GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — The knock at the door came just three days after Kathy Babcock moved in to her new home.
Standing on her porch in the heart of Green Valley were two young men who'd just walked out of the desert. They asked for food and water; she said yes.
That was more than seven years ago.
Today, Babcock doesn't wait for immigrants to come to her door. She goes out and finds them, and she's not alone. Every week, the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans sends out at least three crews — more in winter — to seek out immigrants who are losing their battle with the Arizona desert. The group, launched in 2005, also drops water along migrant trails, picks up trash in the desert and goes over the border to discourage immigrants from attempting the dangerous crossing.
It's early on a Monday morning and the sun is creeping over the Santa Ritas. Babcock is sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV tough enough to tackle some of Southern Arizona's most rugged terrain.
Terry Voss is in the driver's seat; Donald Weston, his partner in life and teammate in this mission to save lives, sits in the back.
They pull out on to the road, and their conversation is easy. The three are familiar and comfortable with each other, trading thoughts on books they've read or speakers they've heard, but all the while their eyes are combing the desert for people on the brink.
"Most of the people we find have been with a group and have been left behind," Voss says.
"These people have no idea where they are and the geography of the area," Weston adds. "We had one guy ask us to drive him to North Carolina."
They head south on the Interstate 19 Frontage Road toward Amado and turn west at Arivaca Road, the start of a loop that will take them through beautiful yet unforgiving country.
The magnetic sign on the vehicle identifies them as Samaritans, and they wave to agents as they pass the Border Patrol checkpoint west of Sopori School.
The reaction varies among the agents. Some - often the younger agents, Babcock says — figure they're in the same business of saving lives. Others aren't as friendly, knowing that the Samaritans will only call them if an immigrant is at the end of the line, ready to give up. Those who just need water and food before continuing north won't be reported to the Border Patrol, and that doesn't always sit well.
The Samaritans have rules about heading into the desert. Every crew must have at least three people, preferably one conversant in Spanish. They also have somebody who knows basic first aid, and they carry food and water. They don't transport immigrants — it's illegal — unless it's an emergency and they've contacted or made efforts to contact the Border Patrol. Cell phone service is spotty so they carry a GPS and another device that can send signals to a home base or to first-responders using satellite. They carry no weapons.
"I have never experienced any fear out here," says Voss, who started desert runs with Weston a few months before Babcock in 2005.
"We've never run into any situation that felt threatening," Babcock adds, echoing the experience of a lot of Samaritans. She says that when they come across migrants who need help, "for the most part they have had it — they're beat."
They want to be picked up and deported.
Coyotes — paid people smugglers — are notorious liars. They'll tell a group that Tucson is a two-day walk from the border; Chicago is just five days on foot. If anybody is injured or falls behind, they're on their own. The group waits for nobody.
The summer heat is but one predator. Sometimes women are raped or an entire group is held up by bandits. Even if they make it to a big city, they often are taken advantage of, held for ransom by coyotes or face uncertain job prospects.
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