Twelve years ago, Águilas del Desierto, whose mission is to reduce death and suffering of migrants in the desert along the southern border of Arizona, carried out its first search and rescue effort. Today, its president Sr. Maria Louise Edwards continues to develop strategies to expand their net of compassion. We sat down with her to better understand the critical need for Águilas, and learn more about her plans.
How does Águilas del Desierto align with Felician values?
Sr. Maria Louise: As Felicians, we are called to care for the marginalized with compassion and without judgment. Blessed Mary Angela instructed us to serve where we are needed. There is a lot of debate these days about immigration and the security of our southern border, but the truth is, people are dying in the desert trying to get to the U.S. It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter whether it’s right. What matters is that living beings are suffering. They need help, and they deserve dignity for the light of God inside of them. What happens to their legal status once they are here is not for Águilas to decide. Our mission is to rescue people who are in danger of death, or recover and respectfully tend to the remains of those who already succumbed in the desert.
Where and how often are Águilas searches conducted?
Sr. Maria Louise: The main search areas include California and Arizona. In the first nine months of 2023, nearly one-third of all U.S. Border Control Southwest Land Border Crossings were along the border in Arizona, accounting for 398,052 crossings. Another 203,735 crossings were reported in the two California-based Border Patrol sectors. Of the deaths recorded by Border Patrol in FY2021, 19% were found in the Arizona border area. Since Texas put up the floating barrier in the Rio Grande in July, we’re seeing more border crossings shift from Texas to Arizona. The river was already hard to cross with at least 100 people dying every year, and the barrier makes it even more life-threatening.
Regularly scheduled searches are conducted twice a month Friday to Sunday. Each day we cover 10 to 12 miles. When urgent calls for help are received, we notify federal authorities who are closest to the suspected area.
Why aren’t Águilas’ searches conducted by plane or drone to cover more distance faster?
Sr. Maria Louise: Along the U.S./Mexican border, there are areas that require special permission to use air space, and some areas where permission will never be granted, such as federally-owned land used for military training, wildlife preserves and parts of the Tohono O’Odham Nation territory. Águilas has been building relationships with the Tohono over the past few years, but the governing structure of their cultural community includes many regions and districts requiring many levels of approval.
In areas where it would be possible to search, a pilot license is required to operate a drone. We are working with a volunteer who has a drone pilot license and will be testing a process whereby aerial and ground-based teams work together. We are not sure if aerial viewing will be effective since most migrants are instructed by coyotes to wear camouflage, so sighting may be limited by air.
How do families or those needing rescue find out about Águilas?
Sr. Maria Louise: We conduct a prevention campaign throughout Mexico and put posters up in all the migrant centers. Many people learn about us through word of mouth, and of course on social media. Often migrants or their families are afraid to call 911; they don’t trust law enforcement but feel safe calling Águilas.
What are the dangers of crossing the desert?
Sr. Maria Louise: Heat and not having enough water are the biggest threats. To travel the distance, a person needs one to two gallons of water per day! There’s simply no way to carry that much water. From March to November the temperature averages about 100 degrees. The highest mortality reported by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is distress, meaning a person was found in medical distress and died of natural causes in the field or while on route or being treated at a hospital. That’s why our efforts are so critical.
There are many who disagree with the seemingly unchecked flow of immigrants across the southern border. What do you say to them?
Sr. Maria Louise: Águilas has always been and will continue to be a humanitarian effort only. We do not fall on one side or the other of the debate on immigration. We are focused on rescuing people who are in extreme danger of dying of thirst and exposure in the desert and treating the remains of people who succumbed to death with the dignity and respect that all human life deserves.
What is the relationship between Águilas and government agencies?
Sr. Maria Louise: We work closely with the U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies and participate in all Border Patrol regional meetings. Most of our rescues are coordinated with Border Patrol — without their assistance we wouldn’t be able to access certain areas or rescue as many people as we do. When we receive a call from a family member that someone is missing, we immediately contact Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program and work with them to coordinate a search. Because volunteers have to come from so far away for non-scheduled searches, we rely on federal agencies to get there quickly.
Águilas has seen a huge increase in rescues, from 45 in 2020 to 183 in 2021 and 215 in 2022. Why?
Sr. Maria Louise: The biggest impact has been funding. A single three-day search costs about $3,000, so the more funds we receive, the higher the number and frequency of searches we are able to conduct. If we can secure a steady stream of funding, the number of rescues will continue to rise.
Another reason for the increase is our growing internet presence, and the press coverage we’ve gotten. We have over 300,000 followers on Facebook and almost 30,000 subscribers to our YouTube channel! The short documentary, Águilas, released in 2021 drew a lot of attention to the crisis, especially since it earned eight nominations and eight award wins. We are incredibly grateful that so much awareness is being raised, but we’re also frustrated because it’s leading to a new problem.
What’s the new problem?
Sr. Maria Louise: Now that there is a growing awareness of our efforts, families of missing migrants and migrants themselves lost in the desert are reaching out for our help. Phone calls for help are pouring in well beyond what we are able to handle. At the moment, the Águilas hotline rings through to just three people. If the first isn’t able to answer, it goes on to the second and then the third. When we started eight years ago, this system was difficult but manageable with 250 calls. Now we receive over 2,500 calls for help each year!
Our focus, and the most efficient solution, is a call center. If we could establish and staff a call center with bilingual employees or volunteers, we could rescue so many more people, getting help to them much sooner than we are able to now. We also receive many calls from people just seeking information, and we can easily guide them to resources if we had a 24/7 call center.
Do you have plans for a call center for Águilas ?
Sr. Maria Louise: We originally envisioned a residence on 4 acres of land Águilas already owns in Ajo, AZ where searchers could have a safe place to rest, eat and shower instead of sleeping on the ground in the open desert as they do now, but our vision has shifted. Since Ajo is so remote, we instead are considering establishing a Hospitality House in Tucson, AZ where we will be able to connect with many other organizations that provide resources for migrants. This location would provide more opportunities to work together. It will feature an educational center with videos, testimonials and other materials. There are places in the area that offer a “border experience” where visitors can find room and board and a guided tour to see what’s happening at the border, but there is no resource where they can learn about the history and culture of the migrants we serve. In addition to the educational center, we plan to have office space and house the much-needed call center. The modified plan for the facility will bring several key elements together under one roof.
What about the 4-acre property in Ajo?
Sr. Maria Louise: That site will be critical for our search and rescue operations since it is so close to the border. It will be the place for volunteer searchers to stay during the weekend searches. We are working on developing a quick response team that will be able to act when we receive urgent calls, and that team will be based in Ajo.
What do you most want people to know about Águilas?
Sr. Maria Louise: Hundreds of people are dying, and nobody knows. If we don’t pay attention or if we try to distance ourselves, we lose what makes us human. They are fathers and sons, daughters and mothers. They are God’s children, and they are dying all alone every day. This should never be okay. I can’t make myself find a way to let it be okay.
Learn more and get involved at AguilasdelDesierto.org.