Borderland Deaths of Migrants Quietly Reach Crisis Numbers

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The sun-bleached bones of a human skeleton lay in disarray: the skull rolled on its crown, an S-curved spinal column about two feet away. Leg bones were in a haphazard pile. There were personal items too - a wallet, pair of walking shoes and a dirt-caked T-shirt.

They belonged to a man, most likely a migrant who had faced off with the Sonoran Desert in an attempt to come north. While most attention on immigration has been directed recently at the human drama unfolding around a surge of children fleeing from Central American countries, the immigrant death toll on the US-Mexico border has quietly exploded, even as undocumented migration overall has plummeted.

The bones were found by Aguilas del Desierto (Eagles of the Desert), an all-volunteer search-and-rescue organization, in the blistering Arizona desert heat of the Organ Pipe Cactus national park just south of Ajo, a sparsely populated region of Pima County that neighbors the Mexican border. As many were hunkering over barbecues or lighting off fireworks, these men rolled out of California on a 300-mile trek across Interstate 8. I rode shotgun in long-time volunteer and Marine Corps veteran Vicente Rodriguez's old red Forerunner.

Roughly once a month, they leave their families and personal lives to take these trips and plunge into some of the country's most inhospitable landscapes. They hail from different walks of life - a roofer, a photographer, a medical supply importer, a gardening business owner, a water technician. But their common goal is finding at least some of the hundreds who die every year traversing the borderlands.

According to US Border Patrol statistics, 477 people died crossing in 2012, and 445 died crossing in 2013. The numbers have steadily shot up since 1998, when 263 died, according to the agency's statistics. A total of almost 7,000 people have died between 1998 and 2013. But the true number is likely higher, considering many are never found.

Throttling along the hot pavement with no air conditioner to speak of, Vicente was blunt about the search prospects.

"Most of the time we are looking for a dead person - cadavers," he said. "By the time [the migrant group] makes it out of the desert, several days have passed. Lack of water and heat is usually what kills them."

As we drove with hot air roaring through open windows and volunteers Danny Morales and Ricardo Equivias passing time cracking jokes in the backseat, the border fence came into view and snaked along to my right. Vicente started pointing out seemingly innocuous geographical features that form a killer gauntlet for migrants. Enough people drowned in drinking water canals that lawmakers were forced to string ropes across. The nearly-vertical, sunburned peaks of rock rubble in the Imperial Valley that look like salt mine tailings in a dystopian global warming future literally bake people alive.

"This is like an oven," Vicente said. "The rocks heat up, and they hold the heat and just get hotter."

A couple years ago, the group found two men stranded on those rock peaks. One of them died minutes after rescuers got there, in the arms of his friend. The other survived.

The seven volunteers finally converged after 10 pm in the little town of Gila Bend, Arizona, huddled in front of a tiny Mexican restaurant and consulted a map. At dawn, they headed out to the desert. A few schooled me, an obvious novice to this kind of expedition, on various plants that presented hazards like the cholla cactus, which looks soft but has hook-like thorns. Though we all wore blindingly bright neon shirts, they pointed out how easy it is to lose sight of each other.

They donned commando-like gear and forged forward abreast of each other, combing through thorny brush, scaling a network of washes and facing dangers unknown - from wild animals to stumbling into cartel footmen. They also stood at the ready with water, radios and first aid supplies in case they found a lost migrant in need of help.

Far off the beaten trails, they came across signs of furtive human presence and perhaps of distress, like shed socks, jackets, a little girl's backpack, blankets and water jugs.

Soon the banter coming through the radios - previously upbeat - turned intense. They had found human remains near the area the man they were looking for was last seen. I followed Vicente's lead to the site and suddenly, out under the open sky, was standing over bleached white bones, what little was left of a man whose name I did not know and maybe never will know, and whose agony I can't imagine.

As per their protocol, the volunteers notified authorities. If they find someone who is alive and in need of emergency help, they render what first aid they can and call for emergency responders, though it may result in the person getting sent back in the end.

"It's better to be deported than dead," Vicente said.

Later, Ricardo said few people have seen what we saw that day, or know that crossing the border has become a gamble with death.

"What is happening out here is a crime," he said. "In that place, I don't think God even goes, that cruel desert. You saw those bones."

Border Militarization and Its Deadly Effect

People used to cross in more populated urban areas like San Diego, El Paso and Nogales. But operations Gatekeeper, Hold the Line and Safeguard - characterized by blockading the US-Mexico border at those locations with things like fences, motion sensors and more Border Patrol agents - are funneling migrants out to the desert. Before, deaths were infrequent and often involved things like accidents or crime. Now, people die from exposure.

"It's a humanitarian crisis, and it's been a humanitarian crisis since 1994," said Enrique Morones, executive director of immigrant advocacy group Border Angels, referring to the year the border fences started going up. "Before that wall was being built, one or two people would die every month. After the wall was built, you started having one or two per day."

Pima County alone has already seen 76 border crossing deaths so far this year, medical examiner Greg Hess said.

As undocumented border crossings have plummeted, indicated by 1.5 million Border Patrol apprehensions in 1999 versus only 356,873 in 2012, enforcement has skyrocketed. During the same period, 4,208 Border Patrol agents in 1993 bloated in just nine years to 21,394, according to a report released last year by the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization based in Arlington, Virginia.

"In other words, between FY 1999 and FY 2012, immigrant deaths increased by more than 80 percent at the same time apprehensions, a measure of illegal entry, declined by 77 percent," according to the report.

Border Patrol has a search-and-rescue operation that when notified often aids in searches for people who are believed to be alive, volunteers said. They also have towering, illuminated rescue beacons along the border that can be activated if a migrant needs help. Officials from US Customs and Border Protection didn't return phone calls and emails seeking comment for this story.

Migrants normally travel in groups, Vicente said. Each pays a coyote, which is basically a human smuggler, to guide them. But with harsh conditions, many don't make it to their destination and are left behind to die. The man they were looking for was last seen by the group he was traveling with last year after losing consciousness about 12 miles north of the border.

The body had been in the desert for four months to a year, Hess said. He expects identification to be difficult. The man's wallet was empty, and matching dental records in foreign countries is unpredictable. An ID will likely have to be made through DNA. If they are able to confirm an identification, the remains will be returned to the man's family.

"We've received the highest number of undocumented border crosser remains since about 2000, up until currently. We still see the highest number," Hess said of Pima County. "People will cross into the US clandestinely in response to enforcement patterns and that's the way it's worked for a long time."

Starting in the 1990s, the US government started using a policy known as "prevention as deterrence" to stop migrants from crossing, which resulted in border fences being built and a massive spending program of $18 billion in the 2012 fiscal year, more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to studies.

But building fences and tightening security won't keep people from crossing, said Robin Reineke, anthropologist and founder of the Colibrí Center in Tucson, which helps families locate remains of missing migrant relatives. Instead, as they do now, they will simply continue taking greater risks.

"Migration has been a strategy of survival for as long as humans have existed - we've always moved on when the local climate or conditions were not sustainable for our bodies and our families," she said. "When your family's wellbeing is at stake and you don't have any hope of safety or a secure job at home, then I think any of us would do whatever it takes."

There are 900 unidentified remains believed to be those of migrants in Pima County alone, Reineke said. The Colibrí Center has 1,500 cases of missing persons where their families reported they were last seen crossing the border.

There are 650 miles of fencing and 1,500 surveillance and communication towers at the border, according to US Customs and Border Protection. The recent influx of refugee children from Central America has also given lawmakers an excuse to talk about spending even more on what is already a fortress-like scenario.

"The places where migrants are crossing, the remote geographies where they are dying, it's actually very hard to discover the remains," Reineke said. "That's a big contribution to the true number of deaths being likely quite higher than the numbers we have."

Vicente hinted at another reason the official count may be a lowball estimate. People contact his group and other volunteer humanitarian organizations to locate missing people because they fear approaching US government agencies will lead to their arrest and deportation.

"They won't let themselves be interviewed by the Border Patrol or the sheriffs," he said.

Reineke called the situation violent, very troubling and very sad.

"They're dying in the desert, from lack of food, water and shelter, and their bodies are decomposing so rapidly that their families only often have a small pile of bones, if they are able to identify them at all," she said. "In most cases, someone who would die in the summer in Arizona would be unrecognizable the next day."

Trapped and Exploitable

The legacy of human movement between the United States and its southern neighbors, particularly Mexico, has been a long and wrenching one for migrants.

While migrant labor has always been a significant and important part of the US economy, particularly in the Southwest, laws regulating it have fluctuated for political reasons, said Aviva Chomsky, professor of history and coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Salem State University. The idea that migration is "illegal" is relatively new and has a lot to do with racial bias.

"Before the Fourteenth Amendment, there were no restrictions on immigration at all, because no one could be citizens except whites," Chomsky said. But after the Civil War, "citizenship by birth changed all that. That's when racially restrictive immigration laws started." [...]

 

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