Deaths in the desert: the sad price of U.S. border policy

Three months pregnant, Norma Rodriguez Amado had watched her husband, Paez Martinez, as he left his home in Morales, Mexico, for the United States. He would support his family from afar, working in the states of Tennessee and Florida. After almost two-and-a-half years of living and working in these faraway places, Paez returned to Morales to see his son, Alexander, for the first time.

When the time came to leave again, Paez and Norma decided to go together with their son and thus maintain the family unit. Paez had crossed the border without problems previously, as had others whom he had known. Unfortunately, he did not foresee the possibility for danger; he was simply waiting for a life happier with the presence of his loved ones.

However, this time, the family found themselves crossing a long stretch of the Tohono ‘O’odham reservation in the middle of the day during one of the worst droughts in the history of that desert. After two hours of walking, Norma collapsed. Their “guide” chose to abandon the family and continue on with the rest of their group. Only 45 minutes later, this mother and wife died, becoming one of the latest victims of an inhumane and murderous border policy.

According to Mexican government statistics, since 1998 more than 1,500 persons have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Another study reports 3,676 such deaths in 14 years.

Meanwhile, in the very hot area of the border that divides the traditional lands of the Tohono ‘O’odham, such casualties are a sad but regular occurrence. Last year, 27 immigrants died there. This year at least 77 persons have died crossing the Arizona border, according to a recent study by The Arizona Daily Star. The majority have died in the isolated stretches of desert between Tucson and Yuma, with deaths concentrated in or near the Tohono O’odham reservation. This is by far the worst year since any records have been kept for such casualties, a point neither critics nor proponents of U.S. border policy would dispute. However, due to the lack of uniform record keeping among agencies that police and maintain the border, it is difficult to assess the full extent. According to US Border Patrol numbers, the death toll since June 6th is past double for the same period last year.

The vice-chairperson of the Tohono ‘O’odham nation, Henry Ramon, explains the problem:

“In 1996, the United States government instituted Operation Gatekeeper. This program closed down the border, but left a huge hole – the lands of Tohono ‘O’odham nation, the hottest, most dangerous, and most inhospitable point to cross on the southern border. ... It is estimated by the Border Patrol that 1,500 persons cross our lands per day. As a result, hundreds have died.”

Patricia Flores, of the Alianza Indigena sin Fronteras (Indigenous Alliance Without Borders), notes that the increased presence and strategies of the Border Patrol have created an oppressive atmosphere for everyone in the area, including the residents of reservations near the border. She says, “The Native American people in these communities are constantly harassed by the Border Patrol. Grandmothers are held at gunpoint to provide papers to prove their identities. ... The roads that are being built for the Border Patrol on Tohono ‘O’odham nation land ... are destroying the medicine plants that our people have used for centuries. They are destroying the environment. They are destroying the economic security of the people.”

This intolerable situation exists not only in the Sonoran Desert, but along all the southern U.S. border. Therefore, Alianza Indigena sin Fronteras and Derechos Humanos (Human Rights), both based in Tucson, Ariz., held a press conference on June 12 to announce a new effort, the Mobilization to End the Deaths, with participation from groups representing all the regions of the southern U.S. border. The Mobilization issued a declaration stating, “Our border must remain a border of neighbors and not enemies.”

The Mobilization demands that Congress immediately cease the militarization of the border and end neo-liberal trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which have resulted in so much economic devastation throughout Mexico, and which now threaten to extend to all the Americas in the form of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Furthermore, Mobilization signatories are calling for an open immigration policy that acknowledges the work and the many contributions that immigrants make to our society. Especially, they are demanding protection and equal rights for all workers in this country, whoever they are, with or without papers, separating immigration policies from those connected with the so-called war against terrorism.

A statement from Casa de Proyecto Libertad (Project

Liberty House) in Harlingen, Tex., said, “The immigration policy of the United States excludes people by reason of their poverty, race, and social class. People migrate in response to political and social problems that exist in their native countries. ... Immigration policies ... treat immigrants and other border residents as if they are criminals and potential threats to national security.”

The U.S.-Mexico Border Program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), in San Diego, presented a statement calling attention to the relationship between border militarization and immigrant deaths. The statement said, “We ... recognize the dichotomy of a border that is openly militarized and channels migrants to cross through one of the most inhospitable terrains in the world, and, at the same time, offers search and rescue operations.”

Daniel Brito of the AFSC said there is a connection between border militarization and labor issues that compel migration to the United States of a workforce without rights, who labor for low wages but nevertheless contribute so much to U.S. society in the form of work, taxes, and culture.

Brito said that every day on the border there are almost 4,600 troops involved in operations. He said, “We need to be aware of the history of how this border was erected, how this legal fiction was created. The border system relies on shamefulness, on people having to pretend that they are not really needed workers. … Everyone understands that there is a need for this labor in this country. Yet we go through this legal fiction pretending that they’re not real people and that they don’t deserve rights.”

Lorenzo Torrez, district organizer of the Communist Party USA in Arizona and chair of the Party’s Chicano/Mexican-American Commission, said free trade agreements increase illegal immigration, despite the assertions that these accords would raise wages for the participating nations and thus stop the flow of people crossing the border looking for jobs. “These programs tend to make the countries poorer, the workers poorer – and that’s why they have to immigrate,” Torrez said. “These programs are not the answer and the only people that I think can stop them are us, the citizens of the United States. We have the responsibility to stop these programs and to call for something different.”

Continuing this theme, Isabel García Gallegos, director of Derechos Humanos, asked, “Has the phenomenon of mass migration been stopped by the free trade agreement? Of course, the answer is a resounding ‘No!’ In fact, it has exacerbated the situation.”

Gallegos said the American people must pressure Congress and the Bush administration to drastically change border policies and, thereby, help end these deaths in the desert. She insisted that the blame for these deaths must be placed “at the feet of Congress and this administration.” Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) is the point man in Congress on immigration, border issues, and free trade, she said. “We have asked Congressman Kolbe to help us in stopping [US border policy] and, consistently, he has refused,” instead advocating “more militarization of the border...where we are living in dying fields,” Gallegos said.

Many words of anger, of resolve, of analysis, of faith, of power were voiced at the Mobilization to End the Deaths press conference. But in the background behind the speakers was a visual reminder of the sad price paid for U.S. border policy: small, white crosses bearing the names of those who have recently died in the desert, the majority while crossing the remote, dry land of the Tohono ‘O’odham nation.

One name was that of Arturo Gomez Castro, from Chiapas, México, a young man of 16. His body was found in the shade of a mesquite tree, with two empty water bottles and an open address book. Why the open address book? Perhaps he found some comfort reading the names of his loved ones one last time.

Or perhaps he was making a kind of last call – to those who would find him, and, by extension, to the citizens of the United States. The call? That we change U.S. border policy, that we cease the militarization, that we extend equal rights to all who work in this county, that we end neo-liberal trade agreements that literally kill, and that no one, ever again, should have to die of thirst and exhaustion in the desert, looking for a job and a good life full of hope, health and happiness.

The author can be reached at turnwind_az@yahoo.com