SEARSMONT —Social work student Amy Tice said the experience of volunteering at a Mexican migrant resource camp and shelter “opened up a deep spot in my heart.”

Tice, a doctoral student studying remotely at the University of Southern California, said she has always been an experiential learner. “Last year, my partner and I wanted to see what was happening on the U.S.-Mexico border,” she said. “So we packed up our camper and our dogs,” and set off for southern Arizona.

Agua Prieta, Mexico, a border town in the Sonoran Desert just south of Douglas, Arizona, is where deported migrants are dropped off by the U.S. Border Patrol. About 100 people daily are sent back and filter through the little town, she said.

The nearby Migrant Resource Center, jointly run by the Douglas-based Frontera de Cristo and Agua Prieta migrant support organization C.A.M.E., provides deportees with food, water, electrolytes, coffee, basic health care, a hot shower and a place to think about their next move.

Tice said many times people at the center asked her, “Where am I? What is the name of this place?” when trying to make arrangements to be picked up. They typically call either their family or their guide.  The guides, according to Tice, work for “the cartel.” Many will collect themselves and try to cross the border again, she said.

“Yes the cartel is very much in power in northern Mexico,” Tice said, and it is known who is in charge. Migrants are treated as merchandise, as they are worth something to the cartel. People can pay guides anywhere between $8,000 to $10,000, Tice said, which typically affords them three or four attempts at crossing the border.

One of the directors of the organization described the guides, or more accurately, the smugglers, as trustworthy, Tice said. They help the migrants over the wall, and give them GPS coordinates to their next connection. After crossing the border, people are on their own, she said, traversing mountains, with excessive heat, and all the while trying to dodge the Border Patrol. “They put their trust in the guides,” she said.

A number of organizations, provide water and food, and leave supplies out in the desert for migrants to find when attempting to cross the border. Tice drove out to the desert with volunteers a couple of times and said the experience opened her eyes. “Until I saw it and experienced it,” she said, “I would not have believed it.”

Days of crawling through the desert where “everything is sharp,” takes a toll, Tice said. Part of the medical treatment people receive at the center is having cactus spines removed from their feet.

Alvarro, one migrant she befriended, had been walking for days in the desert, had run out of food, and was drinking his own urine to stay alive. He was brought to the hospital by the Border Patrol in bad shape, she said. There they discovered he had not taken medication given to him because he did not understand the label.

Some at the center were taking their situations in stride, while others looked as if they were emotionally beaten up, Tice said.

Alex, a young man from Guatemala,  was sitting alone crying. His parents were dead, he said, and he was trying to reach his brother in the States. He had his brother’s phone number written on his jeans. After speaking with him, Tice discovered his greatest need was a phone.

Working with the Sisters of Notre Dame at the center, she provided money for Alex to receive a cellphone. Tice said they now talk every day and after spending three days in the desert and five days in a car, he was finally reunited with his brother in Chicago. “I’m so happy for him,” she said.

While Alex’s situation improved, under current asylum laws he can still be deported, Tice said, though she believes the focus is on those who present a threat. “There are no door-to-door searches,” she said.

In March 2020, the Trump administration used a little-known, 75-year-old public health law to effectively close the U.S. border to nearly all asylum seekers. The Public Health Service Act of 1944, or Title 42, was designed to prevent the transmission and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States. The order expels undocumented migrants without providing them the opportunity to seek protection in the states.

The Biden administration continues to use the policy, but now allows migrant children to cross the border while expelling most families and single adults. The Los Angeles Times reported, in a year of Title 42, out of more than 650,000 encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, less than 1% have been able to seek protection.

“They are not even being asked ‘What is your reason for coming,’” Tice said.

Since March 2020, Tice said, 734,000 migrants have been expelled under Title 42. It is more than just a number, she said. “Everyone of those is a son, mom, dad or daughter. Human, just like you and me.”

Many times, Tice said, in a family with a single mom, the oldest son is the one who attempts to cross into the U.S. to send money back. “Family is so important in the Latino culture,” she said. “This is why they are making the sacrifice. They are either caring for their sick or elderly families or trying to provide safety for the future of their children.” Poverty and violence are other main reasons people undertake the difficult journey.

From her observations at the center, migrants were about 90% men and 10% women. Half were from Mexico, while the rest were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Tice said she saw only one child in her time at the center.

“Even with 100 people a day,” she said, “it’s overwhelming to think where to start. I focused on one person at a time.”

Books she recommends reading dealing with the migrant crisis include “The Devil’s Highway” by Luis Alberto Urrea, “Building Bridges Not Walls” by Todd Miller, and “Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario.

To sponsor an immigrant, which Tice said is a “life-changing experience,” email her at altice@usc.edu.

The entrance to Agua Prieta, Mexico. Searsmont resident Amy Tice volunteered at a migrant camp in this border town. Courtesy of Amy Tice

The U.S.-Mexican border wall at Agua Prieta, Mexico. Courtesy of Amy Tice

A Cholla cactus in the Sonoran Desert near Agua Prieta, Mexico. Courtesy of Amy Tice

People rest and eat before deciding their next move at the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, Mexico. Courtesy of Amy Tice