Stepped-up efforts to fight disappearance

  • Our help line for lost border crossers and their families launched July 10. Five trained search-and-rescue/search-and-recovery (SAR) operators field the calls. There have been almost 300 calls so far.
  • Volunteers worked with Águilas del Desierto, the Ajo Samaritans, and migrant-rights advocates in Sonora to bring about the recovery of 20 individuals’ remains.

Kayla DeVault spent the month of April as a desert-aid volunteer. During that time, she participated in a search in the Growler Valley, part of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge west of Ajo. During searches, volunteers must hike for many miles, often in grueling heat. Whenever they find human remains—those of the person they are looking for or of someone else—they must contact the county sheriff to initiative the recovery process. Kayla describes her SAR experience this way:

The beauty of the Sonoran Desert is pristine as you drive along. Then you step out of the air-conditioned truck, strap six gallons of water on your back, and the illusion is shattered. After just an hour, you find yourself drinking rapidly, not just because you’re thirsty but because you’re desperate to lighten your load.

Who would choose this?

When we had gotten the call that a man was missing in the Growler Valley—that the Border Patrol had given up searching—we were anxious to deploy our small group in the most systematic way we could. Grappling with tense relationships to receive our Cabeza Prieta permits proved a frustrating setback. It paled in comparison to the victim’s situation.

Thousands of scenarios played in our heads: He was older, but healthy. He could be long gone . . . hiding . . . injured, too thirsty to cry out.

The man was last seen in the middle of the night, working his way through the valley to Charlie Bell Well. He had gone in search of water for his two comrades; but Border Patrol agents found the two men the next day. Perhaps they were processed and deported before the man even suspected something had happened.

As we trekked through the heat waves, vultures overhead only made our stomachs lurch. Thousands of scenarios played in our heads. He was older, but healthy. He could be long gone . . . hiding . . . injured, too thirsty to cry out.

Around sparse trees, evidence of human activity. How long does it take a can of beans to fade in the sun? This one’s been eaten. This one’s been slashed.

Shouting his name. Wanting closure.

Someone cries, “Bones!” The line halts. A tight grid search confirms a dismembered limb, but is it human? We hope the sheriff comes.

Only three hours in and we already need a break. I imagine the missing man’s strength. No one would do this without a real cause. Who would choose this?

Then I think: My dad would. He would do anything for his family. But fate let him be born north of the border.

The man is no longer “a migrant”; I see my dad’s mustached face. Lying in a ditch. Hiding in a mountain lion’s den. Are we his last chance?

The man is my dad. I cry out.

We never did get closure. Like so many families never get closure, we never got closure.

We are actively seeking new volunteers to work as phone-line operators. If you speak Spanish and would like more information, please visit our website to email the SAR coordinator.