Desert perspective: Wilson uses EMT training to aid immigrants along U.S./MexicoWORTHINGTON — Growing up in Worthington, Dan Wilson was acquainted with the controversial issues surrounding immigration. “I was in school when they were dealing with the first waves of Hispanic immigrants,” said Wilson, son of Keith and Jean Wilson of Worthington. “This is a reality I knew. I knew people made a lot of sacrifices to do it, and I had also seen some of the reasons for the immigration. I was feeling connected to that last step of immigration, and it was intriguing to me.”
WORTHINGTON — Growing up in Worthington, Dan Wilson was acquainted with the controversial issues surrounding immigration.
“I was in school when they were dealing with the first waves of Hispanic immigrants,” said Wilson, son of Keith and Jean Wilson of Worthington. “This is a reality I knew. I knew people made a lot of sacrifices to do it, and I had also seen some of the reasons for the immigration. I was feeling connected to that last step of immigration, and it was intriguing to me.”
So Wilson spent last summer working in the Sonora Desert along the U.S./Mexico border, using his skills as a trained emergency medical technician and witnessing firsthand another aspect of the immigration story.
Road to the desert
A 2006 graduate of Worthington High School, Wilson earned a biology degree from Winona State University two years ago. His studies had prepared him to go on to medical school, but Wilson wanted to explore other avenues first. He signed on at a Winona Catholic Worker house that provides accommodations for homeless men and daily public meals.
“I also got my EMT certification,” Wilson explained. “Part of my hope was to use medicine right now instead of going through an eight-year process, use it to help those in need. In high school and college, I had done some overseas stuff, but I was compelled to see what the needs are in our own backyard. So medical school got sidetracked, and I’ve been doing a lot of different things with my time.”
Through a Catholic Worker national conference, Wilson first heard about No More Deaths, an organization whose mission is “to end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border through civil initiative: the conviction that people of conscience must work openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights.”
Because of his experiences in Worthington, the concept struck a chord, and because of his EMT training, he knew he could be of service.
“I found out that EMTs are desperately needed,” he said. “They love to have EMTS, and it’s one of the few organizations that accepts EMTs. I did a week-long trip a year ago in January to check it out, and I realized I could definitely commit for a summer, so I went in June of last year.”
Summer conditions in the desert are less than hospitable, but the volunteers at the No More Deaths camp endure the hardships of camp in their mission to save human life.
“I slept in a tent for the entire summer, on a sleeping pad on the ground,” said Wilson. “It would get down to 80 degrees at night, and that would feel really cool. It was usually 110 to 115 during the day.”
One of the primary tasks for the volunteers is walking the desert trails daily and leaving gallons of water at selected locations.
“We’d usually wake up at 5 a.m.,” described Wilson. “There would be 15 to 20 volunteers, all under 30, most college age or just out of college. We had a system of maps and GPS that we’d look at and decide where everybody was going that day, going back out and checking on the gallons of water we had left earlier. We’d take 60 to 80 gallons of water, make the water drops, then hike the trails, looking for signs of presence, of use.”
As an EMT, Wilson would carry a small medical pack, ready to provide assistance if he happened upon a sick or injured person in the desert.
“People would find our camp, because they’d be lost or they’d be directed to us,” he described. “Once people were in camp, we’d give them medical care and monitor their condition. Most of the time, there were people in camp. Our preference would be to monitor them for at last a week.”
The primary medical problem suffered by immigrants trying to cross the border is kidney damage, sustained through dehydration or from drinking contaminated water from cattle tanks.
“For your body to function, you need one gallon of water a day,” Wilson explained. “For most people, it’s a three-day journey. I was drinking three gallons a day to stay hydrated and mentally lucid.”
Although the language barrier often hampered conversations, Wilson heard many stories and the reasons behind why people would attempt a border crossing. What was most surprising, he said, was that most of them were trying to get back to their lives in the United States.
“The interesting thing about the border now is that they’re not necessarily going over to look for work,” he said. “They’re coming back to their families, coming back to their communities.”
“According to a recent survey of those recently deported to Nogales, Mexico, the average person deported has lived in the U.S. for 14.4 years and has 2.5 children still living in the States (70 percent of these children are citizens),” cited Wilson in an article he wrote about his experiences for the Winona Catholic Worker website. “Of those interviewed, 70 percent said they would continue to cross the border until they make it back to their families.
“… The general sentiment is that they don’t want to live in the U.S. for their entire lives, but because of the conditions in Mexico, because of how dangerous it is to cross, going back and forth is not an option anymore.”
During his stay, Wilson encountered a couple from Guatemala, both in their 50s, who had a daughter living in Florida. The man, an auto mechanic by trade, helped Wilson fix one of the camp trucks.
“They assumed they weren’t going to make it the first time,” Wilson shared. “They had fake Mexican papers so they wouldn’t have to go all the way back to Guatemala when they got deported. Our camp is about halfway. When they came in, I remember hearing the wife wail and cry after we told her we weren’t Border Patrol. They stayed with us for a week because they had sustained fairly significant kidney damage. They left on their journey north, and we found out they were captured a day later and sent back to Mexico. That’s generally what happened.”
As they go about tasks in the desert, the No More Deaths volunteers regularly encounter members of the Border Patrol.
“The work we do is not supposed to be antagonistic to the Border Patrol, but that’s the reality of the situation,” Wilson said. “By virtue of being in the desert so much, we had a fair amount of interaction with the Border Patrol. I had a loaded M16 rifle pointed at me one day. No More Deaths has a lot of training on how to defuse a situation like that.”
The turnover rate among the Border Patrol ranks is high, Wilson said, contributing to the potential for abuse of authority.
“They are told they’re going to be arresting terrorists, drug smugglers, but they end up arresting women, children, old men trying to get back to their jobs. They do a lot of hiring and not a lot of background checks. It’s the most corrupt U.S. agency by their own admission. Another interesting piece of information I took away from this is that 70 percent of the drugs that come into the U.S. come through a legal port of entry — not the desert.”
In addition to providing physical aid, No More Death documents the abuses that occur along the border and maintains a station in Nogales where recent deportees are interviewed.
“For the abuse documentation report, called ‘Culture of Cruelty,’ they detailed 30,000 incidents of abuse, and 99.6 percent of those interviewed said they’d experienced abuse from the Border Patrol,” Wilson cited.
But the abuses aren’t limited to the Border Patrol, Wilson added. The Mexican officials are known to be much more corrupt, and the “coyotes” who guide people across the desert demand a lot of money and other forms of payment — with no guarantees of making it safely to the border.
“As a female crossing the border, especially those coming from Central America, sexual violence is assumed,” Wilson said. “As they’re traveling across, it’s assumed it’s going to happen.”
Sharing the experience
After spending several months living and working in the desert, Wilson — who is back at the Catholic Worker house in Winona — is eager to share his observations. He penned the aforementioned article, “A Day on the Border,” for Winona Catholic Worker, conducted a recent roundtable discussion in Worthington and talked with local students.
“One of the things I took away from the experience is the incredible strength of the human spirit,” he said. “Despite everything, people are still willing to make the journey, not to put money in their own pockets, but to provide for their children.”
The experience also changed his personal views on immigration.
“Not liking illegal immigration, having lived in Worthington, and to find myself in the desert, rooting for people to make it, cheering them on, is quite a change,” he said. “But it’s not just about laws. It’s not that people are lazy and don’t want to go through the proper channels to come here legally. The laws are now such that it’s virtually impossible to do so.”
In his article, Wilson summed up his experience thusly: “One of the miraculous things about the desert is its ability to cut through all the preconceived notions about ‘The Immigration Issue.’ Theories about free trade, border militarization and national security no longer seem relevant when you meet someone without shoes who has been lost without food or water for a week. There is one truth given to us from the desert. We are killing our neighbors. We are killing ourselves.”
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Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327