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.
Undocumented migrants pass a boy between two cars on a moving northbound freight train known as “The Beast,” because of rampant accidents and violent crime, as it passes through Tenosique, Mexico, July 2, 2014. (Photo: Meridith Kohut / The New York Times)
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.
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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.”
Historically, migration from Mexico was circular, she said. People would come north to work, and then they would return home.
“What changed that was the militarization of the border that started in the late 20th century,” Chomsky said. “The more the border is militarized, the more the undocumented population grows. Instead of coming and going, people come and stay because it’s too dangerous to keep gambling with the repeated border crossings.”
Operation Gatekeeper, launched under the Clinton administration in 1994, allocated millions of dollars to build fences starting with San Diego-Tijuana, and ramp up Border Patrol agents. The border fence has expanded and now blocks various locations across the 2,000-mile border.
“When they secured that border to make it more difficult to cross, there was a whole lot of people on this side of the border that could not go back,” said Bill Flores, a retired high-ranking officer with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s not like they wanted to stay here, but they were stuck. Before it was more transient; now it’s more permanent.”
Chomsky connects the dots between civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander’s idea, illustrated in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, of a caste system created via legal status. Alexander argues that oncede jure, outright racist policies against African-Americans were outlawed following the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a backlash ensued to circuitously reinstate inequities that defined the Jim Crow era. Racially profiling and disproportionately incarcerating blacks at higher rates than whites has resulted in the stripping away of the very civil liberties supposedly gained in the civil rights movement like the right to vote, hold a job, sit on juries and receive public benefits.
“Interestingly the rights they’re deprived of are quite similar to the rights people who are undocumented are deprived of,” Chomsky observed. “They physically exist but legally they are excluded. By defining one group of people as inherently racially, legally different, you then justify all manner of atrocities against them.”
While it had once been commonplace and legal to discriminate against Mexican, Central and South American people simply because of their countries of origin, the civil rights era saw an end to that, as it saw an end to outright discrimination against black Americans. Under the bracero program that existed between 1942 and 1964, Mexican laborers were allowed to work in the United States, but it was like a system of indentured servitude where workers had no control over the terms of their labor, very few rights and poor working conditions, Chomsky said.
Once the bracero program was eliminated amid the atmosphere of the civil rights movement, the United States was forced to dump openly race-biased immigration laws that gave preferential treatment to certain northern European immigrants. What resulted was the Hart-Celler Act, which placed a uniform visa quota on all countries.
Though Hart-Celler looked equal on paper, it was still racially biased, Chomsky pointed out. Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, China and India have very large populations. Mexican workers had historically crossed the border in the tens of thousands yearly. So giving tiny European countries like Luxemburg, Switzerland, Belgium or Andorra the same visa limit as Asian countries and Mexico still favors European immigration, she said.
“The 1965 immigration law is an example of how trying to look equal on paper doesn’t really treat people equally,” she said. “It’s not openly racially biased, but it is.”
While Alexander links the backlash against the Civil Rights Act to practices like racial profiling, the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have resulted in mass incarceration that’s turned the clock back on racial justice by labeling people “felons,” Chomsky said immigration laws have resulted in discrimination against migrants by labeling them “illegal.”
“It was a very deliberate creation of this status to replace a previous status using a terminology and a rationale that is supposedly less racially charged,” she said.
Despite rabid anti-immigrant sentiment and the ratcheting up of measures aimed at expelling or blocking entry to migrants from south of the US border, Chomsky pointed out the trapped population with no avenue toward legal status makes for big profits both as cheap, readily-abused labor and as inmates in private prisons, while becoming easy scapegoats for political opportunists who often fear-monger myths that immigrant workers take jobs from Americans.
In contrast, only 44,000 visas for “skilled and unskilled” workers were issued by the federal government for immigrant labor from all countries in 2013, according to Department of Homeland Security data.
“When we think about the actual demand for immigrant workers and what immigration laws permit, and contrast that with the type of sensationalized thinking and reporting about immigration, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance across the board,” said Tom K. Wong, assistant professor in political science who specializes in immigration at the University of California at San Diego. “Despite what the reality is, the narrative is constant. And the reality is, we don’t actually give permanent residence to a lot of workers. That’s reflected in the numbers.”
Criminalization of immigration with an angle at “enforcement-only” practices without meaningful evolution of immigration policy directly links to the high death rate at the border, according to the National Foundation for American Policy study, which found:
The loss of life will almost certainly continue unless more paths are open to work legally in the United States. The only plausible way to eliminate immigrant deaths at the border, as well as reduce illegal immigration in the long term, is to institute a new program of temporary visas or portable work permits for foreign workers. Strong evidence exists that the current “enforcement-only” policy has strengthened criminal gangs, providing a profitable line of business for Mexican criminal enterprises. If Mexican and Central American workers could come to America on a legal visa or work permit they would have no need to employ the services of a coyote or criminal enterprise.
Chomsky says much broader and drastic changes in thinking and policy must occur. As she writes in her book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, “Human rights – including the right to be recognized as a person equal to other people – apply to everyone: no exceptions. Let’s admit that our discriminatory laws are unjustifiable. Let’s abolish the category “illegal” and give everyone the right to exist.”
Profiteering From Lack of Legal Status
A survey of news reports from around the country indicates many have found capitalizing on the illegal status placed on immigrants to be profitable.
ProPublica investigated the growth in temp workers who are largely Spanish-speaking immigrants with few workplace protections, revealing how mega-corporations like Walmart, Philips Norelco and BMW benefit from such exploitable labor.
According to ProPublica’s reporting:
Latinos make up about 20 percent of all temp workers. In many temp towns, agencies have flocked to neighborhoods full of undocumented immigrants, finding labor that is kept cheap in part by these workers’ legal vulnerability: They cannot complain without risking deportation.
ProPublica also uncovered examples of how these migrant workers are placed in harm’s way and often pay the ultimate price, including instances where a worker was buried and suffocated to death by sugar while trying to unclog machinery, and a worker who was slowly crushed to death by machinery making hummus. In both cases, employers showed disregard for workers by not bothering with safety guidelines. The brother and co-worker of a deceased worker told ProPublica:
They waited for something bad to happen . . . They just use people like us – take advantage of us. They just throw you in there and it’s like, what happens, happens.
The New York Times also found that immigrants in detention centers function as virtual slave labor, being paid as little as $1 a day to keep their detention centers operating while the private prison companies that own the facilities cash out. Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, which own the majority of immigrant detention centers, made $301 million and $115 million in net earnings, respectively, according to The New York Times.
Per the Times’ May report:
As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor – usually for $1 a day or less – at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.
There are no signs that the precipitous drop-off in undocumented migration will yield a symmetrical reduction in detention of immigrants. In April, GEO Group announced a $45 million, 640-bed expansion to hold immigrants at a prison in Adelanto, California. The expansion is expected to generate $21 million in additional, annualized revenues for the company, according to an April 2014 press release.
Private companies aren’t the only ones cashing in on immigrant detention. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that the practice had been a moneymaker for local jurisdictions in the past, reporting that at the height of the economic crash in 2008:
Washington paid nearly $55.2 million to house detainees at 13 local jails in California in fiscal year 2008, up from $52.6 million the previous year. The US is on track to spend $57 million this year . . . For some cash-strapped cities, the federal money has become a critical source of revenue, covering budget shortfalls and saving positions.
Private prisons and public agencies alike have cashed in on immigrant detention doubtlessly with the help of a controversial detention quota imposed by members of Congress in 2009 that requires US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold 34,000 people in detention every day, as The Washington Post reported last year.
Justifying the quota, Rep. John Abney Culberson, a Texas Republican and member of the House Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee, told the Post: “We know ICE can fill more than 34,000 beds, so why would they use less?”
The quota has resulted in an astronomical increase in the number of immigrants detained, more than doubling between 1999 and 2009 to 369,483, according to areport by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data research and gathering organization at Syracuse University. Two years later, the number of immigrants in detention rose to 429,000 in 2011, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. A whopping 88 percent of these detainees were from Mexico (67 percent) or Central America (21 percent), according to a 2011 Department of Homeland Security report.
Driving forces behind migration include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into law in 1994, the same year the border fence went up, and has sunk many in Mexico into poverty by throwing the country’s markets and economy open to US business. Subsidized American products like corn and pork began flowing into Mexico and driving prices down to the point where local, smaller-scale enterprisescouldn’t compete. The rapid, destabilizing downward shift of the Mexican economy sent people north, as demand for cheap services and labor continues in the United States.
US foreign intervention and the toppling of democratically elected governments in Central and Latin America have resulted in turbulence, and its “war on drugs” has been criticized as a major contributor to cartel violence in Mexico.
In a 2010 talk, Chomsky pointed out that people have been migrating freely over the face of the planet since the dawn of humanity, and the idea of controlling human migration is only about 200 years old.
“It’s salutary to remember this when we think about what would happen if we stopped trying to control immigration,” she said in 2010. “For tens of thousands of years the human race had no controls on immigration and somehow we muddled along, things worked themselves out without immigration controls. It’s not impossible to imagine that we could create a new system that did not rely on trying to control people’s freedom of movement.”
Reineke, from the Colibrí Center in Tucson, said it’s time to rethink how US policies have created pressures that force people to come north when they otherwise wouldn’t.
“We really can’t continue looking at the border as the place where the problem originates; that’s a very dangerous way to think about immigration in an increasingly global economy,” Reineke said. “We have increasingly open borders to commerce, markets, goods and the ability of companies to work across borders. But then we have increasingly closed borders to the free movement of people, especially those who are workers, who are not part of the consumer class.”
That combination of openly allowing consumer goods and investment to flow through borders unhindered while clamping down on the resulting movement of people has proven deadly, Reineke added.
It’s time for reevaluation but also soul-searching, she said.
“I do believe Americans are compassionate people, but I also believe fear and xenophobia about immigrants has allowed us to dehumanize them and be desensitized to the loss of life on the southern border,” she said.
“On the more extreme side, if we’re reacting with such hate, fear and disdain to children who are escaping violence and showing up on the southern border, we have a lot of work to do in terms of our relationship with our Latin American neighbors on this continent. We need to think through this problem in terms of saving lives. It’s an issue of conscience and morality for this country and Mexico as well.”
Vicente, the Marine Corps veteran, summed it up in his typical succinct, direct way.
“There are lots of trade treaties,” he said. “What we need is a human treaty.”
Exhausted, we left the borderlands behind with the sun beating us head-on as it set in the west, the direction we were heading. Each went our separate ways back to homes spread throughout Southern California.
The sadness of what I saw didn’t sink in until about 24 hours later, after the distraction and chaos of meeting and traveling with new people who were on a mission wore off. I was moved by their heroism, grit, persistence and humility. In the end, it’s Robin Reineke’s words that sting.
“As I’m going about my life in Tucson, there are people going through some of the most intense human suffering and survival happening on the global scale today, literally an hour from my house. I want more Americans to think through what that means for us.”
Bethania Palma Markus is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist.