Remains of 227 migrants found last year, said Humane Borders, while at least 7,000 have died along US-Mexico border since 1998
When the remains of two undocumented migrants were found in the desert of south-western Arizona last July, one body lay next to an arrow drawn in the sand, pointing north, with the word “HELP” written beneath. The men had perished while attempting to cross into the US from Mexico, according to border patrol. Out of a group of three, one survived and told the federal agents their human smuggler had left the other two behind in the remote wilderness area.
“These people are not just numbers,” said Tony Banegas, executive director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, an organization in Tucson working to identify migrant remains and helps families find missing loved ones.
“These are human beings with families and aspirations. They went to great lengths to make the journey, [only] to become just a grave in the desert.”
Last year was the deadliest on record for migrants crossing unlawfully into the US via Arizona, with the remains of 227 migrants found on the border according to Humane Borders.
“This was the hottest summer ever, and we saw the most recorded deaths ever. It’s a reminder of how dangerous the border can be,” said Douglas Ruopp, chair of the non-profit, which maps migrant deaths and stashes emergency water supplies in the desert.
Since 1998, at least 7,000 migrants are believed to have died along the US-Mexico border, maybe many more, as record-keeping is patchy. As the US walled more of the border off, a policy priority under Donald Trump, the risks to those still determined to make the journey only increased.
“That’s a longstanding tradition, these barriers and walls have pushed people into more remote and treacherous terrain,” said Jeremy Slack, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Texas-El Paso and the author of Deported to Death: How Drug Violence Is Changing Migration on the US–Mexico Border.
Crossing into any of the four US states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California along the 1,954-mile US-Mexico border can be dangerous – high barriers, isolated wilderness with extreme temperatures, swirling waters of the Rio Grande. Norma Herrera is community organizer at the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network advocacy group in Texas, another deadly migrant corridor where at least an estimated 3,000 people have lost their lives since 1998.
“We need to be especially mindful of how various policies serve the same purpose … to deter migration by making it more deadly,” she said.
Further west, the Arizona desert can be especially deadly. Trump’s aspiration to build a wall coast-to-coast at Mexico’s expense actually resulted in just 225 miles of fresh barrier, overwhelmingly at US taxpayers’ expense and mostly replacing dilapidated or minimal fencing. But the surge in border deaths in Arizona last year – up from 144 in 2019 and 128 in 2018 – coincided with a flurry of construction there. And the impact of the border wall on migrant deaths was compounded by Trump’s near-total block, only tightened in the pandemic, on those entering the US to seek asylum.
“In just about every way the Trump administration fundamentally ended access to asylum at the border,” said ACLU attorney Shaw Drake, thus exposing those who tried to cross anyway “to a litany of additional dangers”.
Benegas described visits to Mexico where asylum seekers languished in dangerous cities awaiting the interminable asylum process, under Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy, denying “a universal right”.
“People are living under bridges, waiting for months. Some decide to take the risk and cross the desert,” he said.
In March 2020, Trump signed an emergency order last March allowing the summary expulsion of migrants at the border based on Covid-19 concerns, removing more than 380,000 people this way to date, according to federal data.
“They co-opted the pandemic to achieve their long-held goal of ending asylum at the border,” said Drake.
The Arizona border region features spiked cacti, thorny bushes and clinging grasses, often holding ripped fragments of migrants’ clothing.
“The flora along the border is known as thorn scrub, and for good reason,” said Emily Burns, program director of the Arizona-based Sky Island Alliance conservation group. “We can’t wear soft clothes in the field, they’d get shredded,” she said.
Many migrants are unprepared for the alien landscape and find themselves on a scorching trek.
“Often, people don’t have real shoes. Some are wearing sandals, they’re told it’s just going to be a short trip. Most people that I encounter in the desert have these terrible blisters on their feet. I don’t know how they’re walking,’ said Ruopp.
Many don’t, or cannot, carry enough water for a journey that can last days.
“Most leave with two-gallon bottles strapped around their neck,” said Ruopp. ‘That’s good for maybe a day. We find people that have been out for five or more.”
Last year was not only the hottest on record, the summer monsoon rains didn’t materialize.
Ruopp has encountered many lost and “delirious”, even “walking in a circle” or unknowingly “heading south back toward Mexico”.
Dehydration “really affects your decision making” and is a terrible way to die, he said. Many hope things will change comprehensively under Joe Biden.
Since being sworn in, Biden suspended deportations, although a judge last week overturned that moratorium. And the government officially rescinded Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to families being separated and detained at the border, with more rollbacks to follow. But while the president issued a stop-work order for border wall construction, it’s not certain whether barriers will be removed. The Arizona Democratic congressman Raúl Grijalva wants the Biden-Harris administration to put humanity at the center of immigration policy.
“I urge them to reverse all of Trump’s xenophobic policies that created chaos,” he told the Guardian.
Grijalva concluded: “It’s no secret that the Trump administration’s draconian policies at the border created a humanitarian crisis that pushed vulnerable asylum seekers to increasingly desperate and dangerous routes to seek safety … and cost countless lives.”