In vast deserts along the US-Mexico border, illegal immigration wears a very human face - both that of the travelers and of compassionate residents, who straddle a precarious line between performing good deeds and breaking the law.
The suffering of immigrants - 56 men, women, and children have died of heat exhaustion in the arid badlands since October - has prompted growing numbers of Americans to offer help. Their actions stand in sharp contrast with anti-immigrant vigilantes making headlines earlier this year.
While many northbound travelers are given food, water, and temporary shelter by people quietly acting on their own, the humanitarian crisis has also sparked several new assistance groups throughout the Southwest, reminiscent of the much-publicized Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s.
But these borderland Samaritans face a difficult choice: Punishment for harboring or transporting undocumented immigrants can mean up to 10 years in jail and fines of more than $250,000.
"We would caution anyone about what it could be worth to their personal freedom," says Cathy Colbert of the US Attorney's office in Arizona.
Jan Weller trod that fine line on a cold night last March, when she discovered three travelers shivering outside her gate in rural southeastern Arizona.
'They were wet and cold'
"At first my husband said, 'Don't you dare bring them in,' " she says.
"But I was standing out there with them, and they were wet and cold. Then I looked back at our house and saw smoke coming out our chimney, and thought, 'I know I can help these people. I can't solve their problems, but I can help them right now.' "
More immigrants were waiting on the road, and Ms. Weller eventually found 22 unexpected visitors - including a 10-year-old boy - gathered around her wood-burning stove.
By sunrise, Border Patrol agents had picked up the group for return to Mexico.
Weller says she wasn't worried about landing in jail. "The way I look at it, if you are just trying to help, and not trying to break the law, it's OK to give them food or whatever until the authorities come."
That's the way the Border Patrol looks at it, too, says David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.
"First, people should call the appropriate law-enforcement entities." If that occurs, Mr. Aguilar says, "We certainly do not discourage [citizens] from helping any individual in distress."
But enforcing the law while not condemning innocent good deeds can be a tricky balancing act for the government.
"Clearly, in a situation where there's humanitarian need, any reasonable person would respond with assistance," says Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. At the same time, "It is a felony to harbor undocumented aliens," he says. "If you are caught harboring them, you might very well be in violation of the law."
And some groups are deliberately probing those legal boundaries.
Based 45 minutes north of Mexico in tiny Bisbee, Ariz., Citizens for Border Solutions is consulting attorneys to ascertain just how far it can go in offering food, shelter, and medical assistance. The group is planning workshops, and has begun networking with like-minded organizations in neighboring states, says member Roy Goodman.
"We're also trying to get information to people coming across that, 'Hey, when you cross the border, you're not just going to go a couple of miles where there's going to be a highway or a town,' " he says. "That's why people are dying - even people with infants are going willy-nilly into the wilderness."
The budding network has also revitalized many veterans of the Sanctuary Movement, including the Rev. John Fife.
In 1986, the minister of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church was among eight activists convicted on various immigrant-smuggling charges, stemming from an underground railroad the group operated for refugees from civil-war-torn Central America.
Mr. Fife served five years' probation for his efforts. Today, the minister says a new assistance movement is "just beginning to be organized.... Faith communities are meeting to address the whole set of moral issues along the border.
"We're going to be public about everything we do, because it's part of the obligation to change immoral and disastrous immigration policies."
He considers it among the "best traditions along the borderlands. People in this region have always responded to human need with compassion."
Meanwhile, more ominous echoes of the Sanctuary days also rumble through the region. The government earned much bad press by infiltrating the earlier organization and aggressively prosecuting its members.
Modern-day activists likewise report many rumors of plain-clothed "agent provocateurs" among their ranks.
This makes people "very cautious" about discussing their assistance, says Mr. Goodman.
Mr. Bergeron of the INS doesn't deny that his agency uses informants along the border, but says he's "obviously not going to comment on specific activities."
The resulting suspicions are causing some to rethink offering help - and has even driven a wedge between friends.
Bisbee architect Todd Bogatay discovered that on the day before Easter, when a band of immigrants arrived at his doorstep.
"I was planning to feed them, put them up overnight, and let them go on their way," Mr. Bogatay says.
But a pal who was visiting him buckled out of fear, and called the Border Patrol as the travelers slept.
"As it turned out, I felt like I was leading lambs to the slaughter when we turned them over to the Border Patrol. It was very upsetting," Bogatay says. "They were young kids with bright eyes and bushy tails, and I didn't see why I had to do that. It kind of broke our friendship right there."
Weller's experience ended on a more uplifting note. "They were very courteous, very nice and appreciative," she says.
"They were even concerned about getting mud on the floor. The little boy had a plastic-covered picture of Jesus, and he tried to give it to me, to thank me for helping him. I told him to keep it, that he needed the help."
Her husband eventually softened his stance, and their young daughter also joined the gathering.
"It just moved all of us," Weller says. "We were so thankful for what we had, and we felt so sorry for these people."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society