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Online Extra
November 2003

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Life and Death on the Southwest Border

Watching You Online Extra
Photograph by George Steinmetz


A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement helicopter spotlights the body of a 23-year-old woman who died trying to illegally enter the U.S. through Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Some 1,000 people try to cross the region each day.

By Miki Meek

Almost 500 plywood coffins rest within the old paupers section of Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California. No flowers, fancy granite headstones, or sections of freshly mowed grass grace this burial site filled with unidentified migrants. The only reminders of those who died crossing the country's southern border are numbered concrete markers, occasionally accompanied by small white crosses bearing the words No Olvidado, Not Forgotten. 
Unidentified dead migrants, known as no identificados, are buried in cemeteries along the 2,000-mile (3,000-kilometer) border the U.S. shares with Mexico—and their numbers are  growing. Since 1994 an estimated 2,600 undocumented migrants have died crossing the border, according to figures from California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF).

In response to the mounting death toll, the Mexican and U.S. governments have announced several binational campaigns focused on reducing the number of people trying to illegally enter the U.S. The most recent one, Operation Desert Safeguard, was launched in Arizona's Sonoran Desert—an area called the corridor of death because of its harsh terrain and high volume of undocumented migrant deaths. The plan, announced in June, intensified search-and-rescue efforts and added more agents and surveillance technology.
However, critics of the campaign say this strategy will backfire. With the U.S. beefing up certain sectors of the southern border, undocumented migrants are rerouting through more remote and hazardous regions, making them harder to apprehend and fatalities more likely, says immigration enforcement expert Joseph Nevins. "This announcement is sort of an old game," he says. "Every summer lots of people end up dying in the desert and every summer some new plan is announced to save lives, which actually makes the border deadlier."
Spurred by a decline in the Mexican economy and the number of U.S. visas available, the majority of undocumented migrants entered the San Diego area from Mexico from the late 1960s through the '80s. This sector was responsible for some 40 percent of all apprehensions on the southern border until 1994, when the U.S. government announced Operation Gatekeeper, according to a report by the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS).


The operation cracked down on crossings with motion detectors, stadium lighting, and more than double the number of agents. By 2002 the San Diego area was responsible for only 10.8 percent of all apprehensions on the southern border. 
Gatekeeper did successfully seal off the sector's most urbanized sections, but it did not stop the flow of undocumented migrants, says Nevins, who is 
an assistant professor of geography at Vassar. It merely shifted it east. To avoid U.S. Border Patrol agents, border crossers began traveling through Arizona's mountains and deserts, where there was less control. Apprehensions in Arizona's Tucson sector (one of the current crossing hot spots) increased 342 percent from 1994 to 2000, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics. 
Originally the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services [BCIS] under the Department of Homeland Security) believed the difficult terrain would discourage illegal entries. But desperate for work, undocumented migrants kept coming—even if it meant carrying plastic milk cartons filled with their own urine after running out of water or stumbling past those who'd already succumbed to the elements. Today undocumented migrants are seven times more likely to die crossing the Arizona-Mexico border than they were five years ago, according to an analysis by the Arizona Republic.
"If you want to seal off the entire border, be my guest, but as an alternative you don't have the right to keep funneling people to their deaths," says Claudia Smith, an attorney for CRLAF.
The border blockade strategy has also made smugglers, or coyotes, almost indispensable to undocumented migrants, who are willing to pay more for the difficult trek, she adds. Pre-Gatekeeper, coyotes charged up to $300. But now costs can go as high as $2,000, making smuggling a multibillion-dollar industry that has become increasingly dangerous.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it's the smugglers who are behind the growing number of deaths on the border. Coyotes have become infamous for misleading customers about conditions in remote desert and mountain regions and even abandoning them, which happened in May. In one of the U.S.'s deadliest smuggling cases, 19 undocumented migrants died from heat complications in a tractor-trailer in southern Texas. 
Smugglers, the Border Patrol, or undocumented migrants themselves can be scapegoated for the high number of border deaths, but the real underlying problem is the U.S. government's failed and contradictory immigration policies, says Peter Nuñez, who served as a U.S. attorney in San Diego from 1982-88. "People know that if they can survive whatever trauma or potential disasters to get to the United States, then they're home free and no one will pay attention to them," he says.


While the government was bolstering its border enforcement on the southwestern border, it was also doing less interior enforcement such as locating and deporting illegal migrants or imposing sanctions against employers who knowingly hired them. Nationally, the number of fines decreased from 1,461 in 1992 to 100 in 2001, according to BCIS figures. 
Nuñez attributes this to officials in Washington who he says have caved in to the interests of political, business, and immigrant communities that oppose work-site inspections.
The border strategy and immigration policies have also been keeping undocumented migrants in the U.S. longer, according to Douglas Massey, an immigration expert and sociology professor at Princeton. Traditionally many would return to Mexico, particularly when agricultural seasons ended. But with the reentry risks much higher, the average stay since 1990 has jumped from almost two years to nine.
Although many agree there needs to be serious discussion about reforming U.S. immigration policies, the subject lends itself to heated debates. Some tout amnesty and guest worker programs as the answer while others advocate mass deportations or completely militarizing the southern border.  
Whatever the "solution," immigration reform talks between Mexico and the U.S. have been on the backburner since 9/11 and have only been broached again recently. Hoping to dramatically curtail border deaths and workplace abuses, two Arizona congressmen recently introduced legislation that would widen the legal channel for undocumented migrants seeking work. Under the Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act, the number of work visas issued would be driven by the demand for jobs Americans won't take.
It would also allow an estimated seven million people illegally living in the U.S. to become eligible for permanent residency. To apply, they would have to pay a $1,500 fine and after three years get an employer to sponsor their residency application. Without a sponsor, it would be six years before they could apply.
As Representative Jeff Flake, one of the bill's authors, waits for his colleagues in Congress to vote on it, he says there's one thing that's certain: Deaths on the border will continue unless U.S. immigration policies are reformed.
"I don't see Operation Desert Safeguard changing anything," says Flake. "We're just squeezing a balloon that's going to pop out somewhere else."


Related Links
Center for Comparative Immigration Studies
This site is devoted to comparative studies on international migration and refugee movements in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
University of Houston Center for Immigration Research
This website offers research papers, information about current immigration trends, and a comprehensive set of links to more immigration-related websites.
U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection
Get information about the latest security initiatives on the Mexico and Canada borders and other news.
U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Find online forms and information about immigration services, laws, statistics, and history.
Andreas, Peter. "A Tale of Two Borders: The U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada Lines After 9-11," Working Paper No. 77. Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego, 2003.
Cornelius, Wayne A. "Death at the Border: The Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of U.S. Immigration Control Policy, 1993-2000." Working Paper No. 27. Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego, 2000.
Esbach, Karl, Jacqueline Hagan, and Nestor Rodriguez. "Causes and Trends in Migrant Deaths Along the U.S.-Mexico Border: 1985-1998," University of Houston Center for Immigration Research, March 2001.
Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.
Nevins, Joseph. Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. Routledge, 2002.


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