ARIVACA, Ariz.—With a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter whirring above, Margo Cowan stood in a campsite waving the chopper toward a mother and child lost miles back in the thick cactus and dangerous desert terrain.
Moments before, she had called the patrol to alert it that members of her group had come across migrants rushing north who told them about the wandering pair.
Troubled by the rise in migrants' deaths in the vast Sonoran Desert, Tucson-area religious and humanitarian groups created the organization nearly two years ago and have tried since to make a difference.
The efforts have ranged from putting water at desert spots marked by a bright blue flag with the Northern star and a drinking gourd to getting medical help for seriously ill migrants.
Though largely an Arizona movement, No More Deaths has attracted support and volunteers from across the U.S., including visits from people who just want to see the border situation for themselves.
Not everyone has welcomed the work of the coalition, which has borrowed a page from, as well as leaned on, some Tucson-based veterans from the 1980s sanctuary movement when religious and other groups offered haven in the U.S. to Central Americans fleeing wars.
2 face prison
In addition to the backlash from people unhappy with migrants passing through their communities or who consider the help to be misguided, the federal government recently charged two 23-year-old volunteers with illegally transporting undocumented migrants. The two, who say they were taking three migrants to Tucson for medical care, could face up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
"There's a lot resting on this," said William Walker, an attorney for the two volunteers.
"The humanity of our country is at stake if it is truly against the law to transport someone for emergency medical purpose. What's happened to `Give me your tired and your poor?'" said Walker, who describes the charges as unprecedented.
The U.S. Southwestern border this fiscal year has seen the highest number of migrant deaths than in any other year since government record-keeping began in 1998, according to the Border Patrol.
The governors of Arizona and New Mexico have declared states of emergency to deal with the crisis in drug trafficking and illegal migration.
Since its efforts began, members of No More Deaths have been taking seriously ill migrants found in the desert to hospitals or a medical clinic in a Tucson church, Walker said. There has been no intention to break the law, and the Border Patrol has known what is going on, he said.
"Now, all of a sudden there is a change in [the Border Patrol] attitude," he said.
Border Patrol spokesman Gustavo Soto disagrees.
"If they've been doing this, they've been getting away with it," said the official based in Tucson.
Soto also questioned the coalition's placement of food and water in the desert.
"Smugglers are telling the illegal aliens, `Don't worry about crossing because there are people out there who will help you guys,'" he said.