With migrant deaths approaching levels not seen in years, humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona say that the U.S. Border Patrol is using Covid-19 as a pretext to quietly dump large numbers of immigrants in one of the most remote and potentially dangerous communities in the Sonoran Desert.
Volunteers who have visited the dusty community of Sasabe, in the Mexican state of Sonora, in recent weeks, say that they have witnessed U.S. immigration agents continually off-loading large groups of people throughout the day, overwhelming the town’s limited immigration resources and placing individuals at significant risk of being targeted by organized criminal groups.
Rodriguez and a growing group of humanitarian volunteers began turning their attention to Sasabe in mid-September, making biweekly visits to bring food and water to migrants after learning of the explosion in arrivals to the resource-strapped community. With a population of approximately 2,500 and a single town store, the port of entry at Sasabe has long been described as one of the quietest official crossings in the state. There is no migrant shelter in the town, and the influence and power of organized crime in the area is well known.
View of the border between Mexico and the U.S in the community of Sasabe in Sonora state, Mexico, on January 13, 2017.
Photo: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
In recent visits, Rodriguez has been joined by Sister Judy Bourg, a nun with the Sisters of Notre Dame, and Gail Kocourek, a volunteer with the Green Valley Samaritans, one of Arizona’s longstanding humanitarian groups. The women told The Intercept that they have personally seen groups of migrants numbering in the dozens gathered outside of Sasabe’s tiny immigration office. Through a visit to a local stash house and conversations with local contacts, the women were told that the Border Patrol is dropping upwards of 100 to 120 people in the community each day.
“We totally didn’t expect this,” Kocourek, a longtime volunteer in the Sasabe area, told The Intercept. “We’ve got hungry people being dumped into this community by the hundreds.” Kocourek added that Border Patrol enforcement activity in the area is unlike anything she has ever seen before. “It’s just tremendous right now,” she said. “I’ve never seen so much activity in that area.”
Operating under an order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in March the Border Patrol began rapidly expelling migrants at the border in the name of defending against the spread of Covid-19. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, however, pressure to enact the order did not come from public health officials, but instead from Stephen Miller, the president’s ultra-hardline immigration adviser. Miller, who recently contracted Covid-19 himself, has long sought to connect immigrants to disease as means to close off immigration at the border.“We’ve got hungry people being dumped into this community by the hundreds.”
It’s not only Mexican nationals who are being dropped in Sasabe, Rodriguez said, noting that she had she met Salvadorans, Hondurans, and a father from Guatemala, who had been expelled with his 16-year-old son, during recent visits. “I understand when there are tons of people in Nogales and in Tijuana and in Sonoyta,” she said, referring to more well-known border communities where the Border Patrol often deposits migrants. “But they have resources — even if they’re limited, there are some resources. But in Sasabe, it’s nothing.”
Rodriguez and the other advocates say that the expulsions are making an already dangerous situation worse. Following a blistering hot summer — in Phoenix, the hottest in recorded history — more human remains have been recovered in the Arizona desert this year than at any point since 2013. On top of the rising death toll, the expulsions have come at a time of escalating tension in the desert, with the Border Patrol executing two militarized raids on a humanitarian aid station in the region in three months, federal agents arresting and tear-gassing Indigenous activists protesting border expansion on sacred lands, and the state’s for-profit immigration detention centers becoming some the nation’s leading hot spots for Covid-19.
Generally lasting no more than a couple hours from encounter to removal, the so-called Title 42 expulsions have radically altered the shape of migration and immigration enforcement along the border. The Border Patrol has long relied on a deterrence strategy that funnels migrants into the border’s deadliest terrain, pushing its land checkpoints deeper into the interior of the country and forcing migrants to walk further into the desert in the hopes of linking up with a ride. Agents will sometimes track a group of migrants for days before making an arrest, allowing physical exhaustion to assist in their apprehension efforts. Now, with the expulsions in effect, those exhausted migrants can be swiftly booted from the country. According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the government has expelled more than 147,000 people along the southwest border using the order.Read Our Complete CoverageThe War on Immigrants
While Mark Morgan, the senior official performing the duties of the commissioner of CBP, has described the expulsions as a “game changer,” advocates say that the expulsions rob migrants of due process rights and subject them to extreme danger when their removals involve being dumped in unfamiliar and remote communities with entrenched organized crime. Bourg, who has spent a decade providing humanitarian on the border, told The Intercept that the expelled migrants whom she met on a recent visit to Sasabe looked physically depleted. “They came in beat-up looking,” she said. Their eyes were red and glassy, she added. “They didn’t just cross and walk for half a day.”
In the past week, The Intercept has repeatedly requested a breakdown of the Border Patrol’s data on expulsions in the agency’s Tucson sector, as well as an interview with an official who could explain how determinations are made as to which ports migrants will be expelled through. The Border Patrol has provided neither. In April, an agency spokesperson acknowledged that Sasabe was seeing a “mild uptick” in expulsions but provided no numbers to assess the claim.
Immigrants walk in line through the Arizona desert near Sasabe, Sonora state, in an attempt to cross the Mexican-U.S. border, on April 6, 2006.
Photo: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images
A Grim Milestone
While the Border Patrol’s expulsion protocol remains unclear, what is evident is that 2020 has been a particularly deadly year for migrants attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert. For years, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has shared its data on suspected migrant death cases with Humane Borders, a humanitarian group that charts the data on an interactive online map.
As of this week, the medical examiner’s office has logged 181 cases of suspected migrant deaths recovered in its area of operations this year. The last time the office saw a higher total was in 2013, when 186 sets of human remains were recovered. The record for most human remains recovered in a single year was set in 2010, when 224 were found. With two and a half months yet to go in the year, advocates worry that 2020 could exceed that grim milestone.
“I think by the end of year, it’ll be the highest since 2010,” Mike Kreyche, the mapping coordinator with Humane Borders, told The Intercept. “I hope we don’t get up that high, but I think we’re going to approach it.”This year, there has been a marked increase in the recovery of remains indicating a recently deceased individual, particularly in the brutally hot summer months.
What’s particularly alarming about this year’s data, Kreyche explained, is the column of information labeled “postmortem interval,” the estimated amount of time between an individual’s death and the discovery of their remains. In recent years, that number has generally been more than six to eight months — in some cases, remains discovered in the field could be years old. This year, however, there has been a marked increase in the recovery of remains indicating a recently deceased individual, particularly in the brutally hot summer months. In September, roughly two thirds of the recoveries recorded by the medical examiner’s office suggested a death in the prior three months. Overall, the 2020 data show that more than half of the recoveries of suspected migrant remains — 107 of 181 cases — indicate a death that occurred at some point less than six to eight months prior.
“There have been a lot more deaths,” Kreyche said, “particularly recent deaths.”
Montana Thames, a volunteer with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, said the past several months have been “very active” for volunteers providing aid on the ground. With temperatures continuously breaking 100 degrees, “people need help, people need aid,” Thames told The Intercept. “There have been a lot of people who haven’t made it.”
Last week, the Border Patrol raided No More Deaths’ humanitarian aid station outside of Arivaca, Arizona, approximately 25 miles northeast of Sasabe, for the second time in three months. The first raid was launched in the middle of a heat wave and featured members of the Border Patrol’s tactical team, known as BORTAC, pointing rifles while agents slashed through the organization’s tents with knives, confiscated sensitive medical records and dumped out gallon jugs of water.
Efforts to engage in a dialogue with the Border Patrol since then went nowhere, Thames said, and last Monday night BORTAC was again deployed in a heavily militarized operation that involved agents in night-vision goggles trashing the organization’s belongings. Twelve migrants were arrested, including some who were chased through Arivaca before being taken into custody. While the raid was “shocking” and unacceptable, Thames noted, “This is literally the everyday reality of migrants and undocumented communities in general.”RelatedAs the Coronavirus Descended on the Border, the Trump Administration Escalated Its Crackdown on Asylum
Rodriguez visited Sasabe the morning after the raid on the No More Deaths camp. She described witnessing multiple rounds of expulsions and said that at one point, as many as 50 people were gathered outside the overwhelmed Mexican immigration office. She was told that some of the migrants in town that day were among those arrested in the raid the previous night. Rodriguez spoke to one young man from El Salvador. His shoes were tattered, and his toes poked through at the ends. He said that he had spent 15 days in the desert. Rodriguez, who nearly died crossing the border as an asylum-seeker herself in 1980, was both moved and troubled by the young man’s story. “They are putting these people in the most horrible danger,” she said. “They have nothing.”
Driving back into the U.S. last Tuesday, Rodriguez and the other advocates encountered an enormous Border Patrol caravan heading south. “That road always has a lot of Border Patrol, but this was exceptional,” Bourg said. Rodriguez said the area was “like a war zone,” adding, “They’re running their own show over there and it’s a secret.”
Although humanitarian aid volunteers are now coordinating food and water supply runs sufficient to support 700 people in Sasabe each week, Rodriguez said more must be done. She believes the Border Patrol’s expulsions into the town need to stop.
“It’s like a playground for BP,” she said. “No one is making them accountable for this.”
A short walk from the border, in the Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora, sits a modest building packed with long, cafeteria-style tables. The comedor, as it’s known locally, is clean and inviting, with space for up to 60 guests. The walls are decorated with hand-painted images of Christ and his apostles, done in the style of a children’s book. Tucked away in one corner of the room are medical supplies, stacked and organized in plastic bins. Sister María Engracia Robles Robles, a nun with the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, floats from the kitchen into the common area, serving hot breakfast and lunch to anyone who needs it.
The comedor was born out of work Robles and two other nuns began in 2006. At the time, Arizona was the epicenter of migration along the border and the site of a major humanitarian crisis. While people headed north were dying in the desert in record numbers, a growing deportation machine was sending a steady flow of survivors to Nogales. The nuns began feeding the deportees out of the trunks of their cars. In 2008, they secured the property where the comedor now stands. Officially run by a coalition of organizations known as the Kino Border Initiative, its first iteration had no walls. There was no relief from the desert heat. When the monsoons came, the nuns walked through standing water to serve food.
years past, the guests were almost all recently deported Mexican men.
That’s no longer the case. Sitting in the corner of the comedor on a
bright, clear morning in late February, I watched as a long line of
families from Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries in Latin America
and across the world walked through the front door. They filled the
benches, packed shoulder to shoulder. Many came by bus from Ciudad
Juarez, crossing contested cartel territory where a Mormon family was
massacred just a few months prior.
Once the parents and kids were settled in, Sister Robles went around
the room asking them what they were thankful for. As I scribbled a man’s
answer in my notebook — to be with his daughter — a little girl in a
pink jumper handed me an empty tube of Chapstick, then a tiny figurine
of a woman in a green dress, then a broken blue crayon. She smiled as
she shared her treasures one by one. The girl and her sister were from
Chilpancingo, her mother later told me, a Mexican city in the state of
Guerrero, not far from the town where 43 students were disappeared by police in 2014. It was the violence, the mother said, that caused them to leave.
I was halfway through a three-week reporting trip from one end of the
border to the other when I stopped at the comedor. The aim of the trip
was to take stock of the Trump administration’s impact after three and a
half years in office, to spend time with those caught in the crosshairs
of the president’s policies, and to check in with the border-wide
network of immigration attorneys, humanitarian aid workers, and asylum
advocates by their side. From Matamoros to Juarez, from Nogales to
Tijuana, I had heard stories from asylum-seeking families who were
drowning in a system of punishment, power, and exclusion, vast in both
its scope and viciousness. They were running from one form of violence
into another, slamming headfirst into the most gleefully anti-immigrant
government in modern American history. Across the border, everyone
seemed to agree: This moment was different, and it was hard to imagine
that things could get any worse.The
coronavirus presented the architects of Trump’s border policies with
the pretext to shut down the border and choke off asylum once and for
The months that
followed upended that notion. The coronavirus presented the architects
of Donald Trump’s border policies with a remarkable opportunity, a
real-world emergency that would provide the pretext to shut down the
border and choke off asylum once and for all. With Covid-19 swiftly cast
as a foreign invader, the president, vying for reelection, returned to
the narrative that helped land him in the White House in the first
place. Border Patrol agents began throwing people back by the thousands,
tossing men, women, and children across the international divide
without a trace of due process. With hearings postponed and canceled,
the wait grew increasingly indefinite and uncertain for the roughly
60,000 individuals in the administration’s Remain in Mexico program,
many of them young families stuck in the continent’s most dangerous
cities — places where more than 1,000 people had already been kidnapped,
assaulted, or murdered.
With the administration pushing asylum-seekers back into Mexico,
jails and detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement
were becoming blackholes where it seemed the only way out was
deportation. By late February, three weeks before Trump declared the
coronavirus a national emergency, Linda Rivas, executive director of the
legal advocacy organization Las Americas in El Paso, Texas, was among a
small group of attorneys still making trips into Juarez to meet with
clients. “There are no eyes on the detention centers right now,” she
told me at the time. “The conditions are really deteriorating.”
For more than three decades, Las Americas has provided legal
representation to migrants. Rivas and her colleagues have seen their
share of suffering on the border. Still, she said, the Trump years had
managed to produce “some of the hardest, darkest, most difficult times
in our history.” Front-line advocates were reaching a breaking point.
“We need some level of hope,” Rivas said. “The question of what comes
next is utterly terrifying.”
An Unsettling Reality
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent
standing in the U.S. is seen from the Mexican side of the international
bridge as people wait to be allowed to cross into the country in
Matamoros, Mexico, on Feb. 13, 2020.
Photo: Veronica G. Cardenas for The Intercept
outside the comedor, I met Hushbaht Fahriev, a 29-year-old Muslim man
from Siberia. Fahriev explained how Islamophobic policing and skinhead
violence prompted him and his wife to grab their two toddler-aged
children and flee halfway around the world. Fahriev had been in Nogales
with the kids for five months. From a rented room not far from the
comedor, he was making progress teaching himself English and Spanish,
but there was no hiding that he was a foreigner. Just a couple weeks
earlier, five men wearing tactical vests and carrying assault rifles
stopped Fahriev as he was walking out of a corner store. They asked
where he was from.
“I told them I don’t speak Spanish well and I keep walking,” Fahriev
recalled. One of the men bashed him over the head with his weapon. The
man continued striking him as Fahriev tried to explain that he could not
communicate. The beating eventually stopped, and the men jumped into a
truck and sped off. Fahriev called the police and gave them the make and
model of the vehicle, as well as its license number. The police did
nothing with the information, he said. “Be careful,” Fahriev recalled
the cops saying. “Here is dangerous.”The
fact that a scaled-up, permanent base of operations was now considered
necessary confirmed an unsettling reality: The crisis wasn’t going
Across the street
from Kino’s old comedor stood the organization’s new, soon-to-be-opened
facility. The men’s dorm could house 70 people overnight. There was an
additional dorm for women and children, and another for transgender
travelers. A local quilting group donated handmade blankets for the
beds, and there were dedicated spaces for computer-aided job and English
training, mental health counseling, and legal support. Walking the
empty halls of the state-of-the-art shelter, it was clear that the
humanitarian community of Nogales had much to celebrate. Compared to the
refugee camp in Matamoros that I had visited a few days earlier, this
was like something from another dimension. Still, when volunteers began
their work in the city more than a decade ago, there was hope was that
the need would be temporary. The fact that a scaled-up, permanent base
of operations was now considered necessary confirmed an unsettling
reality: The crisis wasn’t going anywhere.
At around 2 p.m., a car pulled up outside the new shelter. The woman I was waiting for had arrived.
Dora Rodriguez was smiling as she opened her door. With chestnut hair
pulled back behind her head, she wore a royal blue shirt emblazoned
with the name of her organization: Salvavision.
“I’m never at my work!” Rodriguez said with a laugh, as she stepped
into the midday sun. Rodriguez is a full-time social worker. The border
work is her voluntary, chosen vocation. It was a Monday, which meant
that the 60-year-old was in the midst of her weekly routine, visiting
southern Arizona detention centers, where she provides translation
services for legal advocates and takes supplies across the border to
migrant shelters in Nogales. Through the windshield, I could see her
vehicle was stuffed with boxes and bags, overflowing with children’s
toys and personal hygiene items. Across the street, a line for lunch was
beginning to form at the comedor. Normally, Rodriguez radiates with a
warm and glowing smile, but when she turned to look at the growing crowd
of families, her demeanor turned grave. She had never seen anything
like it, she told me. Driving to a shelter deeper in Nogales, Rodriguez
pointed to a graveyard where a group of Honduran men had been sleeping
the last time she was in town. She recalled how one of the men told her
that his number in the Remain in Mexico waiting line was 4,425. She knew
his case was likely to fail. It was the same for just about everybody
coming to the border these days. It seemed nobody had the kind of
evidence the government was requiring.
Dora Rodriguez keeps donated items for
asylum-seekers in her home in Tucson, Ariz., on March 13, 2020. She
makes individual care packages from the donated items and then
distributes them on a weekly basis to asylum-seekers in Nogales, Mexico.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
“And even if they have it,” Rodriguez said, “it’s not enough — it’s just not what they’re doing at this moment.”
Winding through the back streets of the border town, Rodriguez
described a call she received last winter, when she was driving home
from one of the detention centers. It was a Tucson humanitarian aid
volunteer seeking help on a case involving an asylum-seeking family from
Venezuela. The family had managed to get paroled into the U.S., but
their daughter, who happened to turn 18 that day, did not, on the
grounds that she was now an adult. She was separated from her parents
and taken to detention. Nearly two months later, that’s where she
remained. “It was Christmas Eve,” Rodriguez said.
“There is no mercy,” she told me. “None.”
Mercy and Hardship
When Dora Rodriguez speaks of mercy and hardship on the border, she
does so from personal experience. The efforts she makes in the shelters
and the detention centers is her way of working through that experience.
In 1980, when Rodriguez was 19 years old, she fled El Salvador in
hopes of finding refuge in the United States. A civil war was raging.
The U.S.-backed regime was torturing, disappearing, and killing
civilians by the thousands. Rodriguez’s town came under government
attack. The head of her church youth group was murdered in front of her.
With three of her friends already disappeared, Rodriguez knew there was
no time to waste. She joined up with a group of refugees who were told
that, for a price, they could be safely taken across the border in
Arizona and flown to California.
On a scorching hot Fourth of July weekend, Rodriguez and more than
two dozen other refugees, including three sisters, ages 12, 14, and 16,
were taken into the Sonoran Desert. Expecting to be flown west, some of
the women brought rolling luggage and wore dresses and high heels. The
young sisters were told that they would be reunited with their mother.
The refugees were abandoned by their guide soon after they crossed.
They spent days wandering the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, one
of the most unforgiving landscapes in the Western hemisphere, in
120-degree temperatures. Their water was gone in no time, and they
resorted to drinking lotion, shaving cream, and their own urine.
Hallucination set in, and one by one they began to die. The hair on
Rodriguez’s head burned from the heat. Desperate and delirious, she
awoke on the sixth day to the sound of hooves and helicopters — a Border
Patrol rescue party. Of the 26 refugees who set off on the journey, 13
were dead. A photographer on hand for their dramatic rescue snapped an
image of Rodriguez, limp in a Border Patrol agent’s arms, that made
newspapers around the world.
Detail of a bracelet that says, “DORITA” that an asylum-seeker in an
ICE detention facility made out of plastic bags for Dora Rodriguez.
Right/Bottom: Rodriguez holds the only photograph she has of herself
from the days following her grueling journey through the Sonoran Desert
as a young asylum-seeker.Photos: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
deaths on Organ Pipe were a turning point in southern Arizona. The
tragedy exposed how the U.S. government was systematically and illegally
denying asylum to Salvadorans and Guatemalans — people fleeing
governments the United States was backing. Those denials sparked the
Sanctuary Movement, a campaign modeled after the Underground Railroad in
which faith leaders in Tucson defied the federal government and moved
thousands of refugees into houses of worship across the United States.
The movement’s founders went on to create some of Arizona’s most
well-established humanitarian organizations, which today work alongside
the Kino Border Initiative and Casas Alitas, a Tucson-based
organization, to provide care for border crossers in the Sonoran Desert.
Among them is No More Deaths, a collective of volunteers who leave
water for migrants crossing the desert and conduct search-and-recovery
operations in the borderlands, and whom Trump administration prosecutors
have repeatedly tried — and failed — to shut down and imprison.
Rodriguez’s integration into Arizona’s humanitarian scene was slow at
first. In the wake of their rescue, she and the other refugees were
held as material witnesses against their smugglers, before the
government moved to deport them back to El Salvador. None were given
asylum, though Rodriguez eventually gained citizenship through marriage.
She worked in fast-food restaurants and warehouses, took night classes,
and taught herself English. She put herself through college and had
five children, all U.S. citizens. For years, Rodriguez stayed quiet
about her story, a fact she attributes to an abusive marriage. When she
left that relationship, some 13 years ago, she began to find her voice.“This is how I really heal from my own experience. There is no way I would ever not do this.”
matters of immigration policy, Rodriguez’s view of Trump’s predecessor
is hardly rosy. The Obama administration deported more people than any
government in U.S. history, including more than 150,000 Salvadorans,
many with deep roots in the country. But when Trump descended his golden
escalator in Manhattan in 2015, announcing his run for president by
claiming that Mexico was sending “rapists” and criminals across the
border, Rodriguez felt a shift. Drawing from a politically potent well
of anti-immigrant hate, Trump would fuse racist rhetoric, including his
later talk of “shit-hole countries,” with a real-world crackdown.
Rodriguez wasn’t having it.
The election, for Rodriguez, was a turning point. In the spring of
2019, she returned to the patch of desert where she was rescued — this
time with a local news crew. “I told myself I cannot just keep my story
to myself anymore because my story brings volunteers, it brings people,”
she explained. That fall, Rodriguez flew to Washington, D.C. with No
More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren, a geographer whom the government was then trying to send to prison on felony smuggling charges. The case fell apart
in November, and the government abruptly dropped its remaining charges
in February. Rodriguez told lawmakers and human rights groups about her
experience of the humanitarian crisis on the border, both as an
asylum-seeker and an advocate. The moment was as urgent as any she had
ever seen and for her, inaction was out of the question.
“This is how I really heal from my own experience,” she told me. “There is no way I would ever not do this.”
Voices From the Desert
Dora Rodriguez receives donations from
Peggie Felici-Gessner, a volunteer at the Casa Alitas shelter that
caters to asylum-seekers in Tucson, Ariz., on March 14, 2020.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
The disembodied voices were piped in from private jails in the desert
outside of town. The judge stared into his lap, looking half-dead as he
repeated the same script over and over, pausing to allow a Spanish
translator to relay his words for each new detainee.
The voice that Rodriguez was waiting for would come from the
shrublands between Phoenix and Tucson, from a dusty community where
incarceration keeps the economy afloat and the biggest employer in town
is a for-profit prison corporation.
In the years leading up to Trump’s inauguration, La Palma
Correctional Center, run by the private prison giant CoreCivic and
located in the town of Eloy, Arizona, saw more deaths in custody than
any ICE detention center in the country — 15 in a 14-year period,
several of them suicides. Rodriguez was a regular visitor to the
facility through her translation work with Keep Tucson Together, an
immigrant rights legal collective. In the past year, she had become
particularly invested in the fate of one young man being held there, a
Salvadoran asylum-seeker named Francisco.
Rodriguez first learned of Francisco’s case through a documentary
film crew, who had uncovered the tragic story of a young man who died
attempting to cross Organ Pipe in 2019 — the same deadly stretch of
desert where Rodriguez and the others were rescued. In addition to a
wife and two young children, Oscar Alfredo Gomez left behind his best
friend at a shelter in the Mexican border town of Sonoyta — 26-year-old
Francisco. It was rare, Rodriguez told me, that she found a Salvadoran
in as dire of straits as Francisco. She insisted upon meeting the young
man.RelatedMass Immigration Prosecutions on the Border Are Currently on Hold. What Comes Next Is Uncertain.
could be my son,” Rodriguez told herself last August, when the two
finally met. “I have to help him.” From her home in Tucson, Rodriguez
kept up with Francisco in the weeks that followed, explaining through
text messages how she could help him get on his feet if he returned to
El Salvador. She implored him not to attempt a crossing — if anyone
understood the dangers of the desert, it was her. Francisco promised
that he wouldn’t do it but in late September, his messages stopped
coming. Days passed without word. “I went nuts,” Rodriguez recalled. She
called every organization she could think of. “I knew he was lost in
the desert.” Finally, in early October, she received a call from the
Salvadoran consulate: Francisco was alive and in U.S. custody at La
Palma. “That was, oh my God, the best news ever,” Rodriguez said, but
when she tried to reach Francisco’s uncle — who was living in the U.S.
and who Francisco believed would step forward as a legal sponsor — her
calls went unreturned and unanswered. Francisco, it seemed, was on his
When Rodriguez first came to the U.S. as a traumatized 19-year-old
with nobody to turn to, a Mexican family in Tucson took her in. She
lived with them for more than year. “They became my second family,” she
said. The kindness she was shown made the life she now lives possible.
Considering the situation Francisco was facing, Rodriguez asked the
legal team at No More Deaths, with whom she volunteers much of her time,
if she could step forward as a sponsor for an asylum-seeker. The answer
she received was yes.
Sitting on a bench in a window-less room in a courthouse in downtown
Tucson, waiting for Francisco’s name to be called, Rodriguez rustled
through her paperwork and took notes when the cases of men she knew came
up. She winced when a young man she had spoken to the day before
quietly requested his deportation — he couldn’t take it anymore, she
whispered to me.
of items that Dora Rodriguez collected in July 2019 from the site where
she was rescued in 1980 as a young asylum-seeker crossing the Sonoran
Desert. Rodriguez went back to the location with artist Alvaro Enciso in
order to lay a cross at the site.Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
the judge read Francisco’s name out loud. Rodriguez sat up tall when
his attorney noted her presence in the courtroom, an affirmation of her
willingness to act as his legal sponsor — of all the detainees whose
cases would be heard that day, Francisco was the only one with a lawyer
or support network present.
Rodriguez hoped her presence would sway the court to set a bond that
would be realistically payable. Her odds were not good — under Trump,
ICE’s propensity for keeping detainees locked up had exploded, and
immigration judges had shown themselves to be crucial allies in the
agency’s efforts. Francisco’s attorney implored the judge to set bond at
$3,000. The ICE prosecutor sought a payment of more than three times
that. The judge split the difference, setting a $7,000 bond.
Rodriguez was elated as she headed for the courthouse elevators —
this was an amount that could conceivably be raised. The question now
the people I met, the virus was background noise, barely audible over
the roar of the primary emergency: the state of the border itself.
Rodriguez applied herself to the task at hand, the country was slipping
ever faster into a moment of historic change. The implications of the
coronavirus were coming into focus. Deaths in Washington state were
mounting. The White House was receiving alarming intelligence detailing
the threat the Covid-19 posed, though the public wouldn’t learn about
the reports until weeks later. Still, for the people I met — from
Matamoros to Nogales to Tijuana — the virus was background noise, barely
audible over the roar of the primary emergency: the state of the border
When I drove out of Tucson on the final weekend of February, bound
for the West Coast, news broke of a major federal injunction halting the
Remain in Mexico program. Across the border, advocates and
asylum-seekers scrambled to respond. In Matamoros, families staying in
the refugee camp headed for the bridge to Brownsville, Texas. The force
field the Trump government was using to repel asylum-seekers had gone
down — how long it would last was anybody’s guess. Racing west along
Interstate 8, I drove straight for Tijuana.
It was dark by the time the families appeared at the El Chaparral
port of entry, asylum-seekers from across Central and South America.
With children bundled in their warmest winter coats, they hurried down
the corridor that led to the U.S. Many of the parents carried plastic
folders, stuffed with the critical documents that told their story.
Several clutched printed copies of the injunction. As they approached
the port entrance, a friend and fellow reporter read a piece of breaking
news aloud off his phone: The injunction had been stayed. Remain in
Mexico was back on. A handful of the families with grave medical
conditions were permitted entry. Most were not.
weekend began with asylum-seekers across the border believing that
change had finally come. By Monday, the hope was all but gone. The White
House was pushing forward with an ambitious plan to achieve a
longstanding goal: lockdown of the U.S. border with Mexico. Stephen
Miller, a senior White House adviser and principle architect of the
president’s immigration and border enforcement policies, had been
angling for way to link immigrants and disease as pretext for closing
off immigration to the U.S. for years. His trademark fearmongering was
all over Trump’s first major address on the coronavirus, broadcast from
the Oval Office on March 12, which began by establishing that the virus
was “foreign” before detailing a series of “sweeping travel restrictions” and laying blame on China and the European Union.
After weeks of ignoring and downplaying the disease, Miller and Trump had returned to the framing they knew best.
A Pandemic Pretext
Three days after Trump’s Oval Office address, Rodriguez hosted a pair
of film screenings at a church in Tucson, showcasing the documentary
that had first led her to Francisco’s story.
The fundraising efforts had been slow-going. If the people of Tucson
could just see Francisco’s face and hear his words, Rodriguez thought,
surely they would be moved to donate to his release. Unfortunately for
her, the fundraiser coincided with Gov. Doug Ducey’s declaration of a
state of emergency in Arizona. Just seven people showed up for the first
screening. Disappointed and believing that no one would show up for the
second, Rodriguez called it off.
The following day, the Trump administration suspended all social
visits to ICE detention centers. For those on the inside, it meant being
cut off from the outside world at a moment of skyrocketing fear and
anxiety, a time when the federal government’s own experts were warning
that immigration detention was a “tinderbox” for the spread of Covid-19.
For Rodriguez, it meant the loss of face-to-face interactions with
people she cared about, including Francisco.
If she could not physically visit the detention centers, Rodriguez
reasoned, she would organize a letter-writing campaign to assure the
people inside that they had not been forgotten, and she would keep
taking their phone calls.Do you have a coronavirus story you want to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use one of these secure methods to contact a reporter.
to desperate people at the end of their rope had always been the most
difficult part of Rodriguez’s work. As news of the virus reached the
people locked in ICE jails, it became all the more draining. Rodriguez
could hear the fear in their voices. With up to 150 people in a single
unit, the arrival of the virus was not a matter of if, but when. There
was no social distancing. Protests were met with retaliation. Meanwhile,
Rodriguez’s goal of securing Francisco’s freedom was still far out of
reach. After weeks of fundraising, she had pulled together about $3,000
in donations, a healthy sum but still far from what she needed.
As Rodriguez was pressing forward with her humanitarian work, the
White House announced that it would suspend all nonessential travel
across the border, citing a rule issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the 19 days after the rule was activated, the Border Patrol expelled nearly 10,000 people
from the country, including asylum-seekers, families, and unaccompanied
children, who in the past would have been protected from due
process-free removal under federal law. For the first time since 1980,
when Rodriguez and her companions fled north, asylum-seekers would be
summarily expelled from the country without an opportunity to make their
case. The interwoven cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora,
braced to see how the rule would impact their binational lives. “The
latest announcement uses the pandemic as a pretext to advance dangerous
goals,” the advocates at the Kino Border Initiative said in a statement.
“This is a moment to come together, recognize the ways in which we are
connected, and care for one another.”
Attendees watch a screening of the documentary “Deserted” by filmmaker Jason Motlagh at the Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tucson, Ariz., during a fundraiser on March 14, 2020 to help raise $7,000 to cover the bond for a young Salvadoran man in ICE detention.Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept’
wasn’t following the day’s news. On the morning Trump announced the
border shutdown, she received a call from No More Deaths: The
humanitarian group had decided to put up the remaining $4,000 for
Francisco’s bond. Overjoyed, Rodriguez collected the donations and
headed straight for La Palma. Sitting in her car in the detention center
parking lot, the hours ticked away. Day turned to night. At
approximately 9 p.m., a van pulled up. More than a half-dozen men were
piled inside, shackled at the wrists and ankles, despite the fact that
all were scheduled for release. Francisco was one of them.The decision to take Francisco in during the middle of a pandemic was logistically complicated but morally straightforward.
had stuffed the sum total of his belongings into a small plastic bag.
He was released without shoelaces or socks, which meant that his first
stop was the local Walmart. From there, Francisco was taken to his new
home, where Rodriguez already had a room ready. He broke down as he took
the space in. “I just can’t believe I’m out,” he said. “I can’t believe
I’m here.” Francisco had emerged from La Palma physically and
emotionally exhausted. For months, he worked in the detention center
kitchen earning $1 a day. With her children grown and moved out,
Rodriguez shares her small Tucson home with her husband. For the next
two weeks, all three stayed inside, quarantining themselves, talking and
For Rodriguez, the decision to take Francisco in during the middle of
a pandemic was logistically complicated — “We took the risk,” she
acknowledged — but morally straightforward. She didn’t think twice about
Dora Rodriguez participates in a car rally
in front of the CoreCivic detention center in Eloy, Ariz., on April 10,
2020. Activists demand that federal immigration authorities release all
detainees from the CoreCivic detention centre.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
By the time Francisco left La Palma, the men in his unit believed that
the coronavirus had already arrived. Their fears were soon confirmed. In
the weeks after Francisco’s release, La Palma and the adjacent Eloy
Detention Center became two of the country’s leading hot spots for
confirmed cases of Covid-19 in ICE custody, with more than 611 confirmed
cases as of this reporting.
In April, Rodriguez pulled on a mask and gloves and hopped in a car
with her husband. Together, they joined a raucous caravan of more than
100 vehicles that descended on the detention center. As the
demonstrators banged on pots and shouted to the people inside,
Rodriguez’s phone rang — it was Nicaraguan man, one of Francisco’s
friends, who was still locked inside. “Dorita!” he exclaimed. “We can
hear you guys!”
the detention centers’ walls, advocates fought an uphill battle against
soaring bonds and a system already predisposed to detention and
deportation. Along the way, Francisco practiced his English with a woman
Rodriguez knew from the humanitarian aid community. He spent a good
deal of time in the kitchen, showcasing his cooking skills for Rodriguez
and her husband. They bought him a bicycle, and he began to make
friends in Tucson. Eventually, Rodriguez helped Francisco find an
apartment and on June 1, he struck out on his own. He’s hoping to
receive a work permit this month. For Rodriguez, the work goes on.
At both Eloy and La Palma, more than 100 people in ICE custody wrote desperate letters in May and June,
undercutting the agency’s claims that the coronavirus was under control
and begging that they not be left to die. They described the numerous
health conditions that placed those in custody at heightened risk and
detailed detention center officials use of tear gas and pepper balls to
coerce compliance from detainees. “It’s so heartbreaking getting those
letters,” Rodriguez said. “You know they went through hell in there, and
they’re still there and we’re still fighting to get them out.”
Activists from across Arizona hold a car rally in front of the CoreCivic detention center in Eloy, Ariz., on April 10, 2020.Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
systematic and it’s punishment,” she added. “They want to break them.
They want to break the pattern of them coming and asking for
protection.” In the days of the Sanctuary Movement, asylum advocates
referred to the bonds immigration authorities placed on asylum-seekers
as “ransom money.” Forty years later, they remain one of the biggest
challenges Rodriguez and the organizations she volunteers with face. In a
conversation mid-summer, Rodriguez told me about the case of another
young man from El Salvador that she was working on. “He’s only 19,” she
said. “His bond is $30,000.”Paying bonds remains one of the biggest challenges Rodriguez and the organizations she volunteers with face.
in the hell are these people going to get this money?” she asked. “Even
us, as volunteers, as humanitarians, it’s impossible. I’m willing to
sign my credit, my bank account, whatever, and I tell them, I will sign
to get you out, but the down payment is $10,000.”
Not only is that an enormous amount of money for small,
volunteer-driven organizations to pull together, but it must now also be
raised at a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work and
millions of others are justifiably worried about their own financial
security and the health and well-being of their own families.
Dora Rodriguez spends time with her grandson, Elijah, in her home in Tucson, Ariz., on March 13, 2020.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
challenge is immense and it would be easy to look out at a network of
largely for-profit jails that chooses to lock away tens of thousands of
people, many of them asylum-seekers seeking refuge, in the middle of
global pandemic and conclude that nobody cares, but Rodriguez believes
that doing so would be a mistake. “There’s a whole army behind these
people,” she said. She is not wrong. The volunteers who pour time and
energy into a collective effort to resist the detention and deportation
machine are as much a fact of life on the border in the past four years
as anything Stephen Miller has accomplished so far. In the end, their
efforts might not be enough, but they are there and they are trying —
they were doing it before Trump came to office and they will continue
the work, if they must, when he’s gone. “That’s what really keeps me
going,” Rodriguez said. “I am not in this alone. I do this with a
community. I would never be able to do this alone.”
On Fourth of July weekend, Rodriguez returned to the stretch of
desert where she was rescued, and where the 13 men, women, and children
she was traveling with lost their lives 40 years ago. With the sun
blazing overhead, she retraced their steps the best she could and left a
cross to honor their memories. “It was a promise that we’re going to
continue,” she said. “We’re going to continue the fight. We cannot
With the virus ripping through ICE facilities, Rodriguez’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since we parted ways earlier this year — she estimates that she receives an average of 20 calls from people locked inside the detention centers each day. Not knowing if or when those individuals might call again, if it will be the last call they will ever make, she finds it impossible not to answer. She tells each of them the same thing: “You are not alone. We are here.”