On the front lines of migration in the Sonoran Desert

A visit to the Mexican Red Cross search and rescue team and their humanitarian service point in Nogales, Sonora, MEXICO.

By Thaïs Martín Navas, Communications aid worker with the Canadian Red Cross

Last November, a delegation from the Canadian Red Cross visited the Mexican Red Cross team in Nogales, a city in the state of Sonora bordering the U.S. state of Arizona. Many of the residents of this arid desert town came from other parts of the country to work in one of the numerous cross-border manufacturing plants, or maquiladoras, that produce goods for international export.

“We have a close bond with the people on the other side of the border, and with the wall itself. We see it daily and cross to the other side often to buy things we produce here but are sold there,” says Guadalupe, a local who has worked and volunteered with the Mexican Red Cross for almost three decades.
The proximity to its northern neighbour makes Nogales one of the major border crossings for Mexican goods. Not only a busy gateway for freight, but also for people on the move, seeking to improve their livelihoods, reunite with family or flee from violence or disasters. Since the beginning of 2022, the number of migrants transiting northward overland through Central America and Mexico has increased significantly compared to previous years.
A man in a Red Cross vest and a woman in a Red Cross vest standing outside beside a small vehicle overlooking fields and hills in the background

Conrad Sauvé (President and CEO, Canadian Red Cross) and Guadalupe (Lupita) González (Local rescue coordinator and Focal point for migration and restoring family links, Mexican Red Cross, Nogales delegation) discussing border wall and migrants’ situation.

This rise in migratory flows has become one of the most pressing socio-political and humanitarian emergencies in the world.
Unfortunately, not all migrants have a legal status in the country they are going to. Some people in transit use back roads in remote areas, and enter through irregular processes. The precautions they take to stay out of sight on their journey to the United States, and occasionally to Canada, hamper their access to humanitarian assistance when they need it most.

“Often, on the trail they follow, there are no roads, no services, and no water available. They walk for weeks, for hundreds of kilometres, to avoid being spotted by the border patrol,” explains Valentina, the focal point for migration and restoring family links at the Mexican Red Cross.
What’s more, the increasing difficulty to reach the United States border through major crossings, such as Tijuana or El Paso, has led to a shift in migrant routes to more dangerous areas, such as the Sonoran Desert, home to Nogales. Valentina continues:

“Migrants crossing the desert endure summer heats of over 40 degrees Celsius and winter lows below zero. On top of these harsh conditions are the numerous threats they face during their journey, such as gender-based violence, extortion, kidnappings, or disappearances.”

As migrants move away from the urban centre’s border wall, a wall-free, rugged landscape with low brush, abundant cacti and treacherous rocks stretches before the eyes. It is common to spot a border patrol four-by-four on a nearby cliff. Migrants are frequently stranded with no savings and unable to pay for temporary shelter while waiting for an opportunity to cross this last stretch of land, or when they are deported back to Mexico. 

A large red fence running along a border
In-town border wall in Nogales, State of Sonora, Mexico.
Mexican Red Cross search and rescue missions are a regular fact of life in this region. As the lead for back-country rescue operations, Guadalupe has witnessed dire situations and it is the support the Red Cross provides in times of need that keeps her dedicated to her work. “This area is a transit corridor, and we receive frequent reports of fracture injuries from falls. If the migrant is in Mexico, we organize a search and rescue expedition, and if they are on American soil, we will follow-up once they have been returned and reach Nogales,” states Guadalupe. 
The Mexican Red Cross team in Nogales also operates a humanitarian service point for migrants deported back to Mexico. This stop on the path of returnees is located at the premises where buses bringing them back to Mexico arrive, providing a wide range of assistance and protection services based on needs. “We offer several free services to migrants, such as access to water and sanitation services, pre-hospital care, medical assistance, psychosocial support or restoring family links. We also make referrals to other services in coordination with local and state authorities, as in the case for unaccompanied minors,” notes Valentina.
During their journey, many migrants transit through the town more than once. "When they first pass by, they are very motivated, they have their eyes and their dreams set on the life they will make on the other side of the wall. But when they return, once deported, they have exhausted their strength and money, sometimes they have lost their family as well. Even if they are the same people, they are no longer the same," murmurs Guadalupe.

Someone walking into an office led by a Red Cross worker
Deported migrant (female) entering the Mexican Red Cross humanitarian assistance point in Nogales.

The Nogales humanitarian service point is a modest building with two healing and recovery areas, a rest area, an examination room and a bathroom. During the delegation’s visit, Guadalupe warmly welcomed a young woman in her thirties. She had left her four children in the Mexican state of Michoacan two months earlier, embarking on an uncertain journey to build a better future for her family. That evening, she was being returned to Nogales after having crossed into the United States, tired and disoriented. With tattered shoes from the long walk and her belongings in a plastic bag, she was soothed by Guadalupe's kindness as soon as she sat down on the stretcher.
“When returnees arrive here, they are distressed, they don't even know what border they are at. When we approach them and tell them that they are in a safe place, that they can trust us because we are going to always support them, the comfort we offer them helps them feel less alone and safer,” assures Guadalupe.
The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement advocates for access to humanitarian assistance and protection for all migrants globally, regardless of their legal status, supporting them along their route to make it safer and more humane. The services offered by the Mexican Red Cross in Nogales are a shining example of this lifesaving work and of the dedicated individuals that make it possible. At the end of the visit, as dusk approached, Guadalupe was still busy.

“The smiles of the children, the relief when we call for someone who lost touch with their family and they find out where they are again, seeing families reunited, there are too many good reasons to keep doing this work. The needs are so great that I throw in the same hours of work and volunteering every day. And I do it gladly,” she parted with a smile on her face.


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