Students from Montana State University traveled to Arizona to gain a firsthand understanding of controversial issues on the U.S.-Mexico border. They never expected to witness death in the desert.

Ellie Jackson, 19, a cell biology and neuroscience major from Bozeman, said her group hiked in the Sonoran Desert with local humanitarian volunteers.

They followed trails and explored caves where immigrants sometimes find shelter. They saw discarded shoes and slippers, tuna cans, backpacks, shirts. They took photos of a so-called miracle tree, where desperate people left rosaries and pictures of saints. They saw scavenger birds circling overhead.

At one point the students hiked up the wrong arroyo, Jackson said. That’s when they found skeletal remains. Volunteers from the nonprofit No More Deaths said it was the seventh day in a row they’d found human remains.

“There are people dying,” said Hannah Willis, 20, a global and multicultural studies major from Santa Cruz, California. “It should not be political. It’s a humanitarian aid crisis. So many people are dying.”

A dozen students and two teachers journeyed south in May, under the auspices of MSU’s office of student engagement, to learn about border issues.

They met with people on both sides of the border and both sides of the issues, said LaTrelle Scherffius, a Spanish instructor, and co-leader Bridget Kevane, professor of modern languages. Both teach classes on border issues.

“We thought it was important to go talk to people working there and see for ourselves,” Scherffius said. “We were trying to get a balanced view of a very contentious part of the country.”

They met with members of the Florence Project, who provide legal aid to asylum seekers, as well as a Border Patrol sector chief concerned about border security and fighting narcotics, who has “a super stressful job,” Scherffius said.

They witnessed Operation Streamline hearings in federal court, which end with deportation of about 75 people a day. They visited with native people of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a tribe that straddles the border, and met John Fife, founder of the Samaritans group, whose volunteers risk jail to provide water and emergency help to immigrants crossing the desert. They visited the border wall that divides Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico.

Scherffius recalled meeting at a U.S. detention center with a Mexican man about 26 years old.

“He said the cartel had picked him up, cut off the ends of all his fingers, burned his back with a blow torch and left him by the side of the road for dead,” she said. “The doctor told him to get to the border as quick as he could or they were going to kill him.”

The young man had been in U.S. detention for eight months, won his case and had been scheduled for release, but then the government decided to review his case again and hold him another three months. Scherffius said she was moved by his story and his optimism.

Willis was struck by the Operation Streamline courtroom, where government-appointed lawyers they met didn’t seem terribly interested in helping migrants, who were held in shackles and chains. “All they wanted was a new life,” she said.

In the same courthouse, a trial was underway for Scott Warren, a 36-year-old college instructor and No More Deaths volunteer, who faced up to 20 years for providing water and food to migrants in the desert. The trial ended last week with the jury deadlocked 8-4 for acquittal.

Americans often ask, “Why don’t they just come legally?” said Rachel Dunlap, 21, a global and multicultural studies and history major from Whitefish. But of the various paths to U.S. citizenship, the shortest is seven years, she said.

“They’re fleeing violence,” Dunlap said. “Seven years is not going to cut it. (They come) truly out of desperation.”

“I learned that these issues are very complex,” Scherffius said. “There are no simple solutions.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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