border angels

For more than three decades, Border Angels has assisted immigrant populations in Southern California. Since 1986, the San Diego-based nonprofit has served the county’s immigrant community through various migrant outreach programs, including day laborer outreach and legal assistance. However, the organization is perhaps best known for its Water Drop Program, which provides life-saving assistance for migrants by placing bottled water and supplies in the deserts and remote mountain areas surrounding San Diego and Imperial Counties, as well as the areas located around the U.S.- Mexico border.

For Jacqueline Arellano, co-director of the water drop program for Border Angels, the deserts of Southern California are like a second home. Arellano was born and raised in the rural town of El Centro in Imperial County, 114 miles east of San Diego. Growing up, she was well aware of the desert’s unforgiving nature and the dangerous trek thousands of migrants make every year when crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. A child of immigrants herself, for Arellano, the topic of immigration hit particularly close to home and made her a perfect candidate for the position.

Arellano began volunteering with Border Angels in 2014, helping procure supplies for the organization. In 2016, she began going on water drops when they opened up to the public. Shortly after in 2017, she took over as water drop director for the organization. The following year, as the program expanded its size and scope, she began sharing that responsibility with James Cordero. As co-directors of the program, Arellano and Cordero are well-versed in the labyrinth of dusty washes, the twisting canyons, and towering mountain ranges that migrants regularly traverse while crossing the border. 

In some areas, the unforgiving terrain would be difficult to traverse for even the most experienced of hikers; in remote stretches, even expert hikers can get disoriented and lost. It’s in this terrain that Arellano and Cordero map out logistics, plan the execution of the water drops, regularly scout for new routes, and coordinate for more supplies.

Along the routes, Arellano and Cordero routinely find evidence of migrant traffic in the area: consumed gallons of water, empty cans, and occasionally even a discarded article of clothing. Other evidence of activity can be seen like used socks changed out for new ones in supply packs and the remnants of used candles found in caves. Every weekend, Arellano, Cordero, and their team go out to gather clues that work like pieces of a puzzle that the team tries to connect where supplies have been left, where migrants are traveling, and where the team needs to leave more supplies.

“We used to find a consumed gallon every now and then, now we’ve seen up to 16 just along one route consumed. So we’re getting deeper into the desert and getting to know where more people are actually moving,” Arellano said. 

Arellano says the water drops have been essential since the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper by the Clinton administration in the mid-90s, one of the U.S. government’s most inhumane border enforcement policies. The primary cause of migrant deaths is exposure to the elements. Arellano argues that the U.S. border policy of “prevention through deterrence” has continually militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and intentionally funnels migrants into the most remote and deadly corridors of the borderlands. 

From 1998 to 2019, U.S. Border Patrol documented 7,805 migrant deaths in its nine sectors along the Southwestern border. Arellano and other migrant rights activists say the actual number of border deaths is undoubtedly higher because Border Patrol only includes deaths reported to authorities. Arellano says it’s not uncommon for bodies or skeletal remains to be discovered in the desert and that Border Patrol figures don’t account for the thousands more who go missing or are never found. 

In many ways, the desert itself is a silent ally to the U.S. government; temperatures in the region routinely reach into the triple digits. Last summer, following a record-breaking heatwave, temperatures in some parts of the California desert reached a staggering 130 degrees Fahrenheit. While migrants face the risk of death by dehydration and heatstroke in the summer months, the cold of winter poses its own unique dangers such as hypothermia and exposure. In fact, Arellano and her team leave life-saving supplies such as blankets, socks, and hand warmers during the winter months when temperatures can reach near freezing in the mountains and desert.

Earlier this year on Feb. 10, three migrant women tragically froze to death after being caught in a snowstorm in the Laguna mountains. Border Patrol policies actually incentivize migrants to travel in dangerous conditions. 

“Border Patrol has it in their contracts that checkpoints are closed during harsh weather conditions,” Arellano said. “When the checkpoints are predictably closed during harsh weather it’s an incentive for people to actually risk crossing during conditions like snow and freezing rain.”

While the desert poses its own unique risks year-round, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unforeseen obstacle that has further complicated Arellano and Cordero’s efforts to safely organize water drops. Prior to the pandemic, drops were held once a month with up to 100 volunteers split up into seven different routes. Since the first stay-at-home order was announced in March, Arellano and Cordero’s team have been out leaving supplies nearly every week. 

“With our COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions, we are unable to safely take new volunteers and large groups. Because of this, we’ve had an amazing turnout by our most dedicated and trusted volunteers. Most of our team members have been out just about every week with us. This team has carried more supplies and has gone on longer routes than ever,” Arellano explained.  

Another obstacle Arellano is wary of in the future is the further militarization of the border, even under an incoming Biden administration. 

“I wish I was more optimistic,” Arellano said. “The Border Patrol has really been emboldened under the Trump administration because they were welcomed with open arms as quasi-national police. I think there will be some changes, but the bell that I don’t expect to unring though is the emboldening of the Border Patrol.” 

Arellano cited the incoming administration’s past rhetoric on policing as particularly troubling. 

“Both Biden and Harris have shown in their previous records respectively to be pro-policing and support an escalated level of policing,” Arellano said. “The Border Patrol is extremely overfunded and have massive technology that can be potentially unleashed on at least a third of the country. I don’t see Biden and Harris taking a stand against that, and I’m wary they might actually expand those powers.” 

In spite of these obstacles, Arellano remains undeterred and says that the work along the border will have to continue regardless of who’s in the white house.

“Regardless of what we encounter in this process, it’s nothing in comparison to what those crossing [the border] encounter,” she said. “We don’t save anyone; they are capable and powerful beyond measure and they save themselves. All we do is spend some time sharing resources and we will continue to do so until we don’t have to.”

Roberto Camacho is a Chicano freelance multimedia journalist from San Diego, California. His reporting typically focuses on criminal justice reform, immigration, Chicano/Latino issues, hip-hop culture,...