DOVER – Every year, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Belinda Lentz leaves her home to travel to Arizona, where she provides support for migrants crossing the country’s southern border through the Sonoran Desert.
She works with an aid group whose members occupy diverse points on the political spectrum.
“Some of them think that the migrants have no business crossing our borders and coming into our country,” Lentz said. “Some of them believe that we should be standing at the border, welcoming them with open arms. No matter what opinion they have, they still work together. Their main goal is to save lives on the desert.”
As of November, 3,790 immigrants have died trying to cross the Arizona / Sonoran Desert, according to Humane Borders, Inc., a nonprofit that makes water and other lifesaving resources available to migrants on both sides of the border.
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Lentz, director of Christian education at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Dover, shared her experiences at the border on Tuesday at the Dover Public Library.
She talked about people she met, including a man who crafts brightly-colored crosses he plants in the desert to mark the places where migrants have died.
Lentz helped to install a cross for a young woman named Rosalia, who passed while traveling.
“She had given her daughters the last of her water, then she died,” Lentz said. “No one knows what happened to her daughters. And that was 20 years ago.”
Lentz talked about the medical examiner of Pima County, Arizona, whose office works to identify the deceased and provide closure to their families.
She talked about a man who went before an immigration judge and asked if he could be imprisoned in North Carolina, because that’s where his children were. Another asked to be sent to the same prison as his brother, who appeared at the same mass immigration hearing.
She showed photos of a makeshift kitchen that fed 100 people every morning. At the feeding station, a nun tries to discourage people from trying to cross.
There are many ways to die in the attempt. Lentz told the story about one woman who scaled the border wall, only to die after she became trapped upside down. A man died after falling and breaking his leg. On one side of the spot where he died, there were people working in a copper mine. On the other side, there were houses with lights on.
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Lentz described the border wall as a place so deadly that even butterflies cannot survive. She relayed a story about how Monarchs making their annual migration couldn’t figure out what to do at the wall. They hovered about eight feet from the ground, then fell down dead.
She also described touching scenes at the border wall, where loved ones on either side will sneak a hand through to touch each other. The wall has also become a canvas for artistic expression about the barrier itself.
But for those who do try to make the trip, there are many who offer help, like the woman who passes out tiny compasses.
Lentz recalled meeting a Honduran who was trying to meet with a brother in Tijuana, Mexico who had a job for him. But he lacked the money for a bus ticket because he had been robbed. Members of the aid group gave from their own funds to support his continued travel.
Migrants are most likely to travel at night, Lentz said. The desert is dangerously hot in the day and dangerously cold at night. People who traverse the desert after dark risk being attacked by animals, tripping on rocks, falling into holes and being pierced by cactus needles that can work their way through shoes and clothes.
Relief workers visit the desert in the morning look for stragglers who couldn’t keep up with the human smugglers who guide migrants through the desolate and deadly landscape. Volunteers take water to the desert in the morning to beat the heat.
Aid workers are prohibited from transporting the migrants, Lentz said. If they find them in distress they have three legal options: Offer comfort, give supplies or call US Border Patrol.
With all the perils posed by trying to make a border crossing, why do people continue to do it?
Lentz said some are running from cartels and gangs who threaten to kill and maim adults and children.
“They are running from those who chop off fingers and kill sons and brothers and husbands and fathers, sometimes in front of their children,” Lentz said. “They want a better life for their children. They want safety.”
She recalled hearing about one young boy who was ordered to move the body of his father after witnessing his murder.
“You and I, we’re all immigrants,” Lentz said. “My family is German and Welsh. My great-greats came to this country for a better life. No matter how you feel about immigration, and the issues of the southern border, those migrants are human beings. They are God’s children, too. ”