WALLA WALLA - There is a saying in Spanish, "ningun ser humano es ilegal," that translated means "no human being is illegal."
Keiler Beers summons that quote to describe his week volunteering in the Arizona desert, where Mexico and the United States meet along a brutal landscape.
Wherever people stand on the illegal immigration debate, Beers believes everyone should agree on one thing: people who attempt to cross into the United States should not have to die because of dehydration, starvation or illness.
"No one should have to die in the desert," said Beers, a sophomore at Whitman College. "Everyone should have the basic right to live."
Beers and five other Whitman students spent a week of their spring break volunteering with No More Deaths, an advocacy group that provides humanitarian aid to immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico. The group regards the loss of life along our border as a human rights crisis.
The students traveled March 9-17 to the Arizona desert outside Tucson, where they camped for the week. They spent their days delivering jugs of water, cans of beans, blankets, socks and other supplies along trails. Trained volunteers were also available to provide basic medical support.
Beers initiated the Whitman outreach as a way to do something meaningful during spring break. Working with No More Deaths emerged as the right cause. Other interested students committed to the volunteer work.
Whitman's student government helped cover the cost of airfare. In return, the students are putting on a public event Wednesday to highlight the issue of human rights violations along the border.
From the forum, Beers hopes a broader discussion develops on the underlying issues driving people into the United States. He said many of the people coming through the Mexican border willingly risk their lives because of the extreme poverty they hope to leave behind.
Despite a personal passion for defending human rights, and some knowledge on illegal immigration at the border, Beers said he was not prepared for facing the reality of it.
"It's incredibly hard to prepare yourself for how heartbreaking it is out there," he said.
While most of the work was done along trails, with the hopes that immigrants would find the supplies, the volunteers did meet a group of four immigrants who found the campsite by chance. They had been walking without food or water for four days. They had drunk water from a cow tank and gotten sick.
The volunteers provided medical aid, food, water and a place to rest.
Beers said No More Deaths neither encourages nor discourages people along their journey.
"Our focus isn't on if they're breaking the law, our focus is that they're humans who deserve the same chance to live as anyone else," he said.