October 20, 2014

Features | September 13, 2012
A Death A Day
Lives lost and saved on the US-Mexico border
Written by Matt May | Visual by Emily Olsen

With one general food store, one gas station, one bar, a community garden, and a population of 1,090, the southwest town of Arivaca, Arizona hardly seems, on the surface, to be a part of a “low-intensity war zone.” Situated 11 miles north of a four-foot wire cattle-gate that divides the Sonoran desert between the United States and Mexico, the small town is, in fact, swarming with guns.

The tension at the border between the United States and Mexico can best be described as an escalation.  The budget of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – which includes several sub-divisions such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol – has grown from $31.2 billion in 2003 to $50.5 billion in 2009. Since 2005 alone, the number of ICE agents has increased sixfold. Out of Washington and on the desert ground, these numbers manifest themselves in the number of green-striped Border Patrol SUV cruisers, surveillance helicopters, soaring Air Force drones, walls, fences, and agents.

And for those on the other side? There has been an unprecedented increase in jail and detention facilities for apprehended migrants, and deaths. However you quantify “it,” there’s more of “it” now than there has ever been. While all these escalations are interconnected, it’s the last one that brought me to Arivaca.

For two weeks in June this past summer, I volunteered for Tucson-based No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, a non-profit organization which strives to offer humanitarian aid to migrants who endure severe dehydration and hunger hiking through the desert. On our “water drops,” we strategically place gallons of water and food packets throughout the Sonoran desert, while carefully documenting specific areas that migrants pass through.

Even now, weeks later, I find myself thinking about the term “low-intensity war zone,” as a No More Deaths organizer referred to it on our first day of orientation. It is a provocative phrase, yet unfortunately apt at describing the reality of between 300 and 400 migrant deaths on the border each year. In the area where I worked with No More Deaths, works in, the average is one death every other day.

 ***

After a day of water drops, we came upon two women emerging from the desert near camp. One woman was in her thirties and the other was a good amount younger, maybe in her early twenties or even late teens. They were both in terrible shape. Dehydrated, exhausted, confused, and scared. I internally panicked, as one does the first few times they come across people in the desert – be it migrants, ranchers, Border Patrol, or other government agents.

No More Deaths volunteers have been brought to court for crossing the delicate line between attempting to provide help for people in emergency medical situations and aiding a person’s illegal entry into the United States. In all cases, No More Deaths has won. However, the Border Patrol monitors all emergency phone calls, and agents often show up when they suspect the emergency call involves an undocumented migrant. Undocumented persons are taken into the Border Patrol’s custody immediately, where their medical treatment is at the Patrol’s discretion.

Seemingly out of embarrassment, the young woman did not immediately tell anyone that she was pregnant. She later told us she had not felt the baby kick in 48 hours. The two women had only found each other coincidentally. They were not traveling with the same group. Abandoned by their “coyote” – often a lower-level member of a drug cartel who guides migrants from Mexico to the U.S. – because they could not keep up with the pace of their respective groups, they were left to die. Dehydration and hunger aside, women face even greater danger, considering “as many as 70 per cent of women crossing the border face sexual assault,” according to journalist Tim Vanderpool of the Tuscon Weekly.  Long-term No More Deaths volunteers give similar estimates based on conversations with migrants in the desert, and those recently deported from migrant resource centers in the Mexican border towns of Nogales and Agua Prieta.

After an arduous three-week process in which I attempted to interview a Tucson sector Border Patrol agent, I finally received an email statement from Agent Brent Cagen after it had been cleared with the agency’s branch chief of external communications. When asked about the Border Patrol’s response to medical emergencies and sexual assault, he replied, “All individuals apprehended by the Tucson Sector Border Patrol are evaluated at the time of apprehension.  Tucson Sector has more than 200 Border Patrol agents certified as emergency medical technicians and all agents are trained as first responders to render aid to anyone in need of medical assistance. Agents in the field take all necessary precautions and make the proper notifications for anyone requesting and/or requiring medical treatment.”

Like many of their answers, the response seemed dry and devoid of any human compassion, while almost completely skirting around certain issues. Extensive and systemic abuse of migrants by Border Patrol has been documented in No More Deaths’ “Culture of Cruelty” report, which was published last year. Compared to the photos I had seen of the broken knee of a migrant who had been refused medical attention, and other countless examples of untreated physical impairment in “Culture of Cruelty,” the Border Patrol’s words felt hollow.

 ***

Everyone who makes the journey through the Sonoran desert, which covers most of the border between Mexico and the states of Arizona and and California, suffers somewhere on the spectrum of dehydration. The body needs a gallon of water a day at the absolute minimum to avoid dehydration, but often more because of the physical and emotional exertion that crossing through the border entails. The journey through the desert can take three to five days, or even several more as the Border Patrol utilizes tactics to separate travelers and push them to the more dangerous edges of the desert.

Besides increased surveillance at the least rugged points of entry, helicopters “dust” migrants. By attempting to land close to a group of migrants, the helicopter’s propellers lift the desert sand off the ground, and often dogs are sent chasing after the disoriented and scattering migrants. As a tactic of border enforcement, it’s neither a good deterrent nor helpful at bringing migrants into custody. As a means of making the border more dangerous – and migrants more prone to isolation and death – it is highly successful.

Furthermore, a gallon of water is very heavy. It is nearly impossible to carry enough water to even maintain a semblance of hydration, let alone the amount of food needed. No More Deaths focuses on leaving water, food packs, buckets of blankets and socks in highly trafficked areas for migrants. We write messages and draw hearts on the water jugs to demonstrate that they are not traps. We try to humanize a dehumanizing experience. Empty jugs let us know that the migrants are receiving our aid, and they always express gratitude when we run into them. Abandoned clothes, backpacks, and food wrappers are simple signs of life in the beautiful but miserable Sonoran desert.

Yet, the cynic in me just had to ask: “Does the border patrol ever dump our water or use it?” One of the facilitator’s responded bluntly: Yes, they do. In fact, long-term volunteers have told me that their water has been getting slashed for years, but that last summer was potentially the worst since the organization’s start in 2004. They commented that about half of all water left last summer was getting slashed, and at some drop points, all of it. When asked what the Border Patrol’s relationship was with humanitarian aid groups prior to incidents of water slashing, Cagen responded, “The Tucson sector appreciates the additional eyes and ears that humanitarian groups provide for our operations. Unfortunately, too often, smugglers will disregard the safety and security of those they are guiding and use the water stations for their own consumptions.”

Yet their response evades explanation of the slashed jugs No More Deaths continuously find. We keep extensive and detailed logs of each stop, each day. The logs enable us to know how much water is “moving,” so we know how much to leave next time, which is usually two or three days later. It is unlikely that the coyotes drink all the water, considering we leave anywhere between four gallons and twenty-gallons or sometimes more at each spot. The second reason such logs are kept is to document Border Patrol abuse. Every interaction with Border Patrol is logged, including, when possible, video, audio, and photos.

 ***

To understand the current status of the U.S./ Mexico border today, one must look back to the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Operation Gatekeeper in 1994. The former legally freed the movement of capital from the burdens of borders, while the latter severely restricted the legal movement of people between these same borders. Poverty increased drastically in Mexico because large American agriculture firms could sell at much lower prices, driving millions of Mexican farmers off their land and into the hands of those same American farms.  With this surge of migration, border enforcement increased significantly and strategically shifted migrants to the most dangerous parts of the border, As a result, border-related deaths increased as well, with nine reported deaths in 1990 to over 300 a year for the past five years. All the while, apprehensions (arrests) have dramatically decreased every year since 2007. This means that the ratio of deaths to apprehensions has actually increased, so while less people are captured crossing the border, more of them are dying.

At No More Deaths, we are primarily concerned with migrants while they are in the desert, and their subsequent court cases are not directly part of our work. However, we discuss, and lay witness to, the life of migrants outside the desert. Since 2001, the number of immigration prosecutions has tripled. More migrants than ever are being put through the criminal justice system. In fact, there have been over one million deportations – averaging 40,000 a year – during the first three years of Barack Obama’s term, which is more deportations than George W. Bush oversaw during the entire eight years he was in office.

This massive spike in prosecutions is neither nameless nor without a financial incentive.  Created under George Bush’s Department of Homeland Security, Operation Streamline is highly profitable for those in the business of immigration and criminal detention and imprisonment. It removes discretion from prosecutors for cases involving undocumented migrants, the vast majority for illegal entry or low-level offenses such as traffic violations. This means nearly all those who are apprehended are brought through the criminal justice system and charged with either first time unauthorized entry, a misdemeanor, or repeated unauthorized entry, or a felony.

 ***

On my last day with No More Deaths, a long-time volunteer and a few first-time volunteers, including myself, went to the courthouse in Tucson. Every week day at 1:30 p.m., up to seventy undocumented migrants plead guiltyto either illegal entry, or illegal re-entry (the most commonly filed federal charge), and then are sent to jail for between thirty and 180 days. We walk through metal detectors, up an elevator, and then wait outside the courtroom until the doors open and they let us in.

All the migrants wear the same clothes they were wearing when they were apprehended. They also wear handcuffs, ankle cuffs, and earphones that translate the court proceedings from English into Spanish. The judge calls up the first group of six defendants, as all migrants in Tucson are charged in groups of six (or up to eighty at a time in Del Rio, Texas). Each of the six defendants has a lawyer that stands with them. Each lawyer in Tucson, as a part of Operation Streamline, can only represent six defendants a day. This is not the case outside of Tucson, where there are much looser restrictions. The migrants meet with their lawyer for the first time for about a half hour before the trial begins, wherein the lawyer must explain to them what they are being charged with. The lawyers advise migrants to take the plea offered by the United States government whereby the felony charge is dropped for re-entry and instead they plea guilty to the misdemeanor charge of illegal entry. Simply put: less jail time.

Although Spanish translations are available, many of the defendants only speak indigenous languages that are not accommodated by the legal system. I watched a man from Guatemala, who spoke neither English nor Spanish, nod his head when asked questions until it became apparent to the judge that he did not understand what he was being asked. The lawyer pulled him aside, found the means to communicate that he should say “si” and the judge was satisfied this constituted adequate comprehension on part of the defendant. The six defendants in each group were all asked the same questions at the same time, which was found to be unconstitutional in Arizona. However, the Constitution tends to slip when “it’s been a long week,” as a frustrated public defender said with a sigh.

This process repeats itself a few more times, and after about 45 minutes (some judges in Operation Streamline pride themselves in how quickly they can bring court proceedings to an end) the trial is over.

All of the migrants that day came from immigration detention facilities, half of which are owned by private prison corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group. After their sentencing, they are then sent to prisons, an increasing number of which are run by said corporations. Since 1999, migrants have been targeted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a body to which prison corporations contribute large sums. While I don’t have the ability to draw a direct correlation between prisons companies and ALEC, it certainly seems suspicious. After this legally sanctioned spectacle, I left the courthouse perhaps never having felt more furious and hopeless. Operation Streamline seems like an unstoppable force, running on racial hostility and private prison profits.

 ***

There is no white-savior mentality at the No More Deaths camp in Arivaca. Everyone there knows that hiking through the desert and leaving water on the most heavily trafficked migrant trails is not directly addressing the systemic issues that cause these border deaths. It does seek, with much success, to address the most immediate needs of the migrants.

The volunteers and migrants, when possible, talk. Sometimes we talk about how the slashing of water by Border Patrol is most certainly responsible for the devastation for dehydrated migrants who come across them, and death for those who needed them. We often talk about strategies, from immediate harm reduction to long-term systemic change. Matthew Johnson, a long-time volunteer for No More Deaths, recently told me in an email that “there are all kinds of policy changes that, if implemented, could vastly improve the situation,” such as putting an end to Operation Streamline and immigration detention, and legislating the “full regularization of status for those living in the U.S. without documentation.” However, he concedes that “certain sectors of the economic elite” profit from this system of prevention, detention, incarceration, and deportation. For Johnson, the key is “growing community power and strategizing creatively so that we might one day tip the scales in favor of those of us who believe in humanity over profit.”

I met a few migrants that I think about quite often. One in particular told me about his wife and daughter, and how much he missed them. His story is not unlike many others I have heard before. He spent many years living the U.S., went back home to visit his sick mother and is now returning to the U.S. Others have said they  hardly know anyone in their home country, and deportation would make them a total stranger. He asked what Montreal was like and if I thought he could get a job there. I think about him a lot – what I would do if I saw him and how afraid I am for him and the millions of others living without documentation. Despite their fear of deportation and the vitriolic and hateful rhetoric of both the powerful and the weak in North America, many of the migrants I interacted with spoke with courage and humility. The world migrants face is hostile and violent, and it is painful to see it legislated, enforced, prosecuted and pushed into the invisible terrain of the Sonoran desert, where millions have passed and thousands have died.

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