Ángeles del Desierto is an all-volunteer search and rescue group that provides humanitarian assistance to migrants lost in the desert region along the border of Mexico and the United States. Their mission is humanitarian and their main purpose is to save lives. Ángeles del Desierto is based in San Diego and concentrates its rescue and recovery missions along the U.S./Mexico border. The trained volunteers that actively participate in the search and rescue missions risk their lives in the hopes to save a stranger. They venture into the desert to leave food, water and to find missing migrants. The search usually begins with a phone call from a migrant’s family reporting that they have lost contact with a loved one. Surviving the desert temperatures, ankle injuries or abandonment in the desert can be extremely difficult. The emergency assistance they provide of water, bandages and food can mean the difference between life or death. Sometimes too much time has elapsed since a traveling migrant made contact with their family. This often leads to the recovery of a migrant’s body; a life lost in pursuit of the American Dream.
Latina Republic interviewed Miguel Jimenez, an active member of the organization who has been participating in rescue and recovery missions for 9 years. What is it like to go into the depth of the border desert in search of a missing migrant? In the following interview, Miguel Jimenez details the heroic humanitarian work of Ángeles del Desierto.
Latina Republic: How did you discover this group?
In the 80s, after years of sacrifice working as a migrant field worker in the United States, I qualified for US residency through the amnesty program and through my years of labor as an agricultural worker. The process to qualify for residency then was not easy. I carefully collected all the documents required and went to the determining meeting with fear. In those days, if you did not qualify, you were immediately deported. Fortunately, I accomplished a long-time dream, to become a resident and later a citizen of the United States. Once my immigration status was settled, and I had established myself in the United States, I decided to seek volunteer opportunities with organizations that supported migrants along the U.S./Mexico border. This is how I found Ángeles del Desierto.
Latina Republic: ¿How did you know this was the right organization for you?
I started looking for volunteering opportunities to fulfill a promise that I had made to myself: to someday be able to help my migrant community. One day, as I was browsing through social networks, I discovered the organization, Ángeles del Desierto. I was intrigued by this organization because other companies had lots of volunteers and almost no Latinos.
Their focus intrigued me. On their website, Ángeles del Desierto asked an urgent question: “Where are the missing Latino migrants?” I was interested, so I called the director to learn more about their work. At the time, he was preparing for a rescue mission in response to the request of a family that had reported two relatives lost in the desert.
It was Mexican Independence Day, September 15, 2009. It was a weekend, and the volunteer group was gearing up to go to work. The director asked me: “Have you looked at our website? Do you know the type of work that we do? This weekend we are delivering food to El Bordo in Tijuana. Have you heard of this place? This is where the deported stay when they have nowhere to go.” The director then offered an invitation to participate: “Come join us, and if you like it, you can decide if it is or isn’t for you.”
I remember I went straight to my closet, and gathered a large pile of clothes I wanted to donate to the refugees. Back then, El Bordo had between 5,000 and 7,000 refugees.
We met the refugees immediately as they crossed the border. We waited at the exit, along with Mexican migration, and offered them food.
This was my first day with Ángeles del Desierto. I participated in this experience and I liked it. We started at around 8:oo pm at night and left at 3:00 a.m. in the morning.
Latina Republic: How do you manage your emotions when meeting disappointed, returned migrants?
It is a very sad experience. Sometimes, I have to fight back the sadness that I feel because you see the pain on their faces, the disappointment in their eyes. This is difficult, but we do our best to be strong for them and offer an encouraging word.
As hard as that is, there is the other side of the job. Ángeles del Desierto goes into the desert in search of missing migrants. Often, the search for migrants leads to the uncovering of the bodies, of physical remains, clothes, and skeletons of people who tried to get to their destination and didn’t make it. This part of the job is even more difficult.
I had to train for this part of the job. I watched videos of forensic doctors because the director had told me that I would see things that no one is prepared to see.
I prepared by looking at photos, videos of forensic doctors, and studying autopsies. I trained mentally for the rescue work, so that I would not fall into shock.
During my second rescue mission into the desert, I came across a tiny skull that probably belonged to a child. There were no remains. I learned then that desert animals tear dead bodies apart. This was something very difficult for me to see.
The director said to me: “This happens all the time. This is what we do. “
Latina Republic: Miguel, can you break it down for us and explain, step by step, how does the process start, with a phone call?
Yes, families call us; sometimes it is a son, the father, the brother. The migrant who is going to travel, makes a call to the families before crossing telling them that he is going into the desert. This call prepares the families for what can happen next.
The migrant often says to the relatives, “Give me a period of 5 to 7 days. If you don’t hear from me, send help; I’m in the desert.”
This is when we get these types of calls: “I have a lost relative; he has been missing for so many days; we haven’t heard from him.” So we investigate his intended destination, and we use maps to figure out how long they could have walked based on what we know. We calculate the number of days they have been missing with how far they can walk in a day.
Sometimes, migrants go missing in the Tucson area, where there is an indigenous reserve called Tohono (which means, desert people). That area is very large and we have to request permission to enter.
Latina Republic: And do they grant you permission to enter?
Yes. They give us permission as long as we respect their beliefs. Because you cannot lift a stone or cut a tree that for them is religious and so we have to respect their rules and beliefs if we want to be allowed in.
Latina Republic: How do you know the rules of the indigenous reserve?
They tell us when we go to get the permit. They tell us what we can and cannot do.
Latina Republic: How do they know that you are going to respect those rules? Do they follow you?
Yes. Sometimes they monitor us. The Tohono reservation has its own police. Sometimes they follow us into the desert. The permits they give us are only for specific areas. This is a very large territory.
Latina Republic: What type of equipment do you use in the desert?
We use rescue mission gear. We carry backpacks with water, specialized boots with protection from snakebites and leg protectors. We have radios, gps, and all types of equipment that make the search easier.
The equipment we use comes from donations. Sometimes, other organizations support us with equipment because we support each other. There are shelters that need assistance, be it food, water, whatever they need, and we provide it. Sometimes the same families that ask for help reward us with equipment.
We are a 100% immigrant group that serves migrant people. We do not charge any fee for our work. This is voluntary.
Latina Republic: When you go into the desert, do you work in teams?
Sometimes yes, and other times it is just me and the director. Since we are all volunteers, not everyone can be available on weekends because volunteers have their own families. One of the rules the director has is that if you have something to do with your family, do it. In other words, do not leave what you have pending to come with us. In this way, we try to avoid conflict within the families of the volunteers.
Sometimes families can feel abandoned because of the type of work that we do. If I have family plans, I try to schedule my time with the organization around them.
Latina Republic: What kind of events do you do to raise funds?
Sometimes we organize kermesses (community fairs), which are like a food harvest. Participants set up their own tables and bring homemade meals, like roasted meat, and all types of food to sell. What they sell is donated to the group.
Sometimes we also go to the stores to collect water, because we bring water to the desert, too. The same community donates water to us. We collect it and we take it to the desert.
Before taking water to the desert, we have to ask for permits.
Latina Republic: Miguel, how do border agents view Ángeles del Desierto?
It depends. If they see us from the perspective of our humanitarian work, they see us as friends. But sometimes they may see us from a political stance. If the focus is on politics and not humanitarian assistance, there can be clashes. But you can find conflict and disagreements within any group, including shelters, and advocate groups.
You would be surprised. We have met border agents that carry water, food, blankets, clothes for migrant people. When we focus on humanitarian work, all parties can cooperate and respect each other. When you look at the political side, problems arise.
Latina Republic: Do border agents stop Ángeles del Desierto’s volunteers for identification?
Yes, they do. They want to know who we are. And since we are a group of rescuers who are on the border, their job is to investigate who we are and what we do, although we have permission from them to do the work we are doing.
When the director and his brother started the group, they had several arrests by border patrols. They were doing humanitarian work, but at first they did it without a permit.
Latina Republic: What permission is needed to help a human being?
A permit that the border patrol issues. Before we had the permit, the trucks and cars used to transport water were confiscated several times. The director of the organization was jailed because he did not have the permit. Until finally they gave him permission to do humanitarian work in the desert.
There are many groups in favor of and against migrants. The Minutemen are an anti-immigrant group we sometimes come across in the desert. They think we are doing something illegal, but we are doing permitted, humanitarian work. We explain to them that we are a humanitarian group trying to prevent migrant deaths, but for them the territory is being invaded and they believe that what we are doing is illegal.
Nothing we do is illegal because we have a permit for humanitarian work in the area. Part of obtaining the permit is that one must abide by the border patrol guidelines.
Latina Republic: What does that permit say?
It is a permit that allows us to do humanitarian work at the border. Since our volunteer work is on federal territory, we need a permit. We also have to abide by the border patrol rules.
For example, when we find a migrant in poor condition, but alive, what we do is offer medical care. We give him water, food and clothes. But we cannot bring him with us. That’s one of the border patrol’s rules. Other humanitarian groups faced problems when they drove badly injured migrants to the hospital themselves. The border patrol guidelines disallow that and view that action as human trafficking.
In order to legally provide humanitarian assistance, we are allowed to help migrants with clothes and water, and some medicines, but the migrants cannot continue with us.
They can go on their way.
Latina Republic: So you are not forced to report them to the border patrol.
Exactly. That is not our responsibility.
Now, if we find someone who is in a life or death situation, then we have to call 911. We usually call the fire department and ambulances to come and take them to the hospital.
Latina Republic: How do people in Mexico find out about the organization?
We have done humanitarian work on the Mexican side, so they know about our work. We have given aid to the Sierra de Chihuahua, the Tarahumaras, an indigenous group, and brought them food and clothing in 2012.
Sometimes shelters in Mexico request our help, and we help them.
We do food drives in San Diego and take what we collect to the shelters after obtaining a permit at customs at the border.
Latina Republic: During your rescue missions, what are the chances of finding migrants alive?
When the family does not report their relative missing soon after the person has crossed, the situation gets more challenging for the migrant. A person can survive in the desert for up to 7 days, or longer if they carry enough food and water.
If it is an emergency, and the person has a phone, I tell the person to dial 911. But many migrants do not want to make the call out of fear, because they do not want to turn themselves in. After days of long walking, they don’t want to give up. This puts their life at great risk.
However, when they are in bad shape, they have to do it; they have to dial 911. In cases of life or death, they take them out by helicopter.
This year, more people have been rescued alive than dead. Last year, too, more people were recovered alive than dead.
Sometimes family members don’t know who to turn to when their family member is lost in the desert. If days go by and after months, they contact us, no one will survive that long in the desert. We ask the families for information, but before going into the desert, we tell them that the information they give us is going to be shared with the border patrol. Because many times, border patrol has detained a missing migrant.
So what we do first is investigate with the authorities to see if they have them in detention centers or in hospitals.
We are identified as a rescue organization and since we have the personal contact information of the migrants, we work together with local border authorities, both here in the United States and in Mexico.
Latina Republic: In your rescue efforts, have you ever saved someone’s life?
Yes, many times when we are on our way in search of someone in particular, we cross other migrants who need help and we are able to offer humanitarian aid.
When we find them, we give them water. Most of them are extremely thirsty with nothing in their stomachs. We let them know that they have to wet their tongue with their finger first. Because if they drink a lot of water suddenly, it can cause severe stomach cramps.
We also carry bandages because most injured migrants have ankle sprain injuries, which prevents them from continuing their walk. We give them water, salt and bandages.
Latina Republic: How do migrants know that they can trust you?
The organization is internationally recognized. International reporters have come with us into the desert.
Latina Republic: For how many years have you participated in this noble work?
Since 2009. The group turns 24 this year. We are 25 volunteers, but around 8 of us are active. The director comes with us to the desert, and his wife works in the office and guides us.
Latina Republic: What does your family think of your humanitarian work?
They know this work is important, but they are also ready for me to leave it because it is high risk. With each rescue effort, we face many threats from people who are not supporters of our work. It is dangerous, because in the desert you are alone in a vast space, and if the operations are not successful, you can stay in that space. When you go into the desert you never know if you’ll come out. Before going in, we notify border patrol so they are on alert in case something happens to us. The search for missing migrants takes us into high risk territory. We may agree or disagree on why our humanitarian work is needed and how it saves lives. We all share this uncertain space.