Maria Ochoa will not forget the day in June 2007 when her party stumbled upon human remains while searching for an undocumented immigrant in the southern Arizona desert.
We were looking for a young woman that had stayed behind with her uncle and her husband because her uncle had become ill. She was seven months pregnant. We went out several times on weekends as a group to help look for her. And one of the times that we were out looking for her, we found remains of another girl. We could tell it was a girl—it was just bones but you could tell it was a woman because of the clothing. And the young woman that we were originally looking for—we never found her.
Ochoa is a volunteer with the nonprofit Tucson Samaritans, a group founded in 2002 to provide humanitarian aid to migrants who cross the U.S.–Mexico border in the Sonoran Desert. The body her group found that summer was just one of 385 found in the southern border region in 2007, and one of 6,233 found since 1998, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics.
“We thought [after] three, four years, policies would change. Immigration laws would change and we could break up and do something else,” Ochoa said. “But they haven’t changed. It hasn’t changed. People are still coming.”
Prevention Through Deterrence
The Sonoran Desert spans about one hundred thousand square miles, encompassing much of southern Arizona, California, and the Mexican states Baja California and Sonora. With no major bodies of water nearby, temperatures can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, but sometimes drop below freezing at night during the winter months. Trees are sparse, although wiry bushes and tall saguaro cacti dot the landscape.
Following the Mexican–American war, American surveyor John Russell Bartlett led an expedition through the region to create an official border. In his personal narrative of the journey, published in 1854, he described the region:
[M]uch of this country, that by those residing at a distance is imagined to be a perfect paradise, is a sterile waste, utterly worthless for any purpose than to constitute a barrier or natural line of demarcation between two neighboring nations.
To Bartlett, the desert’s sole purpose was to keep the United States and Mexico separate. In the mid 1990s, the federal government began to actively take advantage of that function.
U.S. Border Patrol’s 1994 strategic plan outlined a principle called “prevention through deterrence.” Its plan was simple: increased security would stop border crossings in major urban areas such as El Paso and San Diego. The dangers of the desert, then, would deter potential migrants from crossing altogether.
It is difficult to tell exactly how the policy affected potential migrants. The total number of undocumented immigrants who have attempted the journey is unknown, since successful migrants are not counted in statistics. Even if a complete data set were available, many variables—in both Latin America and the United States—influence migration, so determining the effect of a specific policy is difficult.
Nonetheless, available data on migrant apprehensions indicate that prevention through deterrence did not initially deter many migrants. From 1994 to 2003, nearly 1.3 million migrants were apprehended at the border each year, a slight increase in apprehensions from the previous ten-year period.
But while prevention through deterrence did not radically change the number of migrants apprehended, it made immigration more dangerous for those who tried. The late 1990s saw a substantial increase in migrant fatalities, with the majority of deaths concentrated in the remote desert.
A Perilous Journey
In isolated areas of southern Arizona, the U.S.–Mexico border is not defined particularly well. Near small towns and roads, the border is marked by a paneled metal fence. Farther from human populations, the only delineation is a series of wooden posts connected by wire, and, in some places, there is no fence at all.
In some ways, improved technology supplants the need for physical infrastructure. Elevated cameras and motion sensors watch the border from a distance, and Border Patrol also deploys helicopters and trucks in search of migrants who have crossed illegally.
“There [is] a lot of technology,” Ochoa said. “Cameras, the sensors. They have monitoring up and down the border.”
While passing the physical line of the border may not be a difficult task, for migrants who make it across, that step is only the beginning. People who cross the border in southern Arizona are about sixty-five miles from Tucson and one hundred miles from Phoenix. But migrants do not walk in a straight line; instead, they follow trails through the most remote areas of the desert in order to avoid Border Patrol checkpoints. A successful trip might take a week. Those who get lost may wander around for longer.
Unsurprisingly, the journey through the borderlands is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The desert heat can melt migrants’ rubber-soled shoes or blister their feet so badly that they can no longer walk. Wild temperature swings put travelers at risk for both hypothermia and hyperthermia (the overheating of the body, resulting in organ failure). Exposure to the elements slows the journey and poses further health risks to migrants.
Ochoa recalled crossing paths with a group of migrants on a rainy February day:
All of a sudden this young man comes out toward the road. He was with a group of people that had spent their night out there. And at that time it had been raining all night. He was soaked. They were just soaked. We couldn’t do anything for them, we couldn’t move them, we couldn’t take them anywhere. And they didn’t want to turn themselves in, they just wanted to keep going. And it’s so hard to meet people that we know can be in danger of becoming ill or even dying out there but we couldn’t do anything for them.
Because of the length and rigor of the journey, migrants avoid carrying many supplies. As a result, they risk running out of food and water, and they are not equipped to deal with medical problems.
The few belongings that migrants do carry can be found scattered in the desert. Black plastic water jugs, created specifically for border crossers, are common. So are special carpet slippers, which migrants wear over their shoes to mask their footprints and make it more difficult for Border Patrol to track them. When discarded, these traces of migrant presence define the most common trails in the otherwise indistinct desert. Some scraps, abandoned years ago, have been woven into the ground by weeds or brush.
When migrants die in the desert, their remains are left behind too. In 2015, 240 sets of human remains were found in the southern border region, according to Border Patrol statistics. Since some remains have been exposed for months or years by the time they are found, it is difficult to know how many more people have died whose remains have not yet been discovered.
To prevent migrants from being shuttled northward by car, Border Patrol has installed a series of checkpoints along roads leading northward from Mexico. Each driver must stop the vehicle and roll down its windows. A Border Patrol agent will typically ask if passengers are U.S. citizens, and dogs may sniff around for drugs. Technically, passengers have Fourth Amendment rights and Border Patrol is not allowed to search vehicles without probable cause. Nonetheless, checkpoints are a constant concern for many residents, especially people who do not speak English and Latinos who worry about racial profiling.
Checkpoints are one source of contention between Border Patrol and activists in southern Arizona. Another is the presence of humanitarian aid groups like the Tucson Samaritans that provide food, water, and medical aid to migrants in the desert.
In 2012, the humanitarian group No More Deaths released a video, taken with hidden cameras, which revealed Border Patrol agents kicking over water jugs that the group had left for migrants near Arivaca, Arizona. In other cases, volunteers have been charged with littering for leaving water supplies, although such convictions have typically been overturned by higher courts.
Despite the efforts of humanitarian groups, no amount of aid work can eliminate the dangers of border crossing for migrants. And as Border Patrol has expanded—the organization employs nearly five times as many people now as it did in 1994—and used new technologies, migrants have adapted by taking more circuitous, and therefore more dangerous, routes.
The increased danger of migrating has significantly driven up the cost of the coyotes, or smugglers, who move migrants across the border and guide them through the desert. Today, coyotes are estimated to cost upwards of $5,000. When this price is prohibitively expensive for migrants, some turn to more dangerous options.
Any political conversation about the U.S.–Mexico border usually includes concerns about drug cartel violence. Like many actors at the border, cartels have capitalized on the industry of undocumented immigration.
In some cases, cartels offer to transport migrants across the border on the condition that they serve as drug mules. Once migrants carry their drugs to a designated location in the United States, cartels promise to set them free.
Unfortunately for migrants, the journey is not typically that simple. Migrants who have attempted to cross with cartels tell stories of brutal harassment and abuse at the hands of their smugglers. Furthermore, migrants who are caught with drugs are likely to face much steeper penalties in the American criminal justice system than those who are charged only with illegal border crossing.
Cartels still exert influence when they are not directly transporting migrants.
Scott Nicholson, an American who works with Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (Home of Hope and Peace), a community organization based in the border city Nogales, Mexico, has heard plenty of stories from migrants about the influence of cartels—known as la mafia—in northern Mexico.
We’ve been told that when folks leave Nogales to cross over, they have to go way outside of the city to get past the wall where it’s so militarized. And when they get out a certain distance, that territory is controlled by the mafia, and people have to pay protection money to the mafia just to cross through there. We’ve been told by migrants at the migrant aid shelter that that’s three hundred to five hundred dollars that they have to pay, just to cross through that territory.
Cartels are not the only danger for prospective undocumented migrants. Local law enforcement and opportunistic criminals also target migrants, whom they expect to be carrying substantial cash. “They know [migrants] probably have money on them to pay their coyotes,” Nicholson explained.
Central American migrants are particularly vulnerable. To reach border cities like Nogales, they must avoid criminals while traveling north through Mexico and also circumvent Mexican immigration authorities who seek to deport them to their home countries.
In 2010, seventy-two migrants, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Brazil, were killed by the Los Zetas drug cartel near San Fernando, Tamaulipas, two hours by car from Brownsville, Texas. More recently, a 2014 study based on interviews with directors of migrant shelters found that 80 percent of female migrants from Central America experienced sexual violence on their way to the United States.
Documenting the Dead
Determining the scope of migrant deaths on U.S. soil and identifying the remains of those who have been found are difficult tasks. Border Patrol and several humanitarian organizations attempt to track the number of deaths each year. But their data only indicate the number of human bodies found. The number of migrants who die each year is likely greater.
The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner handles all human remains classified as UBCs (Unidentified Border Crossers) in southern Arizona. The office, in partnership with the nonprofit organization Humane Borders, has created a database of all UBC remains found since 2001. Their list includes 2,596 cases of human remains, 1,013 of which have never been identified.
Identifying human remains poses international challenges. Many migrants do not travel with identification cards out of fear that revealing their real identity or nationality could put them in more danger. When bodies are found on American soil without identification, forensics experts must coordinate with representatives from Latin American countries, who may have information on migrants who have gone missing.
To facilitate cross-border cooperation, Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala have consulates in Arizona; and these three countries, as well as El Salvador and Nicaragua, have additional consulates in Texas. These offices field calls from families in Mexico and Central America whose loved ones have gone missing and then coordinate with local government forensics departments, hoping to connect the families’ reports with remains that have been found.
Nonprofit organizations have also stepped up to aid the process. The Missing Migrant Project, launched by the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in 2006, serves as an intermediary between medical examiners and families of missing migrants. Volunteers, such as Ochoa and the Tucson Samaritans, sometimes search for migrants known to have gone missing in a certain area.
Researchers and humanitarian workers hoping to identify human remains have to fight against time. Migrant deaths often occur in some of the most remote areas of the desert, and bodies deteriorate quickly in the heat, leaving little window for identification.
In a 2013 study, anthropologists from the University of Michigan and University College Dublin noted the difficulties associated with identifying remains:
Corpses that are recovered are usually reported to law enforcement by migrants themselves or stumbled upon by hikers, humanitarian workers, or researchers. Often times these human remains are found in a fragmented state after environmental conditions and animals have begun to destroy the body.
The researchers further found that identifying factors—such as the jewelry or documents that migrants sometimes carry—also become scattered after a migrant’s death. The loss of these elements makes identifying the remains more difficult.
The most common causes of death in Pima County’s database are hyperthermia and exposure. Notably, some migrants have died by gunshot wounds or blunt force trauma, indicating the continued threat of cartel and gang violence against migrants.
Among migrants whose remains were identified in Pima County, the oldest, a man named Simon Rios Tirado, was sixty-six at the time of his death. The youngest, Maria Cristina Hernandez Perez, was two years old.
The changing nature of migration further complicates the process of counting and identifying the dead. In the early 2000s, most border deaths happened in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. When Border Patrol increased surveillance and enforcement in this area, migration patterns responded, with more migrants opting to cross in Texas. The number of human remains found in the Laredo and Rio Grande Valley border sectors surpassed deaths in the Tucson sector for the first time in 2012, according to Border Patrol statistics.
Brooks County, Texas, has been the site of the highest reported number of undocumented migrant deaths in Texas, with deaths in the county reaching a peak of 129 in 2012. The county does not have a medical examiner, so the remains should be sent to the Justice of the Peace for autopsies and the collection of DNA samples. But a 2014 report from Texas State University found that this did not always happen:
Due to the high volume of deaths and lack of county resources, the local JP and Brooks County Sheriff’s Office were overwhelmed and began to bury the undocumented migrants, most without proper analyses or collection of DNA samples, leaving little chance that these individuals will ever be returned to their families.
Migrants attempting to cross in Texas, rather than Arizona, have the added hazard of navigating the Rio Grande, where they sometimes drown.
Border Patrol statistics also include a number known as rescues. This figure—2,183 in 2015 —indicates the number of migrants who may have died if they were not found by humanitarian workers, researchers, hikers who ultimately called Border Patrol, or by Border Patrol agents themselves. Migrants who are rescued typically receive necessary medical treatment before they are deported.
The Deportation Process
The U.S. district court in Tucson, Arizona, is a modern-looking building with large glass windows and shiny tile floors. On the outside, it blends in cleanly with the city’s business district. Inside, every afternoon (except on weekends and federal holidays), one of its courtrooms hosts a special session known as Operation Streamline.
Operation Streamline began in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas. Prior to its implementation, undocumented immigrants were subject only to civil deportation proceedings, not criminal charges. Under Streamline, undocumented immigrants face criminal charges and prison sentences, measures that policymakers had hoped would discourage recidivism. Each Operation Streamline courtroom—there are eight of them in the Southwest—processes up to seventy undocumented immigrants per day.
Entering the United States illegally is a misdemeanor, punishable with up to six months in prison and deportation. Illegal re-entry, entering the United States after having already been removed or deported, is a felony, and holds a sentence of two years.
Most migrants who pass through Operation Streamline are repeat offenders. In the morning, they meet with a public defender and are offered a plea deal: if they plead guilty to illegal entry, the prosecution will drop the illegal re-entry charge.
Migrants sign this plea deal in the morning, then enter the courtroom that same afternoon. They sit in the center of the room with gray headsets—used for translation purposes—over their ears. Their wrists and ankles are shackled. Most have not changed clothes since they were picked up by Border Patrol.
The judge, the court clerk, and an interpreter sit at the front of the room, slightly elevated above the defendants. Public defenders chat amicably with one another, occasionally checking their phones, until the clock hits 1:30 p.m. and the proceedings start. The court sessions are open to the public, and activists sometimes file into the back benches, listening closely and taking notes.
Once the proceedings open, the judge explains the basic procedure in English. The interpreter translates these words into Spanish, which migrants hear through their headphones. Occasionally, migrants come through the courtroom who speak neither English nor Spanish. In these cases, the most common procedure is for the criminal charges to be dismissed and the migrant to be deported immediately instead.
In groups of five or six, defendants are called up to a set of microphones at the front of the room. They confirm their name, their nationality, and that they understand the terms of their plea agreement and were not coerced into signing it. They are then asked how they plea.
“Culpable,” is the typical answer.
“Guilty,” the interpreter repeats to the judge.
After each migrant in the group has pled guilty, the judge reads their prison terms. Sentences, which were included in the prior plea deal, range between thirty and 180 days, normally based on how many times defendants have been apprehended before. Defendants can request a particular prison where they prefer to carry out their sentence—the court offers to recommend their requests to the Bureau of Prisons, but it does not make any guarantees.
Illegal entry and illegal re-entry are now the most commonly prosecuted federal crimes, with nearly one hundred thousand convictions each year. Migrants who are sentenced through Operation Streamline serve their time at various federal prisons, county jails, and private detention centers throughout the Southwest.
The application of Operation Streamline is arbitrary. In 2015, over sixty-three thousand migrants were apprehended in the Tucson border sector, an average of 1,219 per week, according to Border Patrol statistics. Tucson’s Operation Streamline courtroom can only process 350 migrants per week. Some migrants bypass the court process entirely and are merely deported, while others, particularly those with longer criminal histories, may go through the regular criminal justice system and face felony charges.
Back in the courtroom, the judge wishes the migrants luck. Their lawyers remove their headsets—something that the defendants cannot do themselves because of the chains restraining their arms. Guards escort the group from the courtroom and the judge calls a new set of defendants to the microphone. The process is repeated until all migrants have been sentenced.
The total length of the proceedings varies based on the judge, but is often less than an hour. It is still mid-afternoon as the courtroom empties. Migrants will be bused to the prisons where they serve their terms. Everyone else walks out, past the tall windows and airport-style security, into the Tucson sunlight.
For recently deported migrants, returning to their countries of citizenship is hardly a homecoming. Between January 2014 and October 2015, researchers documented eighty-three separate cases of migrants who were murdered in El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala after being deported from the United States.
But even when migrants return to Mexico, statistically much safer than those three nations, the deportation process still puts them in danger. While Central American nationals are flown to their home countries, Mexican citizens are bused just across the border and dropped off at terminals from which the United States is still visible.
Many Mexican cities where migrants are commonly deported to are currently under advisory from the U.S. Department of State due to violent crime. In an April 15 advisory about the state of Tamaulipas, which is located south of Texas along the Gulf of Mexico, the department warned:
“Throughout the state violent crime, including homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, pose significant safety risks. State and municipal law enforcement capacity is limited to nonexistent in many parts of Tamaulipas.”
But despite concerns about safety, a total of 7,413 people—25 percent of Mexican deportees—were sent to Tamaulipas in the first two months of 2016, according to Mexican government statistics.
Deportations place migrants in unfamiliar cities and dangerous situations. According to a 2013 survey by researchers at the University of Arizona, roughly 20 percent of migrants were deported between the hours of 10 p.m.. and 5 a.m. Disoriented migrants, especially those who arrive in the middle of the night when social services are unavailable, make easy targets for criminals or gangs.
“[If] their pack didn’t catch up with them when they were in detention, they’re given their belongings in a plastic bag from the Department of Homeland Security,” Nicholson said. “So if you’re walking around and you’ve got your belongings in a plastic bag like that, it’s like having a neon sign over your head that says you’re a migrant.”
In some cases, migrants never get their belongings back. Being penniless, however, does not shield them from crime. Nicholson said that humanitarian groups warn migrants not to borrow cell phones from strangers to call home, as extorters may then call their families, claiming to have kidnapped them, and demand ransom.
In February, the United States and Mexico finalized a Local Repatriation Agreement, which includes provisions to curtail nighttime deportations and requires agencies to “take all feasible steps to ensure that property, valuables, and money” are returned to migrants. The policy also established a more thorough screening process for unaccompanied children who are deported. The effectiveness of these prescribed changes is currently unknown.
In the meantime, the task of protecting recently deported migrants falls to the Mexican government and private groups. Grupos Beta, a Mexican government agency, offers subsidized bus tickets to southern Mexico and partners with private or church-run organizations, which provide some shelter for recent deportees.
While some migrants opt to return home, others stay in border towns, waiting for their next opportunity to cross into the United States.
Nogales, Sonora, is about an hour south of Tucson by car. Like many border cities, it has experienced rapid growth since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, in part due to the presence of maquiladoras, American-owned assembly factories that utilize the low cost of Mexican labor.
Nogales, Arizona, just across the border, has a population of about twenty-five thousand, while the population on the Mexican side has skyrocketed to ten times that. The two cities are separated by a tall fence, with three port of entry checkpoints: one for personal cars, one for walkers, and one that is primarily for trucks bringing goods across the border.
At the personal car checkpoint, vehicles wait in a long line to cross into the United States. U.S. Customs officials carefully check passports and reserve the right to X-ray cars or detain passengers if suspicion arises. Mexican entrepreneurs sell chimichangas and tamales to passengers waiting in line. Minutes later, the food moves across the border, while its maker and seller remain in Mexico, looking for new customers.
Minimum wage in Mexico is seventy-three pesos a day, or just over four U.S. dollars. The possibility of making double that salary in just an hour working in the United States is itself alone a substantial motivation for Mexican citizens to move across the border.
NAFTA is often credited with creating some of the desperate economic conditions that have driven migration. In the corn industry alone, imports of cheap American corn put as many as two million Mexican farmers out of work. And while the expansion of maquiladoras brought jobs to Mexico, real wages in the manufacturing sector dropped by 22 percent between 1994 and 2006, even as productivity increased by 45 percent.
More recently, gang violence in countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala has pushed more people from farther south toward the United States. Some of these recent Central American migrants may qualify for refugee or asylum status given the political violence in their home countries; however, the United States has largely tried to keep them away by paying Mexico over $10 million to strengthen border control on its border with Guatemala, and beginning in January 2016, by deporting those who arrived in the United States but were not granted asylum. Legal groups have argued that such deportations are unfair, as Central Americans may be unaware that they qualify for asylum status or not have the means to navigate the American legal system.
Meanwhile, the options for legal immigration are scarce. According to the U.S. State Department, 1.3 million Mexican citizens are on the waiting list for numerically-limited visas in 2016. Approximately twenty-five thousand of these visas are available, with priority given to immediate family members of current U.S. citizens.
Despite continued political and economic hardships and the visa backlog, border apprehensions, a likely indicator for overall immigration levels, have followed a gradual but steady decline since 2005. While it is always difficult to pinpoint the causes of changing immigration patterns, increased enforcement in both the United States and Mexico is usually credited as a major reason for this decline. In 2015, Border Patrol apprehended 331,333 migrants in the Southwest border region, the lowest number since 1972.
But while migration numbers have dropped, the death rate has substantially increased, since the migrants who do cross are forced into more perilous situations.
Debate about immigration reform in the modern American political landscape generally focuses on border security. Though conservative politicians are more known for anti-immigrant policies, the Obama administration—while advocating for increased protection for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States—has substantially increased surveillance and enforcement at the U.S.–Mexico border.
While such policies may have deterred or prevented some migrants, whatever border security the United States has gained has come at the expense of thousands of Mexican and Central American lives.
Building a wall—the preferred option of leading Republican candidates during the current election cycle—is hardly a viable solution either. Compared to a weeklong journey through the deadly Sonoran Desert, scaling a border wall should not be a formidable challenge for potential migrants.
Many activists believe that the only way to stop deaths in the desert is to increase the availability of legal immigration.
“I pray and hope that things change pretty soon,” Ochoa said. “All the people that are here are not going anywhere. The government needs to change the policy.”
But for now, no such policy change appears to be coming. The Tucson Samaritans and other humanitarian groups will keep dropping water jugs along remote migrant trails. At consulates in Arizona and Texas, phones continue to ring with calls from Latin American families whose loved ones have gone missing. In Nogales, crowing roosters and barking dogs signal the beginning of another day. In the quiet desert, migrants keep shuffling in their carpet slippers, hoping they will be the ones who make it.