Meet the deported nurse aiding asylum seekers at US-Mexico border

Francisco ‘Panchito’ Olachea drives a beat-up ambulance around Nogales, taking care of those trying to get to the US.

In Nogales, deported nurse Panchito helps refugees
Panchito takes out the radio he had left in the ambulance; it doesn’t work anymore either and needs to be repaired [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

Nogales, Mexico – Francisco “Panchito” Olachea drove up to the port of entry to the US in Nogales, Mexico last Wednesday in a four-by-four Suzuki with a broken windshield and worn-out tires.

The 57-year-old nurse, dressed in light blue scrubs with a stethoscope hanging around his neck, walked up to a small group of families waiting to speak to US immigration officials about their case for asylum.

Lourdes Gonzales was sitting with her son and daughter on a pair of old blankets with two duffel bags full of her belongings next to her.

Panchito told Gonzales he was a nurse.

“I’m here to see if you and your children are doing okay,” he said.

Panchito asked about her health and sat down to take her blood pressure. It was normal.

The 28-year-old told Panchito that she had just arrived from the Mexican state of Guerrero, which has been torn apart by violence.

“I had to leave my home,” Gonzales told Al Jazeera.

“Some people started to send me these notes in which they threatened me. They told me I had to pay them money and they would kill me if I didn’t comply.”

One of the notes that Gonzales carried said: “Your days are numbered.”

She also carried documents showing the official charges she made against these people.

She said the police didn’t help her. And, making a living as a single mother from selling clothing, she didn’t have the money to pay the people who were threatening her.

“I ran away because of my children,” she said.

Gonzales is checked by Panchito after arriving at the port of entry in Nogales [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]
Gonzales is checked by Panchito after arriving at the port of entry in Nogales [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

After checking her health and determining she wasn’t carrying diseases, Panchito told Gonzales someone would take her to one of the shelters where she could wait until it was her turn to come back to the port of entry to request asylum.

“You will have to wait your turn. It can take some weeks,” he said.

‘He must have a white-people bible’

Having crossed the border in 1976 as a tourist when he was 16 years old, Panchito, who is originally from the Mexican state of Baja California, overstayed his visa and lived in the US for some 30 years. 


He had three daughters and worked as a welder and a caregiver for the elderly in Phoenix, Arizona.

He was near retirement when he got pulled over after drinking a few beers.

Because driving under the influence is a felony in the US and Panchito was undocumented, he was deported in 2008.

Almost immediately after being deported, Panchito realised what he wanted to do with the rest of his life: help migrants stuck in Nogales, just like himself.

“This is what my Christian faith tells me to do,” Panchito told Al Jazeera while driving through the streets of Nogales.

“This is the real Christianity, not the one you hear the Trump government talk about,” he said, referring to US President Donald Trump.

“For him, there is no shame in stepping all over minorities. He must have a white-people bible. I haven’t seen one myself, but he must have a bible which we haven’t read.”

The Walking Ambulance

After studying to become a nurse in Nogales, where he received his official degree, he started to walk the streets of the town with medical supplies in his backpack, prompting others to call him La Ambulancia Caminante or The Walking Ambulance.

In 2013, he bought a 15-year-old van he could use as an ambulance with the help of the Good Samaritans and other US donor organisations.

He started to drive migrants and refugees to hospital in emergency cases.

“At a certain point, I would be the one following up on 911 here in town because the hospital needed that,” Panchito said.

“But I stopped doing that because I want to focus on the migrants,” he added.

Two days a week, Panchito works as a police officer, which pays just enough to take care of his rent and food.

He spends the rest of his time as a volunteer nurse.

But, with the limited resources he has, keeping his ambulance on the road is a constant struggle.

Last month, his transmission broke down, so now he drives around in the borrowed Suzuki.

Panchito spends a lot of time driving asylum seekers from the port of entry to shelters or vice versa [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]
Panchito spends a lot of time driving asylum seekers from the port of entry to shelters or vice versa [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

Earlier in the day, he rushed a pregnant refugee to the hospital. She had arrived in Nogales an hour earlier on a bus and had gone into labour.

Fifteen minutes after they got to the hospital, doctors called to tell him the baby was being born.

“We were right on time,” Panchito said. “Otherwise I would have had to deliver her there, right at the line waiting at the port of entry, with some towels and whatever supplies I had on me. Can you imagine?”

Driving over steep potholed roads and past hillside neighbourhoods where the houses are dusty and paint is peeling away, Panchito arrived at an auto parts store to pick up a transmission for his ambulance.

“I christened my ambulance Cristina,” he said while showing off the ambulance, which had a crack in the windshield and wires hanging from the dashboard.

“That’s the name of one of my daughters, who cried so much because I wasn’t there with her. This way, she is always with me. Therefore, my little organisation is called Panchito y su Cristina, Panchito and his Cristina. That’s how people know me here.”

‘Migrants get robbed all the time’

More than a 100 asylum seekers are currently waiting in Nogales, according to the Kino Border initiative, an organisation doing humanitarian aid work in the border city.

Since the Trump administration announced its “zero-tolerance” policy in April, rights groups have reported long waits for asylum seekers at the border.

Under the administration’s policy, anyone caught crossing the border between official ports of entry is detained and prosecuted. After Trump signed an executive order last month, ending his administration’s practice of separating children from their parents at the border, Customs and Border Protection said it was no longer referring all those who arrived with their children for prosecution. However, the administration maintains the “zero-tolerance” policy is still in place. 

Several organisations, such as the Kino Border Initiative, have set up shelters where asylum seekers can wait their turn to apply for asylum at the port of entry.

While walking near the border, Panchito was stopped by a man sitting on the curb who asked him to check his blood pressure [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]
While walking near the border, Panchito was stopped by a man sitting on the curb who asked him to check his blood pressure [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

After visiting his mechanic, Panchito drove up to one of these shelters at the top of a hill in a building that used to be a canteen for the people living in the poor hillside neighbourhood.

Inside were several women and children, sitting and lying on thin mattresses on the floor. An old television set was showing cartoons.

There was a young boy in the shelter suffering from a sore throat. After looking in the boy’s mouth and asking a couple of questions, Panchito said the boy needed medication because he was suffering from an infection.

For many asylum seekers and migrants who get stranded in Nogales without any contacts, the city can also be dangerous.

“The important thing of these shelters is that they create a safe space for the migrants,” Panchito said.

“This is where they get food and where they can sleep under a roof, but where they’re also safe from gangs in the area,” he added.

 “Migrants get robbed all the time. Nogales is ugly.”

‘Can’t change the world, but can change a moment’

Back at the port of entry, there were new arrivals.

Iraida, who asked to be identified only by her first name, also came from Guerrero and had her two children with her.

While Panchito drove them to their shelter, Iraida told Al Jazeera she used to cook in her own little restaurant.

“People came to my restaurant with firearms and told me I wasn’t allowed to work anymore,” she said. “They told me I had to go away.”

Iraida started crying and looked out the car window silently until the car arrived at the shelter. 

You are not going to change the world, but you can at least change the moment.

by Francisco 'Panchito' Olachea

After Panchito dropped off the family, he said it’s sometimes hard for him not to become depressed.

“Living alone, there’s no-one to answer your questions. So sometimes you get lost in the conversations with yourselves,” he said.

“But, this is what my faith tells me to do,” he added.

“I took new credit just to pay for the repairs on my ambulance and I believe it will all work out for the good.”

Panchito said the Voice from the Border NGO is helping raise raising funds to pay off his debts.

“Otherwise, I will work for it myself, although it will take me a long time,” he added. 

After being in Nogales for 10 years, Panchito knows he will never return to the US.

But, with the recent crackdown on refugees and migrants, he feels all the more motivated to help them in any way he can.

“You are not going to change the world, but you can at least change the moment.”

Source: Al Jazeera