Searching for the lost in the desert

Volunteers with Águilas del Desierto place a cross at a site with human remains in the Ocotillo desert. (Maria Louise Edwards)

Eight years ago, Ely Ortiz received a phone call from his brother and cousin. Severely dehydrated and overcome with heat, they had been left behind in the harsh deserts of Arizona. Desperately Ely phoned several organizations, but no one was able to come to their aid. Frustrated and helpless, he had to give up — and never heard from them again. Five months later, he recovered the remains of his cousin and brother, and his own life was changed forever. He began Águilas del Desierto (Eagles of the Desert) to help other migrants who risk everything in hopes of a better life.

The Felician Sisters have been radically present to people on the streets of Pomona, California, for 11 years. Many of the street people are undocumented and homeless. They have used up their life savings to come to the United States, and now they have nothing.

But after reading The New York Times photo essay on the Águilas del Desierto, our sisters' hearts were shaken. Those they met on the streets were the "success" story. Migrants who had survived. But on the other side of that sad reality are the hundreds who don't survive. Hundreds die in our deserts every year and their families have no idea what's happened to their loved ones. 

Our sisters felt a responsibility to do something. The article mentioned that searchers would leave a simple cross, where a body is found, to remember the life of the person who died. The sisters asked to make these crosses for the searcher groups. The request was warmly received. In a short time, volunteers had painted 50 white crosses, which searchers now carry into the desert. These crosses are a vital reminder that every life matters. They give voice to those who would otherwise have been forgotten. 

As the sisters shared the story with other volunteers and friends, many of whom are of Mexican descent, they immediately wanted to be involved. One woman began to cry as she shared how, years ago, as a child, she came to this country hidden in the trunk of a car. "This is my story," she said, eyes stinging with the memory of a risk taken for a better future.

Recently, I went with some other Felician Sisters to participate in a search, in the Ocotillo desert, for the body of a 19-year-old young man. Within two hours, we found a human skull, part of a body, and a child's shoe still containing some of her foot. 

The memory of this search still touches me profoundly. It brings tears to my eyes and anger to my heart. There is nothing that justifies the death of even one person. No law. No wall. I can't help but wonder how accountable we are as a nation and as Christians.

We asked the Águilas searchers why so many are dying. They said that smugglers tell migrants it's only a two-day walk once you get to the United States. Yet, in Arizona, it is a 10- to 12-day walk — 120 miles with temperatures in excess of 108 to 110 degrees during the summer months. A person would have to carry an impossible 80 to 100 pounds of water just to have enough. Those who die in the desert are asylum-seekers, loved ones trying to care for one another, and even victims of human trafficking. They've journeyed hundreds of miles hoping for a life that none of us have earned, but were simply born into.

For now the Águilas del Desierto is a search organization. They pray that one day they will not only search for those who have died, but rescue those who are in distress. The Felician Sisters are praying for this as well.

[Sr. Maria Louise Edwards has been a Felician Sister for eight years. Her current ministry is with people who are homeless on the streets of Pomona, California, and with a prostitution diversion program that reaches out to women on the streets and caught in human trafficking.]

Check out Horizons, featuring reflections from younger sisters.