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A Wing and a Prayer For Migrants

A Texas-based group of volunteer pilots is trying to keep immigrants from dying in the desert while crossing the treacherous U.S.-Mexico border.
 
 
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Every year, thousands of illegal Mexican immigrants make the arduous trek across the dry lands of the Southwest in an attempt to enter the U.S., risking their lives in order to perform work most Americans wouldn't dream of doing. Those who make the journey face days of walking in the burning desert sun with sketchy directions, little water and supplies, and temperatures that regularly exceed 100 degrees.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, in the last year over 229 migrants in Arizona alone died of dehydration and heatstroke while attempting to make the trip. While armed Minutemen patrol the border with guns, El Paso-based Paisanos Al Rescate (Countrymen To the Rescue) use an aging Cessna plane to deliver water and hope to desperate people facing a slow death in the desert. San Francisco-based engineer Luis Rivas, a volunteer with the organization, spoke recently about the group's work.

What does Paisanos al Rescate do?

Luis Rivas: Paisanos al Rescate is a humanitarian organization comprised of volunteer pilots and non-pilots dedicated to reducing the number of needless deaths of those crossing the Arizona & New Mexico deserts.

We fly north of the border in our private aircraft searching for folks crossing the desert. Once found, we then drop 2-liter bottles of water attached to parachutes. The parachutes contain important information such as the symptoms of heat stroke and dehydration. The chutes also include instructions on how to signal the aircraft for help. Once the signal for help is given, the Border Patrol will immediately be notified so that the person(s) can be rescued.

Where did the idea for starting Paisanos al Rescate come from?

Our founder, Armando Alarcon, was alarmed at the ever-increasing number of deaths by heat stroke and dehydration that were occurring along the border near El Paso Texas. Coincidentally Armando was learning to how to fly and it was during one of his lessons over the New Mexico desert that he came up with the idea of dropping bottles of water to those lost, abandoned or otherwise in distress.

Armando's decision to turn his idea into a reality came when he learned of a young girl who sprained her ankle while crossing the desert and was abandoned by the smuggler (coyote). The coyote later notified the girl's relatives who then contacted the Border Patrol, but the poor girl succumbed to the heat before the Border Patrol could rescue her.

What are some of the dangers of crossing the border?

Being ill equipped for the summer heat can cost one their life. The temperatures of the desert floor often reach more than 110F during the summer months. A person can easily succumb to heat stroke, dehydration, and there is also the threat of rattlesnakes or the unscrupulous coyote.

Disorientation is another danger. Many start off at sunset to avoid the daytime heat. At night the desert is pitch black and it is not uncommon for a person to lose their bearings and walk deeper into the desert. The elderly, the very young, or those that are basically unfit struggle with the strain of walking with a backpack, an inadequate supply of water.

What sort of obstacles or problems did Paisanos al Rescate encounter when you first started doing this?

First off, Armando did not own an airplane so that was the first hurdle that we had to overcome. Armando purchased with his own funds a Cessna 172. Armando did not know how to fly, so he had to find a pilot that would fly the Cessna until Armando earned his pilot's license. We did not know the best way to deliver the water to people on the ground so various methods were tried before we settled on a parachute system.

Fund-raising and getting the word out about what we were doing was challenging. Until just recently we were funding the entire program ourselves, which includes purchase of the aircraft, fuel, maintenance, supplies etc. Finding volunteers and sponsors that are committed to furthering our cause is also an obstacle we face.

What have been some of the most memorable experiences you've had while flying missions?

The most memorable experience happened recently while we were on the ground. We took a couple of journalists to the small town of Las Chepas Mexico. Las Chepas is a launching point for those seeking to cross into New Mexico. We encountered a group of 11 young men ranging in age from 16-32 years, with the majority in their teens and early 20s. They were all from the same town of Durango, Mexico. These men had tried working close to home but the jobs paid a meagerly wage that would not allow them to support themselves or a family. So they all decided to make the trek into the States together.

These were young men filled with promise, who did not want to leave their homes, family or friends. Economic circumstances being what they are convinced them that their only hope was to make the dangerous journey across the desert. We watched them rub their shoes and pants with garlic to ward off the rattlesnakes, don their backpacks, make the sign of the cross, pick up a 1 gallon jug of water in each hand and literally march off into the sunset.

From whom do most of your donations come?

Private parties. We did receive over $15k from a gentleman who wishes to remain anonymous. We were told that he was raised in Juarez and his mother used to cross over and work in El Paso to support their family. We have received inquiries from foundations that would like to contribute to our cause, which we will follow up on.

Does Paisanos al Rescate ever come into conflict with the Border Patrol or other such government agencies?

No. Andy Adame, a Border Patrol spokesman, was quoted as saying that we are one of the better humanitarian organizations out there. We work in cooperation with the BP. We will notify the BP if we encounter anyone in distress. The BP will send the BORSTAR team (Search and Rescue) and provide aid to those in distress.

Giselle Velazquez is a recent graduate of the journalism department at San Francisco State University.