24 hours in a makeshift migrant shelter in the California wilderness

It was 1:53 a.m. and Peter Fink stood on a barren plateau near Campo, California, handing out blankets to people from four continents who had arrived there under the cover of night.

It was a nightly ritual for the 22-year-old, dressed in a baseball cap and wool shirt, whose perch – just over 300 meters up a rocky slope from the US-Mexico border wall – had become a ride around the world. boarding space for people who have entered US soil illegally.

With the armed National Guard of Mexico Now stationed at the most popular crossing points along southeastern San Diego County, migrant routes have moved further into remote wilderness, where people face more extreme terrain and temperatures with little to no infrastructure to keep them alive.

For migrants who wanted to be apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents and who were beginning to apply to stay in the country, Mr. Fink's makeshift camp, a dirt area beneath the grates of a high-voltage tower, had become the first stop, where modest rations of donated food, water and firewood helped migrants survive as they waited for agents to cross into the territory and detain them before their health languished dangerously.

At this site and others along the border, migrants have waited for hours or sometimes days to be taken into custody, and a Federal District Court judge ruled last week that the Border Patrol must move “swiftly” to bring in the children in safe and hygienic shelters. But unlike the outdoor waiting areas that had sprung up in more populated areas, Mr. Fink's site had no relief tents or medical volunteers, no dumpsters or port-a-potties — just a hole he had dug as a communal bathroom, and Mr. Fink himself.

In the morning there were Indians, Brazilians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Chinese.

Officials say federal funding and staffing are too limited to keep up with the influx of border crossings in the region, and operations like these have become a source of great tension in San Diego County.

Asked whether he was concerned that his humanitarian aid might encourage more people to arrive illegally, Mr. Fink shook his head.

“People don't spend their life savings or risk their children's lives to be able to taste these peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said.

Peter Fink is blond and fresh-faced, and he grows a beard just to show his age. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest and learned Spanish while working a summer job picking cherries. Fascinated by the immigration crisis in 2020, he spent months in Arizona, walking across the border to volunteer at a Sonora migrant shelter by day and, at night, earning a degree in international studies online, using Wi-Fi free in one Local McDonald's.

He didn't create this camp on top of the mountain; he found it. A local man had noticed fires burning on the plateau every night and Mr Fink, a wildland firefighter and keen camper who was traveling through the region, volunteered to spend the night on the ground in a tent to see what was up. Within hours, more than 200 migrants arrived on foot – including pregnant women, children and the elderly – huddled together in the biting wind.

Word spread through southern communities of what is known as the Mountain Empire, an area so isolated that the small desert town of Jacumba Hot Springs (pop. 857), 30 miles away, became the operation's headquarters . Volunteers collected firewood from scraps at an ax throwing site and a live table maker. An abandoned youth center was used to sort non-perishable donations. A shipping container in someone's backyard has become a sort of storage facility for cases of water and tarps.

After that first night in early March, Mr. Fink spent another, then another. He set up a series of four-person tents in a neat row, cramming 10 into each when the winds became particularly unbearable. He used white paint to label the drawers of old office filing cabinets in four languages, listing rations of applesauce for babies and formula for babies. He has established guidelines for his camping trip: one snack per person; no waste; store firewood; women and children have priority in tents.

On this day, the sun was almost overhead when Mr. Fink looked through his binoculars and saw a couple left by an unmarked vehicle on a dirt road in Mexico and trekking through arid bushland into the United States. The woman began to slow down. She was visibly pregnant.

Mr. Fink grabbed two bottles of water and began his descent into the canyon below, waiting until the two were a safe distance from the border wall so as not to encourage them. Once on American soil, the woman gasped heavily and she dropped to the ground. Her husband crouched down in front of her and took her face in his hands.

“All right?” she whispered, wiping the sweat from her forehead. She nodded.

For a moment there was silence. Then Mr. Fink asked in Spanish where they were from (San Salvador), how soon the baby was due (one month) and whether the two had been extorted for money by Mexican authorities as they headed toward the border wall. The couple said no.

“Good luck,” he said.

He led them on the climb to camp, past discarded bags and clothing and using footholds he had dug into the earth with a technique he had learned for fighting fires. As soon as they got to camp, he turned and started running back down into the valley. He had noticed a young girl in polka-dot pants and a ponytail wandering around with her mother, and he could see that they were about to take the wrong path.

Once she arrived at the camp, the girl, Briana Lopez, 5, ate Welch's fruit snacks offered by Mr. Fink and talked on the phone with her father, still at home in Guatemala.

“How are you, my son? Are you happy?” she asked in Spanish.

“Well!” she said. “Yes!” Well! Forks!

Her parents discussed how she and her mother might face immigration detention when arrested. Briana chimed in, excited: she thought they were going to Disneyland.

The last group of migrants was gathered at dusk and Mr Fink hunkered down in his tent, munching on a piece of pita bread and arranging for donations to be delivered via his mobile phone.

It was about the time he usually went to sleep, hoping it would come a few hours before the first wave of the night arrived. But in the distance he heard exasperated breathing, and a woman appeared alone, collapsing in her arms, crying.

Her traveling companions had left her behind, she said, following an underground railroad track and heading too far west, disappearing into the desert. Now they were missing.

Mr. Fink climbed to the highest point of the rock ledge, put his hands around his mouth and shouted in Spanish: “There, we have water and food! Don't be afraid: come this way!” his voice echoes through the valley. “Hey, welcome to the United States!”

He wrapped the woman in a blanket while he waited. “Dios te bendiga,” she said. God bless you.

Finally, her two lost companions climbed up the ridge to the other side of the plateau, sobbing and hugging her. Mr. Fink packed a bag for each of them as they followed Border Police orders to undress and get into a government van.

By 8:13 p.m. the site was silent again, except for the power lines humming overhead and the dogs cooing their evening songs on the Mexican side. In the darkness, Mr. Fink sanitized and tidied up the tents, then lit yard lights and glow sticks along the path to camp for those who would arrive at night.

Within a week, Mr. Fink would leave for the Northwest, where the sorghum and amaranth planting season would begin and where landscaping and construction jobs awaited him. But its tarps, firewood and mountaintop filing cabinets remain, and supplies are replenished periodically by volunteers.

When a group of Colombians were released from Border Police custody in the United States the following week, an aid worker heard them talk about “an angel” who had kept them alive and won their hearts – “un güerito” who spoke a lot the Spanish was good, they were told, and that they had found in a tent.

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