On the first anniversary of 9/11, four men huddle on a busy street corner in Douglas, Arizona, clutching armfuls of homemade crosses and pretending not to notice the steady drizzle or the lightning strikes illuminating the nearby Mexican mountains. After a brief prayer for “our brothers and sisters who are so angry,” the men begin to move up the puddled sidewalk. Every few feet, one of them holds a cross above his head and yells out the name of a victim over the sound of sloshing tires:
“Jesus Vidal Ramirez.”
“Presente!” the other three answer.
“Maria Inez Gonzalez.”
This vigil is not for the 2,800 killed in the worst act of terrorism on US soil. Every Tuesday night, rain or shine, this vigil honors victims of the deadliest ongoing human-rights violation on US soil. Since 1995 at least 2,250 migrants have died trying to cross the US-Mexico border. Most of these deaths have resulted from a Clinton-era “border control” strategy designed to shut down urban crossing points and force migrants to try their luck in harsher terrain–namely, the deadly green desert of southern Arizona.
Leaning each cross against the curb, the four men–volunteers with a humanitarian group optimistically named SNS Healing Our Borders–wend their soggy way toward the bustling border checkpoint that separates Douglas from its Mexican sister city, Agua Prieta. Finally, about twenty-five feet short of the checkpoint, all the crosses have been laid out. Father Bob Carney, his weatherbeaten face dripping with rain, turns east, west, north and south, blessing the dead: “Jesu Christo, Jesu Christo, Jesu Christo, Jesu Christo.”
Just then, one of the Border Patrol’s white ATVs comes flashing up to the checkpoint. Several women, one of them cradling a baby, step tentatively out the back hatch. The women have been arrested by Border Patrol agents and have chosen “VR,” or voluntary return, rather than contest their deportation. “They just want to get back across and get some jack together and try again,” says Tommy Bassett, his ruddy face solemn inside a parka hood. “Almost everybody makes it eventually.” He peers down the line of crosses and repeats himself: “Almost.”
While the men break into a Spanish-language version of “We Shall Overcome,” Bassett gazes out over one of the many walls built in recent years by the Border Patrol. It sits next to a trench originally dug to keep Pancho Villa’s army from invading. Hundreds of white dots have begun to light up the gloaming, stretching out in a ragged line across the desert as far as the eye can see. “Infrastructure,” Bassett says. A few hundred yards away, a white ATV stops and idles. “People have been known to come up this ditch, so there he’ll sit all night. Has to be a boring job.”
As we talk, hundreds of migrants are preparing to strike out into the storm. They’ll troop through forty to sixty miles of desert, three to five days of scorching heat and nights of erratic rains and chill. Most will make it. Many will be arrested. A smaller number will die, most likely of dehydration or exposure. Their bodies might be found, dried out like raisins. Or they might end up as nothing more than bones, picked clean by coyotes and buzzards and marked as “Human Remains” on a homemade cross.
The bodies began to pile up in the mid- to late 1990s, after President Clinton sniffed political advantage in making “border control” a priority for the first time in US history. Clinton’s people knew he couldn’t win re-election without California, where anti-immigrant fever was spiking. With California Governor Pete Wilson, seen as a potentially menacing foe in ’96, already playing to anti-immigrant sentiments, Clinton proposed the hiring of 600 new Border Patrol agents in 1993. A year later, the Administration rolled out a multibillion-dollar border strategy that commenced, naturally enough, with Operation Gatekeeper in Southern California.
The Southwest Border Strategy was cooked up by Silvestre Reyes, now a congressman, then the Border Patrol sector chief in El Paso. Called “prevention through deterrence,” the idea was to put up enough walls, buy enough high-tech gadgets and hire enough Border Patrol agents to seal off urban crossing points like San Diego and El Paso. That way, the migrants would have no choice but to try getting in through the badlands of Arizona. That would deter them, right?
Wrong. As noted in a slashing 2001 report by the General Accounting Office, there is no evidence that overall border traffic has been slowed one bit by the more than doubling of Border Patrol agents (to more than 9,500 this year) and the quadrupling of the INS budget (to $6.3 billion). The “primary discernible effect” of the billions spent on border control, the GAO reported, was “shifting of the illegal alien traffic”–mostly into Arizona.
By 1998 the Tucson border sector–281 miles of desert–had supplanted San Diego’s as the most popular place to cross. By 2000 Border Patrol agents were apprehending more than 600,000 migrants here, though “they catch one in five if they’re lucky,” according to former sector chief Ron Sanders. By 2002, the Tucson sector’s death toll had soared to at least 163. “By every measure,” says Sanders, who retired in 1999, “the strategy is a failure. All it’s accomplished is killing people.” But high-level officials have consistently hailed border control as a smashing success. “In the past seven years,” then-INS Commissioner Doris Meissner told Congress in 2000, “INS has achieved more in the area of border enforcement than had been achieved in decades.”
They’re right in one way, says Claudia Smith, who heads the border project of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. “As a political strategy, it’s been a huge success. By and large, border crossings are now out of the public eye.” But, says Smith, “the strategy is a human rights failure. If you want to control your border, you have that right. What you do not have the right to do is design a strategy that maximizes the risk to life. US policy is funneling migrants to their deaths.”
Wayne Cornelius, the nation’s foremost academic expert on Mexican immigration, told the Civil Rights Commission in November that the Southwest Border Strategy is “the most obvious, the most acute, and the most systematic violation of human rights occurring on US soil today.” Only one border in the world is more perilous; between 600 and 1,000 migrants wash up annually after trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain. “But the US-Mexico border,” Cornelius says, “is clearly the most dangerous land border anywhere in the world.”
Like millions of Latin American migrants, Luis, who crossed through the Arizona desert in 1999, can testify to the human realities US border policy has steadfastly ignored. “One week you are with your family, eating dinner and talking,” he says, “and the next you are in the middle of a place you couldn’t even imagine before. It’s a place that is trying to kill you.”
In 1999, at 21, Luis (who asked that his real name not be used, lest la migra come calling) decided to leave his foundering farm village in central Mexico. “First of all, because of the economy. In the fields where I was working, you can work every day and maybe have enough to live–but alone. If I get married, I cannot have enough for a family.” His chance came when a neighborhood pal went to town one day and met a recruiter “who seemed pretty nice, but told us a bunch of lies. He told us his son had work picking tomatoes in Florida. He said, ‘It’s going to be great. It’s next to the beach. You’re going to earn $70 a day.’ They don’t say you have to risk your life. That’s the tricky part.”
The rise of organized people-smuggling has been another unintended consequence of the Southwest Border Strategy. When migrants could cross into San Diego or Douglas or El Paso, most could manage without help. Now the majority pay between $1,500 and $2,000 to be led through the desert by guides employed by professional smuggling rings. In 1995 a presidential working group on migration saw this coming, reporting that with new border-control measures in place, “we can expect…hard-core criminal groups to become involved in this extremely lucrative trade.” Since then, the smuggling trade has played a handy role in the Border Patrol’s public-relations efforts, becoming a convenient villain to blame for the spiraling death rate. Asked why so many migrants were dying, agent Ryan Scudder knows precisely how to respond: “The smugglers have chosen to take migrants into harsher terrain,” he says.
Luis’s guide led a group of nine up the side of the Baboquivari Mountains, which meander toward Tucson. “You are in the middle of nowhere, with no water, with this person you just have to follow. You cannot go back, because you will get lost and die. You have to keep going, keep going, keep going.” His group kept going for five days. “We walked during the night, all night long and it was pretty cold. During the day, the heat didn’t let us sleep.” By the fifth day, despite their careful rationing, “we only had a cup of water left. Only enough to wet our lips, not drink. I was having visions.”
Just in time, Luis’s group arrived at its destination: a junkyard in Marana, just northwest of Tucson. From here, the guide was to drive them to the tomato vines and sunny beaches of Florida. But another group of migrants had already arrived, with cash in hand, and the guide abandoned Luis and company on the spot. “He said, ‘We don’t need them anymore. They can go back, they can find a migra officer, or they can go to hell.'”
After hanging around the junkyard for fifteen days, waiting for another smuggler who might take them somewhere, Luis and his friends finally hitched a ride to Florida, promising to pick tomatoes until they’d each paid the smuggler $900. Now Luis picks blueberries in Immokalee and sends money home to his mother. He doesn’t dare go back to see her, because he would have to return through the desert–which brings yet another nasty upshot of the Southwest Border Strategy: According to two recent studies, illegal aliens are now staying longer in the United States because they can’t come and go. Far from cutting down on the number of undocumented immigrants, border control has helped make the number larger.
In the four years since Luis came across, the crossing has only gotten deadlier. With approximately 1,700 Border Patrol agents now stationed in Southeast Arizona’s border towns, the “death funnel” has crept westward, over the Baboquivaris and onto the Tohono O’odham Reservation and–worst of all–the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. In these lonely, weather-pummeled plains, temperatures routinely hit triple digits during the day, while nighttime monsoons send the mercury plunging. Drinking water is practically nonexistent.
Claudia Smith calls the Cabeza “a human-rights no man’s land. There’s nothing out there. Nothing. So the deaths happen out of sight, even more than they used to.” In June 2001, after fourteen corpses were found in the Cabeza, US and Mexican officials announced an array of new rescue measures. David Aguilar, the Tucson sector chief, promised to step up efforts to “respond to needs of people traversing the border.” One year later, in a four-day stretch of June 2002, sixteen corpses were found in the Tucson sector. In all, seventy migrants perished in that one sweltering month, nearly equaling the entire 2001 death toll. Despite the Border Patrol’s promises, the number of migrants rescued in the sector has actually plunged–from 1,349 in 2000 to 501 in 2002. According to a study done by the Arizona Daily Star, border-crossers are now fourteen times more likely to die than in 1998.
Ron Sanders, the former sector chief, says the reason is simple: “They don’t patrol out there.” He is astonished that the deaths haven’t caused the Southwest Border Strategy to be widely questioned. “It’s a scam that’s being pulled on the American public,” he says. “You’re catching the same number you were before you started spending all these billions”–1.25 million were apprehended in 1992, 1.38 million in 2001–“and you’re killing people. If you had airplanes crashing in this country with the same numbers, you’d have everybody after the FAA. But since these people are Mexicans, no one seems to care. Somebody ought to be looking at them and saying, ‘Why aren’t you saving these lives?'”
For a brief time after the second President Bush came to power, it looked like hard questions were finally being asked. “There was a growing acknowledgment on both the US and Mexican sides that the policy was not sustainable,” says Peter Andreas, author of Border Games, an incisive study of US border politics. “It had become more of a shock and embarrassment.” When Mexican President Vicente Fox came to Washington in early September 2001, he hoped to bolster support for ambitious amnesty and guestworker programs he’d been negotiating with Bush.
Then came 9/11, which resurrected the anti-immigration movement and deflected Bush’s attention. “If anything, 9/11 gave the Bush Administration a convenient excuse to put the migrant issue on the back burner,” Andreas says. “Mexico still wants reform, but Mexico went from being the President’s number-one priority to being tier two, or tier three.” Last October, after a cursory half-hour meeting with Fox, Bush spoke of their “mutual desire to deal with the migration issue in a way that recognizes reality and in a way that treats Mexican citizens who are in the United States with respect.” A few months later, Mexico’s new foreign secretary grimly acknowledged what Bush’s “reality” means: A major migration accord, said Luis Ernesto Derbez, will probably not happen “in twenty-five or thirty years.”
No wonder humanitarians are bracing for the worst. The busiest crossing season begins in May and spikes in June, as desert temperatures shoot up to triple figures. With the Mexican economy far deeper in the dumps than that of the United States, some are grimly predicting a record year–of both crossings and deaths. Says Isabel Garcia, a Tucson attorney who works with the migrant-rights group Derechos Humanos: “We shudder to think about this summer.”
On a sticky Friday afternoon toward the end of last summer, scores of migrants are trying to snatch some sleep under the skeletal cover of mesquite trees. Others are pressing on through the heat of the day. If they get into trouble, their only hope might be the blue Subaru wagon that’s bumping its way south from Tucson, down gravel back roads and dusty, ancient migration trails. Phyllis Kelly, a retired school counselor, is at the wheel. The back of her wagon is loaded down with water, electrolytes and cola. The side doors sport red signs that say “Samaritan Patrol,” with a white drop of water dripping down toward the Spanish translation. In the passenger seat is the toughest humanitarian on the border, the Rev. John Fife.
Fife, a leather-faced man who smokes unfiltered Lucky Strikes and swears like a sailor, has pastored Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, located in “the worst barrio in Tucson,” for thirty-three years. He’s spent much of that time inspiring his congregation to “push the envelope for human rights”–which meant, among other things, co-founding the sanctuary movement during the 1980s, when the United States was denying asylum to political refugees from Latin America.
In a time when the term “Christian activism” has become synonymous with right-wing social politics, Fife is living proof that the other kind of Christian activism–the kind that fueled the civil rights and sanctuary movements–still has some kick left in it. “I was in seminary from 1962 to ’67,” he says, “and back then it seemed pretty damn obvious that you couldn’t study divinity without practicing it.” That didn’t mean cleaning up his language or his lungs; it meant heading south to the frontlines of the civil rights battle, and learning how to use the Church as a weapon for equal justice. Fife is not given to philosophizing, but he knows exactly where he stands: “Churches have got to protect human rights and human life when government threatens them.”
So when hundreds started to die in Southside’s backyard as a result of government policy, Fife says, “We had to respond. Hell, somebody had to.” In 2000, Southside and other Tucson congregations created Humane Borders, which now has more than 2,000 volunteers tending thirty-eight water stations along popular crossing routes in Arizona. Unfortunately, some private ranchers have declined to allow Humane Borders stations on their land. So has the state of Arizona. So has the Tohono O’odham Reservation, where an estimated 50,000 migrants crossed every month in 2002.
Fife understands the resistance–to a point. “Those folks are victimized by the Border Patrol strategy too,” he says. “Their fences are being cut, their trucks are being stolen, their houses are being broken into, their land is being trashed. We try to help people understand that the source of the problem ain’t the migrants. It’s the Border Patrol strategy, and until that changes, everybody’s lives are gonna be hell. But they figure giving them water is just encouraging more people to come.”
The resistance gave birth, last summer, to Samaritan Patrol. “We said, if we can’t put water out there we can put four-wheel drives out there.” Samaritan Patrol, which has since simplified its name to Samaritans, adopted a policy that makes it the most direct challenge yet to US border policy. When its 150 volunteers find migrants in distress, they can flout the law by transporting them to a hospital, or back to Southside. “After they’ve recovered, if they want to go back to Mexico, we’ll call the Border Patrol,” Fife says. “If not, they’re free to walk.”
As soon as Samaritan patrols began last July, the right-wing group Arizonans for Immigration Control filed a complaint with the Border Patrol over this alleged abetting of illegal immigration. Fife met with Border Patrol officials soon afterward. “They weren’t happy about our protocol,” he tells me as we drive down the migration trails, “but because of their public-relations problem with all the deaths, they didn’t dare take us on. Our feeling is there’s a higher standard to which we’re all accountable, and just following orders is not an excuse when a government violates human rights. Hey Phyllis, slow down a little. This is where folks can get in trouble. Wait, hold it right here.”
Fife eases his long frame out of the Subaru and kneels, scanning a wash and lighting a Lucky. “Don’t look up at normal height,” he tells Kelly, who’s in training today. “Look under the trees, on the ground. Unless they’re really desperate and trying to flag somebody down, they’ll be low. They’ll follow the washes down.”
After tracking a pair of tennis-shoe tracks to no avail, Fife wipes his brow and climbs back into the Subaru. “We’re trying to find a way to distinguish ourselves from Border Patrol. Folks will hit the ground when they hear a vehicle coming. Still, we encounter people about half the time we’re out here,” he says. “The first guy I found was all by himself. Lost. Didn’t have any water left, just some dirty water out of a charca (cattle pond). He’d come with three or four of his cousins, and Border Patrol had come along and they’d all scattered. He said, ‘I thought I was dying for sure!’ And he was. They get water out of the charcas, and there’s cattle who’ve died in there, and they get diarrhea and that dehydrates you three times as fast. It’s instant death.
“You find all kinds of patterns,” Fife says, keeping an eye out the window as Kelly eases us along. “Some people lie down and put their IDs beside them so their families will know. Other folks will get delirious and start taking their clothes off. You find bodies out here just filled with choya cactus spines, from where they took off running. One guy hung himself up here a couple of weeks ago.”
The Subaru falls silent for a few heavy moments, until I mention the Border Patrol’s claim that smugglers have chosen to take migrants through dangerous territory. The Samaritans erupt in laughter. “That’s a good one!” Kelly says. “Oh yes,” Fife says, laughing so hard that his eyes tear up. “They do it for the scenery! They just love the way it looks out here, so they’ve decided to come this way. Jesus! Have these people got no shame at all?”