water, food, and warm provisions for the migrants, at the Sherman Heights Community Center in San Diego.  We were greeted by Enrique Morones, the founder and director of Border Angels. Since founding the organization in 1986, Morones has dedicated his life to offering migrants compassion in the tangible form of water, food, clothing, education, and unstoppable advocacy. His vision was birthed from his faith and Biblical teachings straight from the book of Matthew, “When I was hungry, who gave me to eat? When I was thirsty, who gave me to drink?” Standing in the cold morning air, we listened to an impassioned Morones and other devoted volunteers as they described the deadly struggle migrants face crossing the unforgiving desert and the reasons why they dare risk it. Whether fleeing violence, seeking reunification with loved ones, or economic opportunities, Border Angels ensures they will be received with the humanity deserving of all.

Aleida K. Wahn

Enrique Morones, the founder and director of Border Angels, speaking to all the volunteers.

Source: Aleida K. Wahn

Empowered, it was now time to drive to the Ocotillo desert. We journeyed the 90 miles and reconvened at a small desert gas station. Jonathan Yost, the water drop director, then told the story of Alfonso, a father who had worked and lived in the United States for over two decades. One day Alfonso took a trip to the corner market and simply vanished. He was deported. In an instant, he lost everything, torn from the family he loved, never getting to even say goodbye. The only way to heal the agonizing pain was to undertake the perilous desert expedition, risking fatal exposure to daytime temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, to freezing conditions at night. Alfonso did not make it. His dying words were, “I don’t want to die. I want to get back to my kids.” With a fire rivaling any zealous preacher, Yost said if Alfonso had only discovered something as simple as a gallon of water or a bag of warm supplies, he could have been reunited with those he cherished most. Yost asked us, “Would you be willing to risk everything? Even death?” Then Yost proclaimed we could stop this type of death by our efforts today.

Osvaldo Ruiz, used with permission

100 volunteers in the Ocotillo desert. 

Source: Osvaldo Ruiz, used with permission
Aleida K. Wahn
Jonathan Yost, the water drop director, giving a passionate speech in the desert.
Source: Aleida K. Wahn

Our spirits high after Yost's rallying speech, we moved forward, filled with new purpose. We were divided into three smaller groups, and I volunteered to travel with the group delivering provisions in an area requiring more strenuous hiking. We jumped in our cars again and followed our guide to a remote area of the desert.

Aleida K. Wahn
Hiking in the rain into the Ocotillo desert.
Source: Aleida K. Wahn

Soon the wind grew strong, rain began falling, and I was instantly shivering. Since San Diego had seen continuous days of rain, I was prepared, and quickly wore three jackets and warm rain pants. We hiked for about an hour and a half, not following any established path. Our guide, James Cordero, explained the routes were carefully chosen after a thorough study of the Imperial County coroner reports of where people had perished. We walked by endless cactus, climbed over huge boulders, squeezed between narrow passages, and ducked under thorny branches. Finally we stopped, and were instructed to leave our water, canned food, and bags filled with blankets, jackets, and hand warmers.

Aleida K. Wahn
Volunteers making their way over boulders as they traverse deep into the Ocotillo desert.
Source: Aleida K. Wahn
Osvaldo Ruiz, used with permission
Our group deep in the Ocotillo desert.
Source: Osvaldo Ruiz, used with permission
Tina Vetter, used with permission
Aleida in the Ocotillo desert. 
Source: Tina Vetter, used with permission
Tina Vetter, used with permission

Wearing three jackets as the temperature dropped in the late afternoon. 

Source: Tina Vetter, used with permission

Our mission now complete, it was time to hike back out. The sun had been hot at times, but by 3:00 in the afternoon, the temperature started to fall, and I again bundled up in my jackets. As I pulled on additional layers, I thought of us all out here, in the middle of the day, guided by plenty of light with a knowledgeable guide, our stomachs full with the ample food we had packed into our backpacks, warm homes to return to, and thick flannel sheets to crawl into this night. How different for the migrant sojourners. Forced to travel by night, bereft of any luxuries, the barest essentials depleted, and devoid of safety’s guarantee. I said to Tina, my new friend and faithful volunteer, “Can you imagine being out here at night?” We agreed it would be unbearable.

Continuing our trek towards home, one young woman described a documentary she had recently seen where coyotes, smugglers who profit through human trafficking, left a young teen alone in the desert after she injured her ankle and was unable to continue. As I looked out over the unending desert, I thought about being so young, being subjected to such ruthless greed and cruelty, and the fear this child must have felt after being abandoned without mercy.  It was a terrifying vision.

As we know, President Donald Trump made illegal immigration a cornerstone of his campaign, and now as he moves forward with building a border wall, these issues soar to a new level of fierce debate and deepening activism. Border Angels will continue their work of easing human suffering, and as their water drop program shows, a savior can arise for the nominal amount of $1.50. Without question, Border Angels has saved thousands of migrants. Immerging from our unpaved path, our guide pointed to a rock, shaped in the form of a huge heart. A fitting way to end our day in the desert, an ageless symbol echoing Border Angels’ most eternal belief, “Love overcomes hate. Love has no borders.”

Aleida K. Wahn
A beautiful heart shaped rock.
Source: Aleida K. Wahn
Aleida K. Wahn

Guide James Cordero (with the beard) is pictured here with some of the volunteers as the day in the desert comes to a close. Besides leaving water and provisions, volunteers also picked up trash.

Source: Aleida K. Wahn

Border Angel’s Website: http://www.borderangels.org

Aleida’s Website: http://www.aleidalaw.com