As presidential candidates in the United States struggle to find the right answer for the immigration issue, from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s proposal of the construction of a border wall, to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ cries for (still undefined) immigration reform, they all stand the risk of missing the true solution to migrant deaths in the desert: a humane and demilitarized border. The Sonoran desert along the Arizona–Mexico border is one of the most treacherous stretches of land in North America. In the summer time, average temperatures can climb past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with no water sources for masses of its expanse. Since 2001, more than 2,100 Mexican and Central American migrants have died as a result of exposure, dehydration, and injuries sustained in the Sonoran desert as they attempted to cross the border into the United States.1 Enter No More Deaths,2 a faith-based humanitarian organization based out of Tucson, Arizona, which distributes water, food, and medical supplies within the 226-square-mile stretch of the Sonoran that sees the highest amount of the desert’s migrant traffic—and the most deaths.
Coming upon water jugs left by No More Deaths might mean the difference between fatal dehydration and survival for migrants traversing the Sonoran. The organization also offers legal support to migrants in the United States facing deportation and gives assistance to migrants who claim to have been abused by Border Patrol officers, providing a means to document alleged incidents of brutality, mistreatment, and denial of medical care in detention centers. The Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) program “Need to Know” has aired hidden camera footage from videos taken by No More Deaths that captured Border Patrol agents slashing and pouring out full water jugs left out by the organization, an act of cruelty volunteers of No More Deaths say is a common occurrence.3
As much of an impact No More Death’s aid might have on the survival of migrants crossing the desert, water alone is not enough to end suffering along the border. The organization recognizes this, having advocated since its inception for the urgency of border demilitarization. The militarization of the border, referred to by the Border Patrol as “prevention-through-deterrence,” has seen a campaign of attrition waged along the border as urban areas have seen a surge in border patrol troops—there are now some 21,000 border patrol agents as compared to 10,500 in 2004.4 These troops are armed with military-grade weapons: machine guns, armored cars, aircraft, and surveillance drones. Assuring that areas with the infrastructure to cross easily, such as El Paso, south Texas, and central Arizona, were thoroughly policed, any migrants seeking an entry point would be forced to cross through the most geographically dangerous migration corridors—such as the Sonoran desert.
Mexican net immigration has fallen to practically zero in recent years. Policy experts at the Pew Center cite a drastic drop in Mexican birth rates, the economic recession, and border militarization policies as potentially responsible for the drop.5 However, militarization has not been enough to stem the flow of migrants from Central America, the number of which led the Department of Homeland Security to hold a hearing in 2014 on the crisis of unaccompanied children migrating across the border.6 Recent years have seen an astronomical surge of young girls making the journey, with the Pew Center reporting an increase of 77 percent for girls under the age of 18 migrating in the year 2014 alone,7 compared to an eight percent increase for boys. Girls and women are especially vulnerable on the journey, with Amnesty International reporting the rate of rape of female migrants at 60 percent and other figures estimating up to a staggering 80 percent.8 Despite these dangers, as long as the conditions in Central America that compel migration exist—grinding poverty and violence spurred on by years of U.S.-backed dictatorships, interventions, and free trade policies—the surge northward will continue. The geographic climate of the desert is not to blame for thousands of migrants who have lost their lives, but rather a political climate of xenophobia and privatization fueling a border industrial complex of militarization.
- McIntyre, E.S. Death in the desert: the dangerous trek between Mexico and Arizona. Al Jazeera America [online] (March 11, 2014) http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/3/11/death-in-the-desertthedangeroustrekbetweenmexicoandarizona.html.
- No More Deaths [online] (2016) http://forms.nomoredeaths.org/en/.
- Epstein, B. Crossing the line, part 2. PBS [online] (July 20, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/video/video-crossing-the-line/14291/.
- Farley, R. Obama says border patrol has doubled the number of agents since 2004. Politifact [online] (May 10th, 2011) http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2011/may/10/barack-obama/obama-says-border-patrol-has-doubled-number-agents/.
- Gonzalez-Barrera, A. More Mexicans leaving than coming to the U.S. Pew Research Center [online] (November 19, 2015) http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/11/19/more-mexicans-leaving-than-coming-to-the-u-s/.
- Fugate, C., G. Kerlikowske, and T. Winkowski. Challenges at the Border: Examining the Causes, Consequences, and Responses to the Rise in Apprehensions at the Southern Border (written testimony). Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, U.S. Department of Homeland Security [online] (July 9, 2014) https://www.dhs.gov/news/2014/07/09/written-testimony-fema-cbp-and-ice-senate-committee-homeland-security-and.
- Krogstad, J.M., A. Gonzalez-Barrera, and M.H. Lopez. At the Border, a sharp rise in unaccompanied girls fleeing Honduras. Pew Research Center [online] (July 25, 2014) http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/25/at-the-border-a-sharp-rise-in-unaccompanied-girls-fleeing-honduras/.
- Goldberg, E. 80% of Central American women, girls are raped crossing into U.S. Huffington Post [online] (September 12, 2014) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/12/central-america-migrants-rape_n_5806972.html.