ARIVACA, Ariz.—Andy Sellers anxiously drives the woman north in a dusty 1992 Nissan Pathfinder dubbed “the Desert Rat.”
Just 12 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, he passes the first of five U.S. Border Patrol vehicles. He can’t help but think of the two colleagues arrested weeks earlier on charges of transporting illegal immigrants—just what he was doing.
Mr. Sellers, 23, is one of hundreds of volunteers with the humanitarian group No More Deaths. Their goal: to aid lost, abandoned or injured illegal immigrants.
“I was a little nervous when I first saw the Border Patrol,” Mr. Sellers said after delivering Ana, a 28-year-old illegal immigrant from Guerrero, Mexico, to a makeshift clinic in Tucson, Ariz. But that feeling vanished, he said, because “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong.”
As the United States wrestles over immigration policy, No More Deaths has stretched the definition of humanitarian aid into what law enforcement calls aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. Between June 13 and Aug. 13, the group made 463 assists—providing food, water, medical care and evacuation, if necessary.
Furthermore, landowners in the area say they’re fed up with the constant flow of pedestrian traffic, the destruction of their property, the trash littering the desert and the sheer lack of privacy.
“People are fed up,” said Joe Coates, who lives about 28 miles north of the border. “If you were to ask 10 of my neighbors if they care migrants are dying out there, eight of them would say they don’t care.”
As the sun begins to bake the earth, Mr. Johnston parks the truck in a turnout next to a dirt road and grabs his pack out of the back. He picks up a well-established trail and briskly walks past spindly ocotillo and jumping cactus.
“Hola, amigos! Somos Americanos!” he shouts. “Con agua y comida! No tengan miedo!” (“Hello, friends! We are Americans! With water and food! Don’t be afraid!”)
The owner of a taco stand in town has found Ana, the woman from Guerrero, hiding under a lean-to behind her building. Afraid that she might get in trouble with the Border Patrol for harboring an illegal immigrant, the owner wants the volunteers to take Ana away.
Along with a few other volunteers, Ms. Howe, another recent Colorado College graduate, drives to the site and examines the half-dollar and quarter-size blisters on the bottoms of Ana’s feet before calling a nurse. She provides the necessary treatment, then helps her to a shady patch of grass off the taco stand owner’s property.
Guided by the town’s lights, Ana had hobbled all night through the Sonoran Desert to reach Arivaca. But she could go no farther. Her ultimate destination: Pennsylvania.
Nearby, the volunteers huddle between sport utility vehicles. Mr. Sellers squats next to Ana and offers to drive her to Tucson, 56 miles northeast. She can rest there and get medical attention.
She says no.
A few minutes later, he asks if she wants to go to a medical clinic at a church. This time she accepts. But can she make a phone call first?
Not yet, Mr. Sellers says. Allowing her to use the phone puts him at risk of breaking the law. He’s not going to notify the Border Patrol either. The volunteers call the Border Patrol only if the immigrant requests it. In fact, if an immigrant slips away into Tucson after a medical evacuation—as Ana does a few days later—they don’t notify law enforcement.