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Ariz. volunteer medical responders care for illegal immigrants

TUCSON, Ariz. For the fourth straight summer, the humanitarian organization No More Deaths will have volunteers patrolling near Arivaca in southern Arizona hoping to prevent illegal immigrants from dying as they cross the desert.

Organizers expect about 600 volunteers including physicians, nurses and other health professionals to participate over the summer, like last year, with a permanent desert camp east of the small community of Arivaca. But they've added a few new wrinkles in their latest campaign to keep migrants alive.

In recent years, Arizona has been the busiest point along the U.S.-Mexico border for illegal entry, and it also has recorded the most deaths because of the hostile terrain and brutal triple-digit temperatures that await those crossing its desert regions.

More than 20 volunteers have taken an abbreviated emergency medical training course to become Wilderness First Responders, to be able to provide first aid such as treating ankle sprains or severe blisters.

In addition, volunteers using a camper will set up a mobile base camp north of Arivaca, moving to a new site every few days, with patrols twice a day systematically checking back roads and trails mapped with global positioning, said the Rev. Bob Carney, a Catholic priest from Tucson.

"We'll be working in an area that we're quite familiar with," volunteer Steve Johnston added. "We spent the winter traveling the back roads north of Arivaca and mapping the trails." He said patrols will work on foot, by mountain bike and in two four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Relations between No More Deaths and the Border Patrol were frayed the past two summers after federal authorities charged two immigrant-aid workers with transporting illegal immigrants to get medical care.

But indictments against the two were dismissed by a federal judge.

Carney called a recent meeting Robert Gilbert, the new chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, encouraging "because he listened.

"He also said that humanitarian aid in the desert is a necessity. It kind of said to us that as long as we operate with transparency, within protocol, we're aboveboard, that our presence out there would not be a threat to what the Border Patrol is doing," Carney added.

Other No More Deaths volunteers with the first-aid training have been working with a Sonoran state commission at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales to aid illegal immigrants have voluntarily returned to Mexico after being caught by the Border Patrol.

Many are dehydrated and most need some type of treatment or aid, but a great number are too shy or humble to ask for help, said volunteer Jim Walsh.

During the last fiscal year, according to Border Patrol statistics, 220 people died crossing the Arizona border. It was the first time in several years that fewer people died than the year before.

"We deeply hope one day soon that our services will no longer be needed," Carney said.

The Rev. Gene Lefebvre said the mobile site will be "easily moved to be an appropriate place for the migrant traffic. And it's going to be a small operation and very flexible."

Migrants change their traffic patterns depending on enforcement and drugs, among other factors, Lefebvre added.

Because the location of the No More Deaths operations is close to where federal authorities are placing a virtual fence consisting of high-tech towers with radar, sensors and cameras to detect illegal border crossers, "we'll know first what the effect of those are -- how the migrants respond, move, decrease or whatever," Lefebvre said.

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