Tucson group works to ensure migrants who die while entering the U.S. will not go unnoticed

A raging immigration debate throughout the country has not stopped illegal crossings over the border, and thousands have perished in the Sonoran Desert, trying to make it into the United States.

Now, a group is working to make sure those who died will not go unnoticed.

"The fact that 3000 people have died out here," said Alvaro Enciso. "It's a secret, most people have no idea."

Every Tuesday for the past three years, the Tucson artist has gone with a small group of volunteers to different spots in the Sonoran Desert. One day, that trip took Enciso and his group to a place about 20 miles outside from Tucson. They bring water and food to drop at spots along the unforgiving terrain, in hopes the supplies might help a migrant survive their attempt to cross into the country. Enciso, however, also packs something else.

Handmade crosses.

"In a two-mile radius from where I'm standing, 11 of the red dots are death sites," said Ron Kovatch, a volunteer with the Tucson Samaritans. Kovatch helps Enciso with the project. The red dots shown on a GPS device across the 20,000 square mile desert represent deaths: 3,000 known and 2,000 missing, all while trying to get into the country. The dots are broken down by year

"150," said Kovatch. "The metaphor I often use is a commercial airliner."

The Tucson Samaritans start at the Southside Presbytarian church in Tucson at 7:00 a.m. The death sites are in remote locations, reachable by dirt roads and through washes, with a possible hike as well. Shovels, cement, water, and the cross are all brought to the death site. Sometimes shoes or other clothing from someone lost to the desert can be seen left behind.

Every handmade cross has a red dot, and every volunteer gets one too. It probably sounds silly to some, as the marked grave will more than likely never be seen by anyone. The Tucson Samaritans, however, all believe that regardless of politics, it's the right thing to do.

"The American dream is failing to a whole bunch of people here," said Encino. "We seem to be closing the gate to our neighbors south of the border. Eventually, when the historians begin to write this chapter of American history, it's going to be very sad and very shameful that we let them die out here. People in their 20s and 30s and shouldn't be dying at that age"

About four crosses are put up every week. Reliable SUVs get the groups where they need to go, and these vehicles have a valley connection

"It's a wonderful irony," said Kovatch. "I guess there was a newspaper in Phoenix, Maricopa County, that was suing Joe Arpaio for whatever reason."

A settlement with Arpaio lead to the creation of a foundation that supplied grant money to the Samaritans, and now, the SUVs have the former sheriff's namesake.

The death data comes from the Coroner's office, and not everyone has a name. They all, however, still get a marked grave. The causes of death run the gamut of ailments contracted in the desert. Anything from dehydration, heat stroke, and hypothermia in the cold at night, during the winter.

"Some of these people perhaps never have been to a doctor in their lives," said Kovatch.

The volunteers say a few words at each grave, and it's on to the next one. For many, it's about still trying to give people the shot at the American Dream, be it illegal or legal. The harsh desert, however, makes no promises, and that's why more than 500 crosses dot the area so far.

The group hopes to put one at all 3,000 locations.