A small crowd gathers in the courtyard outside the Border Angels headquarters located at the Sherman Heights Community Center on Island Avenue four blocks south of State Route 94 and five blocks east of Interstate 5. All 60 volunteer slots and ten wait-list spots were filled four days prior for today’s desert water drop. Filling spots was once difficult, but not since Donald Trump was elected.
The week after he won the presidency, the Border Angels received an overwhelming number of volunteer requests. Sign-up sheets are posted on the Border Angel Facebook page for those interested in hiking the desert trails that undocumented immigrants normally take when entering the United States illegally.
Water-drop volunteers are asked to donate two-gallon water jugs to leave along the trail to ease the trip for those crossing through the treacherous routes. One way to describe the experience is one part border-crossing reenactment, two parts humanitarian aid.
It is 8 a.m. and already the sun is blazing. Pools of sweat are beginning to gather on my neck and arms. Every inch of shade is taken. Gathered are mainly young men and women and a few middle-aged people, mostly Hispanic.
One graying man bears a striking resemblance to Bill Walton in all his friendly hippie glory. I sit near a young woman who is wearing a floppy hat fashioned to resemble a hamburger complete with sesame bun, felt lettuce, tomatoes, and a beef patty.
She is rolling her own cigarettes, one after the other. She uses a tool that looks like a claw on her pointer finger, to stuff the tobacco down into the rolling paper. I picture her lungs, red and inflamed, when we eventually hike through the desert in Jacumba, where today’s weather forecast predicts 112 degrees.
It isn’t until well after 9 a.m. that Jackie Arellano, the leader of today’s water drop, addresses the crowd. She is wearing a bright red T-shirt that reads “Love is Love, Water is Life, Black Lives Matter, No Muslim Registry, Trans is Beautiful, Immigrants Make America Great, and Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” She wears her blackish-brown hair long, and her friendly face exhibits the tendency to smile even when speaking on serious topics.
The crowd gathers around her in a makeshift circle as she explains in detail the safety precautions set up for the day. “Normally I do most of the talking in the desert,” she tells us, “but today, due to extreme heat, I will be going over everything here. You are going to have to rally because today’s gonna be rough. The heat advisory is close to record temperature for the regions we are going to be in, so hydrate! I can’t emphasize this enough: please drink water. Drink water now, drink water on the drive, drink water on the route!”
I and many of those in the crowd immediately begin chugging water.
Arellano continues, “Welcome to the June water drop! [Border Angels] is volunteer-run and has been since we were established in 1986 by our founder Enrique Morones. We have been working for decades on the preservation of migrant life and dignity.”
The crowd erupts in cheers. Arellano smiles widely. Arellano speaks for another 30 minutes, introducing trail guides, four in total, all of whom will be guiding volunteers on different routes with varying degrees of difficulty. One route leader, Jonathan Yost, is wearing professional-looking hiking gear. He is a big man in his early 30s with a thick Rip Van Winkle beard and tree-stump calves. He is leading the advanced trek that travels deep into the desert over boulders and rocky, desolate terrain. Another man, slightly older, will lead an easier hike. This might explain his casual dress. He wears his long Jesus hair down at his shoulders with tight stovepipe jeans and a v-neck paired with a pair of trendy combat boots with smooth soles not seemingly conducive to desert hiking. Arellano also introduces a handful of safety guides. These people carry ice water, Band-Aids, and Gatorade, among other supplies. In the desert, they stay in the back of the group to lend a hand to stragglers. Hours from now, I will become familiar with my group’s safety guides because, not five minutes into our three-hour hike, I will slice my leg open on a chaparral bush and have blood streaming down my thighs that require one of their Band-Aids.
After introducing the trail guides and safety monitors, Arellano gives a description of Border Angels programs, of which the water dropping is only one. Then she describes the Border Patrol’s two-decade-old policy of sealing the western end of the border for migrants east. “They call it funneling — sending people to areas where they are more likely to die. But guess what? People are going to keep coming and the Border Patrol under the current administration is only going to get stricter.”
She sighs deeply and looks out at the gathered faces before asking, “Who is going to help them?”
“We are!” shout many of the gathered volunteers.
“Yes,” Arellano shakes her head, a bright smile spreading across her somber face. “That’s right! You are.... That gallon of water you brought here today could very well be the difference between life and death for a migrant in need.”
And with that Arellano reaches for a stack of red papers on a folding table.
“Grab one of these or a few and please, please, pass them on to people you know in the migrant community.”
A balding middle-aged man in a NASA T-shirt takes a thick stack and shoves them into one of the many pockets of his cargo shorts.
“These are red cards. You may have heard of them,” Arellano says.
In 2007, red cards were created by the Immigration Legal Resource Center. The cards provide information on how migrants can assert themselves when dealing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
A hush falls over the volunteers as the fliers are read.
A blond-haired woman in her mid-30s, Kirsten Zittlau, is introduced to the crowd. She is a lawyer volunteering with Border Angels to give legal advice to undocumented community members. Zittlau addresses the group. “Every year, guess how many unskilled laborers — we are talking all the people that pick our fruits and vegetables that are supplied to the entire country — guess how many are allowed in the country via visas for the entire year? Five thousand. Five thousand! Does that sound like a lot to you? Yet do we want to eat our avocados and tomatoes? Would we be upset if they were suddenly gone? You see the hypocrisy here?” Zittlau says.