Community members cover the US/Mexico border wall with crosses bearing the names of the men, women and children who have died attempting to enter the United States. Photo by Dave Brewer.
We built a shrine for him. A wooden cross, desert stone, rosary, and gallon of water mark where his body was found, thirteen miles north of the Mexican border in Arizona’s Sonoran desert, the deadliest migrant corridor of our southwest border. He may have stopped to rest, weary and sick from the walk north, and never woke up. Because only his bones remained, he is unlikely to be identified and his family will never know what happened to him.
For two decades, the border between the United States and Mexico has been home to a crisis of migrant deaths. During that time, at least 6,000 people have died attempting to cross into the United States and many more have gone missing on the journey, never heard from again. Their deaths are a direct result of border militarization. In the twenty-six years since major immigration reform was last addressed, $187 billion has been spent on border security and immigration enforcement. The current attempt at immigration reform calls for an additional $6.5 billion for security operations and enforcement.
While many progressives have accepted border security measures as the tradeoff for achieving immigration reform, we know that the terms of this compromise will be paid in blood. The foundation of US border strategy is “prevention through deterrence”: an approach that aims to make all aspects of unauthorized migration as traumatic as possible. Its mechanisms include drones, surveillance towers, border fencing, interior checkpoints and a small army of nearly 22,000 Border Patrol agents. However, this policy has failed to deter people from attempting to cross the border. Instead, it has succeeded in raising the death rate for those who try.
As humanitarian aid workers with No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, we do what we can to mitigate the results of border policy in Southern Arizona. We hike the desert and leave food and water on migrant trails; we provide medical care to people we meet; and we search for those reported missing. We are torn by the prospect of the proposed immigration reform package going into effect. We want the 11 million undocumented residents of this country to gain security and a status allowing them to remain with their families. However, we are grimly aware of the destructive impact that billions more in border security funding will have.
We see the impacts of border militarization on those we meet—abandoned and injured in the vast desert. Border Patrol helicopters hover over groups of migrants, causing them to drop their belongings and scatter in all directions. Guides push groups to move rapidly through areas surveilled by air and laced with ground sensors, leaving behind those who can’t keep up. In addition to making the border harder to cross, border militarization has also greatly extended the distance which migrants are forced to walk. Before the mid-’90’s, crossing the line might take a matter of hours. Today, migrants contend with 100 miles of enforcement, a zone that can take days or weeks to pass through.
And still they try. As long as people have compelling reasons to leave their home communities and seek lives in the United States, they will continue to do so. Nothing in the reform bill addresses the “push” factors that drive northward migration to the United States. These factors include a series of free trade agreements (such as NAFTA and CAFTA-DR); US intervention in Latin American democratic processes and support for corrupt regimes; a war on drugs that has greatly enriched violent cartels; tolerance of human rights abuses by US allies that persecute indigenous people, women, queer and gender-variant people, and others who resist the destruction of their communities and land.