ARIVACA, Ariz. — There was a time when Maggie Milinovitch and her husband didn't agree on whether to give food and water to the weary border crossers who traversed the couple's desert land a few miles north of the Mexico border in southern Arizona.
While she wanted to help, her husband worried they may be arrested or lose their land if they gave aid to the dozens of travelers, many of them desperate and dehydrated, and some nearly crippled by enormous blisters on the bottoms of their feet.
"If I come across someone in need, I'm not going to just leave them there," said Milinovitch, who has lived in Arivaca since 1980.
Still, she didn't want to break the law.
These are the sort of hard decisions that hundreds of residents who live in the harsh, mesquite-speckled borderlands have had to make on a regular basis.
While illicit border crossings in this southern Arizona corridor have plummeted, deaths are at an all-time high. More than 2,000 migrants have perished in the last 13 years, according to the Pima County medical examiner's office.
Miscommunication, confusion and fear have long been the common threads as the problem grew to what some officials consider crisis-level proportions. The worsening situation led some Arivaca residents to band together last year to form People Helping People, a group that provides aid to border crossers in the area. Shortly after, the group unveiled a humanitarian aid office, which now sits on the main drag of this rural town of 600 residents that is surrounded by cattle ranches.
The center is believed to be one of the first of its kind along the border, said Leesa Jacobson, a founding member of the group and a librarian in town.
"We're hoping this will be an example for other communities," she said.
Volunteers keep the office running, answering questions or handing out prepackaged medical aid kits with socks, gauze and electrolyte supplements. They also provide water bottles and prepackaged baggies with potato chips, juice boxes and canned meat intended for border crossers. Residents are encouraged to stash the goods in their cars or homes in case they encounter a migrant in need.
The group also started a series of workshops aimed at educating residents of their right to provide humanitarian aid, bringing in attorneys and members of No More Deaths, an organization that provides direct humanitarian assistance to people lost, injured or ill while crossing through the Arizona desert.
Legal experts have answered numerous questions, such as: Can you give medical aid? Can you provide a border crosser with a map? Can you tell the traveler how far away he or she is from the nearest city? Answers are yes, no and yes. Volunteer doctors and nurses also host medical aid classes. A Spanish class teaches Arivaca residents enough language skills to communicate with border crossers, such as agua and comida, the words for water and food.
Pamphlets with a list of cellphone numbers for on-call volunteer doctors, nurses and attorneys are given to residents, who are also encouraged to call the group if they encounter a border crosser and don't know what to do.
For Alex Huesler, the prepared food bag he'd gotten at the office came in handy a couple of months ago when two men walked up to the backyard of his rural Arivaca home.
"Agua, agua," the men said to Huesler.
One of the men had a bloodied face, scratched up after having fallen on a mesquite tree, Huesler said the man told him.
He says the men told him they'd tried to ask one his neighbors for water but were shooed away.
"I understand that sometimes they are afraid," he said of the neighbors. "I never felt any fear or any cause to fear the people that I've met."
Huesler, who has lived in Arivaca for six years, said he gave the men — one Mexican and the other Nicaraguan — food and water from a prepackaged bag. He had nothing in his refrigerator.
He also called a friend for help bandaging up the injured traveler. In the end, he called an ambulance. The other man walked away.
Huesler, who has taken a few of the People Helping People workshops, said he knows now what he can legally do while providing humanitarian aid.
"They all want rides to Tucson, and I say, 'No, no I cannot do that.' "
Victor Brabble, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Tucson, said the Border Patrol and other immigration agents urged residents to be careful when providing humanitarian aid.
"We do have a common goal, which is to reduce victimization of border crossers from hazards of the desert," Brabble said.
Providing water and food is allowed by law, he said, but he wouldn't go further, stating that each case is different.
In 2005, Arivaca became a focal point for U.S. immigration policy as tensions between aid groups and Border Patrol agents reached a peak. That's when Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz, humanitarian aid volunteers, were arrested on suspicion of smuggling after they put three dehydrated men in their car to be taken to a hospital in Tucson. A district court judge dismissed the case a year later.
Two years ago, a federal appeals court overturned a littering conviction against Daniel Millis, a humanitarian aid volunteer who left gallon-sized bottles of water for border crossers in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, near Arivaca.
Since then, federal officials have backed off trying to prosecute humanitarian aid workers, said James Duff Lyall, an American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona staff attorney based in Tucson.
"The courts have rejected the general idea that humanitarian aid is a crime," he said. "Ultimately people should know that humanitarian aid is not a crime. The courts have clearly stated that, and they should do what they think is the right thing to do."
Lyall, who took part in the Arivaca workshops, said organizations such as No More Deaths have been in the forefront in defending people who provide aid and are harassed or have been prosecuted by federal officials.
People Helping People volunteers said they were ramping up their activism, taking complaints from residents about suspected Border Patrol abuses. On Dec. 8, they staged a rally involving more than 100 people at a border checkpoint station in Amado, about a 30-minute drive from Arivaca, where activists delivered a petition to Border Patrol agents asking them to shut down the checkpoint.
"This is the first step in working toward demilitarizing our border," said Jacobson, the Arivaca librarian. "The checkpoint is a symbol of that."