AMADO, AZ - Thirty miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, there stands a usually-empty parking lot and a dimly lit diner— something you’d only come across in the middle of nowhere.
If you were to drive down Arivaca Road and stop in, tomorrow or 10 years from now, you’d probably find the same potato salad and chicken fried steak on the menu, the same bottles of scotch and bourbon, the same crooked portrait of John Wayne hanging by the front door.
It’s the kind of place that doesn’t change.
It’s silent here on a summer morning when two Ford Explorers pull into the parking lot. Richard Osburn and Peter Dean, the drivers, hit the brakes with hiking boots.
This sight happens routinely. Members of the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans meet here, in this parking lot, outside this diner, before trekking through the cragged desert.
Their mission is simple: to keep migrants alive after they cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Between 1998 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has reported 6,915 deaths along the border region that stretches from Texas to California.
Overall, illegal border crossings decreased after fiscal year 2017— shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential victory. But migrants continue to perish in the desert: by June, 2018, the U.S. government reported an uptick in border deaths.
So volunteers like Richard Osburn traverse the desert regularly, in the hopes that a jug of water will keep someone alive.
“We’re not advocating open borders, or illegal immigration, you know. It’s all about saving lives,” Osburn explained.
Sometimes, the efforts to help migrants are thwarted. This past January, Border Patrol agents arrested Scott Daniel Warren for aiding undocumented migrants in Arizona. Warren, a member of the humanitarian group No More Deaths, had allegedly supplied migrants with “food, water, beds and clean clothes.”
The arrest came days after No More Deaths released footage of Border Patrol agents kicking and emptying bottles of water left in the desert.
In his years of excursions, Osburn has seen mixed reactions from Border Patrol officers.
“We’ve had one guy, he was accusing us of littering. But then another border patrol agent actually offered to help us carry the water,” he said.
Warren’s trial is set for Jan 8, 2019. But well before his arrest, people have risked felony charges to assist migrants entering the country.
Sometimes, the crime is as simple as leaving a bottle of water in the desert.
In 2002, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office recorded 151 death cases in Southern Arizona alone. 60 percent were caused by exposure: to blistering heat or unbearable cold.
That same year, the Samaritans, a humanitarian group, formed out of a Presbyterian church in South Tucson. Volunteers began driving into the depths of the desert to offer medical assistance, food and water to those who might need it.
By 2005, the Samaritans had trickled their way down to Green Valley, a census-designated zone north of Tubac and Tumacacori. In these sun-baked Arizona communities, artificial lakes shimmer on the outskirts of golf clubs; hand-crafted pots peek out from the windows of rose-colored adobe homes.
The many retirees who live here are well aware of Mexico’s proximity. Some enroll in Spanish classes. Some bring back woven blankets after a trip to Oaxaca. Others rave over the novelty of green chile and prickly pear jam. Life is fun, and it’s safe— just adventurous enough.
But several miles away, where Osburn and Dean steer their SUVs, the Sonoran desert is deadly
Here, I-19 snakes from Tucson toward Mexico, flanked by miles of rock and sand. Temperatures can rise above 115° and dip below freezing on winter nights. The velvet mesquite tree must bury its taproot more than 100 feet into the ground for a taste of water.
Osburn and Dean drive deeper into the desert, their powerful cars bouncing like irregular heartbeats. Each trunk brims with supplies: thick, rough blankets. First-aid kits. Packs of socks from Costco. And, above all, plastic, clear, gallon jugs, “because dehydration is the number one killer for the migrants,” Osburn reminds anyone who asks.
Like a majority of Arizona residents, Richard Osburn is not native.
He escaped his hometown in the midwest as soon as he could, joining the army at 18 because “if I never see Indiana again, it’ll be too soon.”
One morning in the early 2000s, Osburn had ridden his motorcycle into Tombstone, a frozen-in-time Arizona town dotted with saloons, when a newspaper headline caught his eye. That day, the front page of the Tombstone Epitaph featured a story about the Minuteman Project. The militia group formed in 2004, burrowing into the desert like the Samaritans. But unlike the Samaritans, they had formed to keep the migrants out.
Osburn peered at the paper. It was the first copy he ever bought.
“These people were, I mean, it sounded horrible,” Osburn said.
To combat the Minuteman Project, Osburn joined the ACLU as a legal observer. He watched for any abuses against migrants as Minuteman volunteers flocked to the border, often dressed in military fatigues.
On the morning of 9/11, years before establishing the Minuteman Project, Jim Gilchrist was still sleeping when a friend called to tell him the news.
“I said, ‘No. you’re kidding. Come on,’” Gilchrist remembers.
Originally, the 9/11 attackers had entered the country legally— though some of their visas had expired. None of them entered through the border. But the attack drove Gilchrist to establish the most well-known border vigilante group in American history.
“That’s when I got on the internet to figure out how could this happen? How could something worse than Pearl Harbor happen here?” he said.
Like Osburn, Gilchrist had enlisted in the army, joining two months after graduating high school. He entered combat in Vietnam and won a purple heart. He returned to the states, where as a white man, he said he began noticing racial tension.
“There was also a sense of hostility that seemed to be mutual where no race, color, creeds really fully felt comfortable with the other race color or creed,” Gilchrist said.
Several years after 9/11, Gilchrist was scribbling ideas on a napkin when the word came to him: minuteman.
He sent out an email to 44 people, calling for volunteers to come to the border. At the top, he wrote in capitalized letters, “PLEASE FORWARD.”
The movement unfurled into a nationwide following, with up to 12,000 members.
In April of 2005, about 1,000 volunteers gathered along Arizona’s southern desert. They stayed for a month, some living in the dormitory of an old, discarded Bible college. They brought lawn chairs and protein bars and AR-15s.
“I was elated, also, that I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I felt,” Gilchrist added.
As more volunteers arrived, Gilchrist handed out a list of rules on postcard-sized slips of paper. Participants were not to use physical force with any migrants. The protocol was to call Border Patrol.
“It worked out good, there was no incident. There were several rules,” Gilchrist said, more than a decade later. “I just know that it was, ‘do no harm and whatever you do, stay within the law.’ No exceptions.”
After this widely publicized month on the border, the Minuteman Project split into two factions. Co-founder Chris Simcox continued organizing border stakeouts, while Gilchrist, a former newspaper reporter, sought out the press.
“And I’ve succeeded a hundred fold,” Gilchrist added.
Almost indulgently, he lists several of the hundreds of interviews he’s done: Larry King, Bill O’Reilly, Don Lemon, to name a few. The Southern Policy Law Center categorizes The Minutemen Project as a nativist extremist group. Gilchrist considers it activism.
“The goal wasn’t, it wasn’t to go down to the border to kill Mexicans. It wasn’t to beat people to death or commit any kind of violence,” Gilchrist said.
But that wasn’t always the case.
In 2009, the Minuteman Project came under fire when Shawna Forde, broke into an Arivaca home to murder Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter, Brisenia. Both were U.S. citizens. While Forde wasn’t a member of The Minuteman Project, Gilchrist had met her three times. In the years leading up to the murder, Forde was forming her own vigilante group, Minutemen American Defense.
Gilchrist maintains that he never encouraged violence. By 2011, Forde was sentenced to death row, where she remains currently. Her accomplices, Jason Eugene Bush and Albert Gaxiola, were sentenced to death and two life terms, respectively.
“They all deserve it. They did the crime. They murdered two people,” Gilchrist said.
Osburn was headed to a coffee shop in Arivaca when he noticed the writing on a woman’s T-shirt: “Samaritans.” A group of motorcyclists were speaking to her; they weren’t happy.
“They were using the I-word,” Osburn remembered. “‘Illegals,’ or whatever, you know, ‘I call the border patrol and blah blah blah.’”
Osburn approached the woman, and asked how he could get involved. Ten years later, an active member of the Samaritans, he continues to drive through Arizona, wearing a white-and-red T-shirt that reads “present in the desert.”
As they tread through, the Samaritans come across past jugs of water that have not been opened. Some have been slashed by possible vandals. But when Osburn sees that a bottle has been opened and used, he feels the Samaritans have made an impact.
“I feel that maybe we saved somebody’s life,” he said. “It kind of, you know, is a reinforcement that we got to keep doing this.”
Osburn and Dean finally park along what they call a “migrant trail,” the pathways used by immigrants and smugglers. The trails, faintly carved into the landscape, seem to fade into nothingness.
The sun is inching higher. And, there are no migrants to be found: to avoid the blistering, dry heat, they often travel at night.
Hauling jugs from the back of their trucks, Osburn and Dean tuck the containers of water beneath crates to prevent animal damage. They drive, and stop, and leave water about nine times. And, they stop to pick up old water bottles.
After hours of driving and stopping, of muttering and the adjusting of hats and the occasional pointing out of a mountain that you might want to try hiking sometime, Osburn and Dean have finished.
Photos, writing and audio created by Angela Gervasi.