When Death in the Desert is Not an Accident

By forcing migrants into the barren wilderness, U.S. Border Patrol lets heatstroke and dehydration do the deadly dirty work.

IN DOUGLAS, ARIZ., in the shadow of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, a cemetery stretches across the desert. Between the orderly rows of gravestones, I notice clusters of cement blocks lodged in the sand with the same word etched into their flat surfaces: Unidentified. “Unidentified Female,” “Unidentified Male,” carved into the center of the tablet, along with a date: “Found Aug. 9, 2004.” “Found Dec. 31, 2005.” “Found Jan. 18, 2009.” “Found Feb. 12, 2009.”

A Mennonite activist whispers over my shoulder, explaining that the date marks when the remains were found in the borderland wilderness—a corpse in decomposition, a skeleton bleached in the sun, perhaps only a skull or a set of teeth.

A few of the older grave markers have “Unknown” instead of “Unidentified.” Immigrant advocates petitioned for the change to “Unidentified” because while they do not know the story of the human remains found in the desert, they do know that each person had a family, every one of them was a parent’s child, someone’s friend. The gravestones remember people who are beloved, known and loved by friends and family now desperate for information, longing for an explanation, waiting for a phone call, searching official lists for the name of their loved one. Every unidentified life was known.

But their deaths were premeditated: The architects of the U.S. war against migration have built a deadly environment. According to its 1994 national strategy report, the U.S. Border Patrol outlined a plan to redirect migrants into the most dangerous regions of the borderlands: a “shift in flow,” with the results that “illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain.”

And they have succeeded. According to the Tucson-based organizations Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths, in “the last two decades, the remains of at least 7,000 people have been recovered in the United States borderlands.”

“The government chose to funnel people through the desert areas, and it created a killing field,” Isabel Garcia, co-chair of Derechos Humanos, told the Sierra Club.

By Isaac S. Villegas for SOJOURNERS

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