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1st-Generation Mexican American Attempts To Save Migrant Lives In The Arizona Desert

Jun 21, 2019
Originally published on June 21, 2019 9:54 am

Many dangers await migrants who attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. Hundreds die each year, faced with dehydration, hypothermia and drowning. Many more go missing along the route, separated from their group.

Maria Ochoa is part of an organization called the Tucson Samaritans. She helps migrants along the way who are stranded or in danger. She brings them food, water and medical assistance.

In a StoryCorps interview from 2016, Ochoa spoke about her work to make migrants' journey safer and to treat them with dignity and humanity.

"If you fall and you sprain an ankle or you break an arm, or something like that, you can no longer keep up with the group, so they leave you behind," Ochoa said. "And if you can't move and you lay there for a while, there's vultures circling all the time. And I have stopped and walked towards where they're circling to see: Is it an animal that they're circling or is it a person that's out there?"

Maria Ochoa walks one of the trails she monitors with the Tucson Samaritans.
Camila Kerwin / StoryCorps

Ochoa will ask migrants if they are experiencing any pain. If they respond affirmatively, the Samaritans will call for help — and sometimes that means calling U.S. Border Patrol.

After giving individuals something to eat and drink, Ochoa must leave them behind.

"That is the saddest thing. You want to help them, especially when they tell you, 'Well, just take me to town and I can have somebody come and get me from there' and you can't do it," Ochoa said. "You can't do it because if you should get stopped by Border Patrol, you can end up in prison."

The organization says it does not transport migrants or operate on private land but frequently calls family members of migrants, aids money transfers, provides medical aid and supplies clothing, food and water.

Volunteers have helped thousands of migrants in need of medical care, according to the Samaritans. Still, the group has not been able to help every migrant in need.

A particular story continues to resonate with Ochoa after 17 years of service with the Samaritans.

"The one that always comes to my mind is searching for a 19-year-old young woman that was seven months pregnant, traveling with her husband," Ochoa said. "She was tired and couldn't keep walking any longer, so the group left them behind."

"They looked for a shady spot where she could stay. The husband left her there to try and find help; he got a little bit lost, but finally found a Border Patrol officer and they went back to look for her and she was gone."

Despite four or five weekends of searching, the Samaritans were never able to locate Grecia, the missing young woman.

Part of the reason Ochoa dedicates so much time to assisting migrants is her personal connection to the journey.

"I come from an immigrant family," said Ochoa, a 70-year-old grandmother. "My mother herself crossed into the U.S. when she was 12 years old. I have family on both sides of the border. And we can't generalize and say they're all, you know, bad people, because they are not."

Though the work is taxing, her motivation remains clear.

"If we can save one life, our work is worth it," Ochoa said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kelly Moffitt and Von Diaz.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. For the past 17 years, Maria Ochoa has ventured into the Arizona desert to try to help people crossing the border from Mexico, people who find themselves stranded or in danger. She also searches for those who've gone missing. She came to StoryCorps in Tucson, Ariz., with her friend and fellow volunteer Alma Schloor (ph).

MARIA OCHOA: If you fall and you sprain an ankle or you break an arm or something like that, you can no longer keep up with the group, so they leave you behind. And if you can't move and you lay there for a while, there's vultures circling all the time. And I have stopped and walked towards where they're circling to see is it an animal that they're circling or is it a person that's out there? Whenever we have found a person in the desert, we ask, are you in any pain? When was the last time you ate or drink anything? Or do you know where you're at? If they're OK, then we hand them food and water and we leave them there. If they're not OK, we call for help.

ALMA SCHLOOR: What does it feel like when you have to leave people?

OCHOA: That is the saddest thing. You want to help them, especially when they tell you, well, just take me into town and I can have somebody come and get me from there. And you can't do it. You can't do it because if you should get stopped by Border Patrol, you can end up in prison.

SCHLOOR: Is there anyone you still think about?

OCHOA: The one that always comes to my mind is searching for a 19-year-old young woman that was seven months pregnant travelling with her husband. She was tired and couldn't keep walking any longer, so the group left them behind. They looked for a shady spot where she could stay. The husband left her there to try and find help. He got a little bit lost but finally found a Border Patrol officer, and they went back to look for her, and she was gone. We went out four or five weekends searching in the desert. We never found her. Her name was Grecia. My whole life - I mean, I come from an immigrant family. My mother herself crossed into the U.S. when she was 12 years old. I have family on both sides of the border. And we can't generalize and say they're all, you know, bad people because they're not.

SCHLOOR: What do you like the most about doing this work?

OCHOA: One of the greatest satisfactions has been being able to help people. Keep them from dying - that's the most important part. If we can save one life, our work is worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDRIK'S "MILO")

INSKEEP: That was Maria Ochoa speaking with her friend, Alma Schloor, about her work with the Tucson Samaritans. Their StoryCorps conversation will be archived, along with hundreds of thousands of others, at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDRIK'S "MILO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.