Anyone who has visited here in Ambos Nogales experiences the looming, impassive presence of the desert. It’s implacable, majestic, terrifying. It is an ancient, vast expanse that holds treasure and treachery. It sits, dynamic but ultimately unchanging, indifferent to the minutiae of our human existence. It is an emblem of God’s holiness, that is, God’s absolute and ineffable other-ness. The desert is a place we inhabit without comprehension. All we can do in the desert is approach with awe and respect.
During the summer months, it can be difficult not to fear or loathe the desert when we see the violence it inflicts to migrant bodies. Feelings of anger or blame towards the desert, while understandable, are misplaced. The desert reflects the beauty and complexity of God’s creation, and it is not really the desert that is killing people. The desert is not killing people. Policy is killing people, and it has used the desert as its weapon. Human manipulation has desecrated the desert by slaking it with innocent blood. As with Abel in Genesis, this blood cries out from the ground. As in Genesis, we hear God turning to us after seeing it and asking us with grief, “What have you done?”
Today, we want to begin answering that question. For nearly thirty years, the US has tried to curb immigration by forcing people to risk their lives in hostile terrain like the Sonoran Desert. We will take you through some of the policies that have violated both the desert and our brothers and sisters in migration. Let us come up with a better answer than Cain did, for we know that we are truly our siblings’ keepers.
Origins: When Deterrence Means Deadly
It wasn’t always this way. Prior to the 1990s, many unauthorized border crossings occurred in border towns and urban areas. During these years, the bulk of migrant deaths were caused by traffic accidents or drowning that occurred when people tried to cross into the US via an interstate or an unpredictable river.
The dynamic began to change with the Clinton Administration. In 1993, the year Bill Clinton took office, over 1.2 million people tried to enter the US without documentation. The following year, his administration formally implemented a “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy at the Border. In practice, this looked like deploying Border Patrol agents to border towns and dramatically constricting entry at both official ports of entry and non-official crossing points. The explicit goal was to push migrants towards more remote, hostile terrain. The policy-makers assumed that once migrants realized the danger of these new routes, they would stop migrating.
They were wrong. People kept migrating. Deaths surged.
New York Times research shows that in 1994, just before the full effects of “Prevention Through Deterrence” were felt, Pima County handled 11 cases of migrants who had died in the desert. By 2010, this number had risen to 222 in a single year. Border Patrol has reported finding the bodies of more than 8,000 migrants on the Southern border since 1998. Almost half of those people were found here, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The true number of people who have passed away is likely much higher, due to under-counting and under-reporting from Customs and Border Protection.
It’s difficult to conceive of the cruelty that has kept “Prevention Through Deterrence” in place for nearly three decades. Not only has the policy cost migrants their lives, it hasn’t worked at decreasing migration. This past April, the U.S. apprehended more than 171,000 migrants — the most in two decades.
Today: Constricted Opportunities, Exacerbated Risks
Unfortunately, the “Prevention Through Deterrence” approach has become increasingly entrenched and fortified in recent years. Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2003, immigration officers have employed more and more military-style tactics and equipment. Flooding border towns with law enforcement officers had already pushed many migrants to take the chance of crossing the desert. Now, these officers are armed to the teeth and taking full advantage of the 100 mile jurisdiction that the Supreme Court granted them decades prior. Migrants must go further and further into hostile terrain to avoid detection and the abuse that often follows when CBP takes a migrant into custody.
Even worse, many migrants who would typically avoid the desert have been left with virtually no other options if they want to enter the US. Though recently repealed, the damage from the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) lingers. Beginning in January 2020, MPP forced nearly 70,000 people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico for court dates. As a result, we have regularly welcomed migrants to the comedor who have been waiting for access to the port of entry in Nogales, Sonora for a year or more.
Additionally, since March 2020, the border has been effectively closed to almost all migrants due to the use of Title 42. Under the guise of protecting public health, CBP immediately began expelling nearly everyone apprehended at the border indiscriminately. All migrants are deposited back to Mexico without seeing an immigration judge or having their safety considered. Title 42 was issued by the Trump administration despite objections by senior CDC medical experts, who said it lacked a public health justification. Thus far, the Biden administration has elected to keep the policy in place.
These recent policies have functionally closed the border. While asylum-seekers are slowly regaining a tiny modicum of access to the border, it remains virtually sealed for the vast majority of people. People who have been unjustly deported, have missed a court hearing in the USA, and climate refugees still lack any legal pathway to migrate.
Without clear, timely means for entering the US, many migrants decide to try crossing through the desert.
When Every Option Risks Danger or Death
Of course, most migrants we encounter know that the desert is dangerous, even deadly. They weigh their options. As they do, it’s important to remember that for most people in migration, many of the options available to them carry the same risk of danger or death. Migrants who arrive at KBI continually report extortion, kidnapping, threats of violence, injury, and illness while in Mexico.
When faced with a range of terrible options, migrants find few simple answers. Do they stay in limbo on the Mexico side and wait, risking kidnapping or death? Do they return home and face whatever danger and violence they were fleeing? Or do they take the chance to get to the US another way, even if that way carries the risk of death, too?
Migrants must make these decisions with vastly imperfect information in the middle of traumatic situations and strong emotions, which change the way humans process information. Many are making choices without trustworthy guidance. Even when people like KBI staff and volunteers are in a position to offer counsel, we cannot pretend to know what the right choice is for people caught in an impossible web of complexity.
What we do know is that many migrants, especially adults traveling alone, do choose to take the chance of crossing the desert. Many deem it the best option they have.
Crisis in the Desert: Choking Access to Help
When a migrating person chooses to cross the desert, US policies and practices have made it even harder for them to call for help if a crisis occurs. The first way is by disincentivizing migrants to call at all. Right now, 911 dispatch in Southern Arizona re-routes distress calls from migrants to Border Patrol. This practice means that migrants know calling for help means bringing law enforcement to the scene and entering CBP custody, which is rife with abuse. Knowing this, migrants on the brink of a medical emergency may try to push themselves to go a little bit further, even if they feel exhausted. Sometimes, this hesitation means they don’t call until it’s too late.
Even if a migrant accepts that CBP will arrive and calls for 911, the reality is that Border Patrol is a law enforcement entity, not a medical one. Most agents do not have training to respond to a medical emergency. Agents can re-activate the 911 system to ask for an ambulance for a migrant, but this process wastes precious time and delays critical care. It also assumes that Border Patrol conducts a thorough search and rescue mission, which is often not the case. The most recent report from No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos indicates that Border Patrol fails to conduct any search or rescue mobilization in response to 63% of distress calls they receive.
None of these numbers account for the reality that many migrants are physically or technologically unable to call for help in the first place. Forcing migrants to travel in increasingly remote parts of the desert means that their cell phones, if they have access to one, are less likely to work. Similarly, dehydration and heat exposure often cause disorientation, confusion, and psychological distress. When a migrant in the desert experiences a medical emergency, they’re likely incapable of making a phone call even if they wanted to.
These realities have made the desert even more deadly than it is on its own, largely through discrimination and neglect. We have pushed migrants into the desert and functionally abandoned them. The only humane response is to undo policies that needlessly push migrants into danger in the first place.
Caring for Survivors and Forging Ahead
We receive thousands of migrants at our comedor in Nogales, Sonora. During the summer months, many of them have wandered in the desert for days. As followers of Christ, we approach these people with a special tenderness. Time in the desert is both physically and psychologically devastating. Many people who arrive in the comedor have been abandoned by their traveling group. They may have been injured or had to fend off animals and try to avoid treacherous plants like the jumping cholla cactus, which ejects its needles on passers-by and often causes infection. Many people we encounter have witnessed violence or seen other bodies in the desert. For some, simply the desperation of wandering without knowing where they were or where they would find water weighs most heavily.
The truth is, these experiences would break any of us. These are realities that humans were not meant to experience. And so at KBI, we bandage their feet. We sit quietly alongside people. If and when people want to speak, we listen carefully with the heart of Jesus.
As a means of prevention, we work hard to expand migrants’ awareness of the legal options they do have, outlining potential pathways for entering the US without having to brave the desert. Since 2017, Kino Border Initiative has worked in partnership with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project to provide legal services to migrants in our migrant aid center in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. A program that started with one attorney has since grown to two attorneys and three legal assistants in just three years. The Florence Project’s Border Action Team is currently maintaining a five day a week presence on the ground in Nogales, Sonora, with at least two people present each day to ensure that people who are in MPP, expelled under Title 42, or newly arriving to the border have access to high-quality legal services.
We are committed to offering counsel to make sure migrants are aware of their full range of options. However, the reality is that there are too few options available right now. If we really want to end deaths in the desert, it is absolutely essential to create a wider range of channels for people to legally enter the US.
Memorializing the Lost
When talking about the desert, we must keep the humanity of each individual front and center. Each preventable death is a tragedy and a travesty. Each person has a name and a story. Each deceased person carried the image of God. And each of these people are far more than their deaths. There are no mere bodies, deaths, and decedents. There are only human beings who have lost their lives, whose stories were cut off prematurely. There are families who have had someone taken from them too early.
At KBI, we take time to mourn each person lost through communal prayer. We work with migrants to process their experience and memorialize people they saw in the desert.
Honoring the lives lost is essential. It’s why we are eternally grateful for organizations like Colibri Center for Human Rights, which works to help families of missing migrants find answers about their loved ones. Projects like “Where Dreams Die” by Alvaro Enciso, which place crosses to mark the places where people passed away, help visibilize this ongoing crisis at the Southern border.
Of course, the best way to memorialize and honor lives lost is by taking action to make sure no one else is pushed to cross the desert. It’s why we are fighting every day for policy change that gives migrants clear, humane access to the border.
We are our siblings’ keepers, and we must do better for them. The factors that press migrants into the wilderness are numerous and complex. In the same way, our approach must be multi-pronged.
Here are a few actions you can take today to reduce lethality in the summer months:
- Ask your representative to establish a borderlands emergency response system that operates entirely separately from immigration enforcement. Right now, 911 redirects callers who appear to be crossing the border to CBP – who rarely perform adequate search and rescue, nor do they provide high-quality medical care. Every person in crisis deserves high-quality, life-giving care.
- Call your representative and demand an immediate end to the use of Title 42. Opening the border to asylum claims would lessen the pressure migrants feel to instead pay smugglers to cross the desert.
- Ask Congress to provide the necessary resources for migrant reception in U.S. border communities. Many communities are ready to welcome brothers and sisters, even if it requires sacrifice, but aren’t sure if they can handle another scramble to assist people that the Border Patrol has suddenly released in a remote Arizona town. We must be equipped to welcome people with hospitality.
We know that people like you are committed to a better, more humane reality at the border. Taking action is a concrete way of protecting our brothers and sisters in migration.
We approach this summer with a spirit of mourning and holy indignation. No one can convince us that our siblings in migration are our enemies, as so much rhetoric would have us believe. In the same way, we are incensed to see our beautiful, holy landscape be contorted into a weapon. As we face the summer, we say “no more,” to both of these violent lies that have been animated by unjust policies.
Instead, we recommit ourselves to a resolute spirit of love. We are stewards of creation and stewards of each other. Each day, we are toiling so that when God turns to us and asks, “Where is your brother?” we can confidently put our hand out and say “here he is,” and show that we have treated our brother as we would have treated Christ himself.
Today, we invite you to join with us in this endeavor by mobilizing others to learn and take action. Share what you have learned or share this article with 5 of your friends to let them know what is happening to our siblings in the desert. Call your representatives, demanding the creation of a borderlands emergency response system that operates entirely separately from immigration enforcement. Finally, hold the people who have lost their lives in prayer. Together, we must be better keepers of our brothers and sisters in migration.