Deadly conditions for Mexico-US migrants

Advocates say US government policy has caused hundreds of deaths while border patrol blames ‘alien smugglers’.

Mexico-US border in the Sonora desert in Arizona
 The number of people who died crossing the Mexico-US border doubled between 1995 and 2005, according to a US-Senate report  [GALLO/GETTY]

Humanitarian advocacy groups say the US government is at fault for heightening risks of crossing the Mexico-US border, where hundreds perish in the hard journey every year.

Many of the deaths occur in hot, barren areas in the Sonoran Desert along the border, where people become dehydrated, starved and lost.

By the time bodies are found, they are rarely still intact.

“[What is often found is] not a body. You are missing lots of things. Between the animals and the elements in Arizona, the reality is it’s a very ugly situation we’re facing. The most accurate term [for what is found] is human remains,” Kat Rodriguez, programme director of an Arizona-based independent immigrant advocacy organisation that runs the Human Remains Project (HRP), which tracks and reports deaths along the Mexico-Arizona border, told Al Jazeera.

The HRP has recorded 88 human remains found in Arizona between October 2010 and the end of March 2011.

Since October 2007, the project has reported 730 remains found along the border, all within the state.

But throughout the years, and increasingly, border deaths are in the thousands, according to estimates quoted in an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report.

Death in the desert

A US Senate-requested report by the US Government Accountability Office published in 2006 says the number of people dying while trying to migrate north had doubled from 1995 to 2005. The majority of these deaths occurred in the Arizona desert, where in 2005 alone, 472 deaths were reported.

“It’s widely known and accepted – this is uncontested – that for every one body or remains found, there are several others not found…We know the real numbers are much larger [than what’s been reported],” said Adam Aguirre, a spokesperson for No More Deaths, a faith-based organisation in Arizona whose primary function is to provide first aid and medical care to migrants in the northern Sonora desert, as well as to leave water in dry and desolate areas.

This is likely the reason that different organisations tracking deaths along the border come up with very different figures.

The ACLU report, published in 2009, compares figures from the US Department of Homeland Security and Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies Commission on Population and Borders, which counted 390 and 725 remains found, respectively, for the 2008 tracking period.

According to estimates in the ACLU report by Homeland Security, 3,861 migrants died trying to cross the border between 1994 and 2009, while Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Relations estimates the toll from the same time period to be 5,607.

The report also says that there has been a major shift in the causes of death, from mostly “traffic fatalities” through the early 1990s to over-exposure to heat, thirst and hunger since the later part of that decade.

Tucson-based US Border Patrol spokesperson Crystal Amarillas told Al Jazeera that the government is making efforts across the board to save lives.

“We have rescue beacons scattered throughout the Tucson sector, and that’s just one of our tools we use to try to make as many rescues as we can.”

She also described BORSTAR, Border Patrol’s “elite specialty unit… whose primary function is dedicated to providing medical care to anyone in distress”.

‘Enforcement folly’

In Washington DC, Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokesperson for the federal US Customs and Border Protection Agency agreed on the general policy described by Amarillas.

“Preventing people from risking their lives crossing the desert, and various campaigns to let people know that they are risking their lives, and why it’s treacherous [is the emphasis of US border policy],” she told Al Jazeera.

A sign in Arizona near the Mexico border warns migrants of desolate conditions [GALLO/GETTY]

Amarillas blamed “alien smugglers” for the deaths, saying, “Illegal alien deaths are the result of the callousness of the smugglers who knowingly victimise unwitting aliens, leading them through treacherous terrain and exposing them to extreme conditions.”

But Rodriguez, who tracks remains with the HRP, said the continuance of deaths at high numbers is part and parcel to the US border control strategy, which has been “to seal down the traditional crossing points, thereby forcing people to choose [to cross in] more desolate areas”.

“If there are hardships, and those include deaths, those are deterrents – so the government has actually factored this into the strategy to control the border.”

Aguirre’s understanding of US border policy is essentially the same. He said that policies have forced migrants away from safe crossing areas and “into the most dangerous parts of the desert, where anything from rattlesnakes to heat can kill them”.

“Quite frankly, the idea that you can stamp [migration] out with more and more enforcement is folly.

“This, in the minds of law enforcement, is meant to serve as a sort-of deterrent, which is not what we’ve seen,” he told Al Jazeera.

Amarillas refused to comment on policy specifics, and while she said the border patrol refuses to “go tit for tat with the humanitarian groups”, she also told Al Jazeera, “[Those groups] can give them [migrants] a false sense of security. What if that water [left by organisations like No More Deaths] is not there? … We don’t support humanitarian groups. It’s pretty much that they’re taking it into their own hands.”

Amarillas maintained the position that “Every human life is valuable and we attempt to do everything in our power to save lives while we pursue our border security mission”.

But lending credence to the ‘humanitarian groups’ arguments that more people are dying as a direct result of US border policies, she said, “Because of the improvements on our fence, people are basically led by the smugglers to areas that are more remote.”

Both No More Deaths and the Human Remains Project argue that instead of prioritising giving notice to families of the dead or medical care to those dying from treacherous border conditions, the US Border Patrol has focused on and enforced a “militarised” border program. But according to Rodriguez, this has made conditions more deadly, and in some instances the Border Patrol have directly caused – and did not report – deaths.

“We’ve had several instances where people were involved in a rollover [of a truck filled with migrants],” she said. “But a survivor has told us that the vehicle was speeding because the border patrol was chasing them. What that tells us is that the border patrol left the scene.”

According to the HRP database, the cause of death for these cases, reported by the local medical examiner, are filed as “multiple blunt force” or “cranio-cerebral injuries”.

After years of building a reputation, the public medical examiner uses the HRP as its main intake process for calls by family members or friends of people who disappeared while trying to migrate north.

Digital resistance

Hundreds of human remains are found every year along the border, and seemingly, no large scale solution is being proposed despite years of research which shows that US border policy is not lowering the death tolls.

A writer and artist based in the US state of California has come up with and created a digital way to put pressure on the border patrol and potentially, their policies.

Border Haunt, created by Ian Alan Paul, is a kind-of digital protest action against the country’s border policy, specifically in regards to those dying along the desolate region.

“Migrant deaths on the border have become normalised, and as a result these deaths are marginalised in news coverage and are often ignored by the public as well as by policy makers,” Paul told Al Jazeera.

As he described it, the goal of the project is “to generate new ideas and to enable the public to imagine different possible futures in relation to the US-Mexico border”.

In what seems like a technically complicated process, Border Haunt, which invites open participation all day on Friday, June 15, will merge two databases. One, much like HRP’s, keeps track of migrant deaths along the border. The other is for law enforcement to receive live warnings of ‘suspicious activity’ along the border from volunteers who watch video feeds.

Paul says Friday’s protest, which will invite participation from anyone with basic internet skills, will create a situation where “the people monitoring the policing database will see all of these entries coming in of dead migrants crossing the border. In this way, the border will become ‘haunted’ by the dead border crossers for this one day.”

When asked about potential consequences of the Border Haunt, Paul told Al Jazeera, “It will be frustrating for law enforcement to receive all of these reports of dead migrants crossing the border on the day of action, and I think that creating this frustration for those in power is a necessary aspect of any protest.

“Part of the effectiveness of protest is generated by creating resistance to the status quo that you are objecting to.”

Despite the increasing number of migrant deaths along treacherous border areas, immigration enforcement from the Arizona border patrol to as high up as US President Barack Obama himself are maintaining and reinforcing their border patrol strategies.

In a speech at Texas border town El Paso in May, Obama said that border security had “improved”, and boasted of increasing numbers of border patrol agents, an improved border fence, and screening more cargo.

Follow Jesse Strauss on Twitter: @AJEsseStrauss

Source: Al Jazeera