Tucson doctor honored for helping migrants in the desert

Dr. Norma Price moved to Tucson nearly two decades ago, after a career as an oncologist in Atlanta.

Soon she learned more about the perils migrants face crossing into the United States across the harsh Sonora Desert.

And Price found a new calling: using her medical expertise, and her conviction, to help ailing migrants.

Price has been named a Hero of Health and Human Rights for her work by the Physicians for Human Rights. She received the award in May in New York City.

Price said that while she’d heard about undocumented immigrants coming into the U.S. from Mexico on foot, she didn’t fully understand the danger they faced until she started living in Tucson, some 60 miles from the border.

In 2002 she attended the first meeting of the Samaritans — a group of volunteers who put water in the desert in jugs and roam through the backroads, by foot or on four-wheel-drive vehicles, to find crossers who are injured or have been left behind.

She remembers how John Fife, now a retired minister for Southside Presbyterian Church and a Samaritans founder, asked for help.

“I was new in Tucson and I looked around and there were 70 people in that room and nobody said anything and he said, ‘We need a medical person to go out on that trip.’ So I raised my hand and went on that first trip that that’s how I got started,” Price said with a chuckle. “Still here and much older.”

Price is now the medical adviser for both the Samaritans and No More Deaths, another aid group with a similar mission. Price provides medical assistance to migrants she encounters in the desert.

“What kind of person does that?” Fife said. “You try to look for me the number of physicians in Tucson who are on-call 24/7 and who, when you have a medical need, will go to you. Not many.”

Migrants walking across the desert often suffer from dehydration, hypothermia and severe blisters, Price said. The chances of survival are low when migrants are alone and wounded. “If they get left behind, it’s really a death threat unless Border Patrol finds them or volunteers find them.”

Humane Borders, a group that helps track deaths in the border region, recorded 3,244 deaths in the Arizona desert from 1999 through April of this year.

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has assessed 2,816 human remains, believed to be undocumented border crossers, since 2000. In 2017, the office examined remains of 128 crossers.

Samaritans and No More Deaths aim to find migrants before they become a border death statistic.

U.S. border policies impact how immigration patterns have fluctuated throughout the years, resulting in fewer apprehensions and border crossings, according to data from the Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Humanitarian groups have had to adjust to changing practices, too.

Two volunteers from No More Deaths, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, were arrested in 2005 for transporting immigrants to a hospital. Price said that they showed signs of severe dehydration and couldn’t be helped by the medical person on-site.

To avoid conflict with the Border Patrol and the law, Samaritan volunteers attend training. Lawyers explain what help volunteers can provide in the field to undocumented immigrants. They also learn first aid and the history of the border region.

In addition to sharing her medical skills, Price helps immigrants through Keep Tucson Together, a volunteer-run legal clinic for immigrants that helps them apply for citizenship, DACA renewals, visas and other processes.

“These are contributing members of the community. It’s hard to change the mind of both sides. People who are for immigration reform and against immigration reform. You would hope that to somebody who isn’t convinced, you would show that these are valuable members of the community who are contributing to the economy, who are contributing to the community life. They should not be prosecuted as criminals.”

Donna McKay, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, said the organization honored Price, in part, for her commitment to helping migrants in dire need, long before immigration policy was all over the news.

Price is dedicated also to sharing migrants’ stories with a larger audience. She co-authored “Crossing with the Virgin” with other Samaritan volunteers. The book includes perspectives of people whose lives changed with the desert — from volunteers to migrants.

Price recalled a story not of death in the desert, but life.

A few weeks before being found by the Samaritans, a 25-year-old woman from Guatemala gave birth in the desert.

Price called the infant girl a “miracle baby,” a child with “survivor engraved in her soul.”

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