Death in the desert

Mexican migrants are dying at record rates as they try to cross treacherous desert into Arizona. Critics blame the U.S. government -- and they're preparing to sue.

By James Reel
Published July 15, 2002 8:06PM (EDT)

A Mexican laborer who calls himself Alfonso sat in a small Nogales, Sonora, church with a dozen other men recently deported from the United States, eating a simple church supper and explaining why he would never again cross the border through the desert. The last time he'd tried, he and three companions wandered the sun-seared terrain for four days without water, reduced in the end to drinking their own urine before finding help at a remote ranch.

Alfonso was lucky. In June, when daytime temperatures routinely hit 110 F, 34 people died from heat exposure and dehydration in the Southern Arizona desert, most of them in small groups crossing illegally from Mexico. If the current trend holds, the toll for the year ending Sept. 30 will surpass last year's record of 78 deaths.

In response, the Border Patrol has recently added 100 agents and automated surveillance gear to what it calls the West Desert, the sparsely inhabited corridor west of Tucson into which all of New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut could fit. But two groups of Arizona activists, one with a long history of aiding undocumented immigrants, are mounting their own campaign to bring water and medical care to the desert, saying the Border Patrol itself is to blame for policies that have pushed desperate migrants away from cities and into the most remote and dangerous desert entry routes.

"I have some trouble with [the Border Patrol] saying, 'We're out there, we don't need any help,'" says Rick Ufford-Chase, director of the community development organization BorderLinks and an elder at Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church. "It's akin to somebody starting a house fire and going in to do a rescue."

Some predict that their efforts could lead to escalation of a conflict with federal agencies and U.S. immigration policy. In a skirmish early last year, the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service barred one group, Humane Borders, from providing relief to migrants passing through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. A few months later, in May 2001, 14 of the migrants died -- and now two Yuma attorneys have filed a $41 million claim against the agencies on behalf of the victims' families.

The conflict has unfolded in a desert landscape that is starkly beautiful and so unforgiving that it is known as "the Devil's Highway." The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector begins just west of the twin border cities of Nogales, extends across the low, brown Sierrita Mountains, and includes the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the Tohono O'odham Reservation, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and parts of Cabeza Prieta and Luke Air Force Range. It's a land of sand, silt and gravel mottled with such dusty-looking shrubs as creosote and bursage, dotted with spindly mesquite and palo verde trees and abounding in skin-shredding cacti.

Summer arrives in late May and lingers until early October. Temperatures hit or exceed 100 degrees for roughly 90 to 100 straight days, sometimes approaching 120. By day, shade is scant. Water flows only during and immediately after a rain, and this is the second year of a drought so severe that even the cactus are starting to wilt. Spend a day here in the sun without water, and your body temperature will rise as high as 108 degrees, cooking your organs; your rotting muscles will give off a bloodstream-clogging protein, and you will soon die of kidney failure or heart attack, probably following brain damage. "It is definitely some of the harshest climate and terrain in North America," says Ryan Scudder, a Border Patrol spokesman.

That has not stopped migrants from trying to make the trek. Only 20,000 visas are provided each year to Mexican workers, making the U.S. agricultural industry implicitly dependent on illegal migrant labor. And a busboy north of the border can earn in an hour what he would make in a day of hard labor in Mexico. Weighing the risks and benefits, many decide to immigrate illegally.

But the Border Patrol here is assigned to block their entry. Its Operation Safeguard -- the Tucson Sector counterpart to similar campaigns in California and Texas -- has, since 1994, concentrated its operation around the border towns of Nogales and Douglas, which in the mid- and late 1990s were the border's leading points of illegal entry for economic migrants and drug smugglers alike.

"We're not pushing people into the desert there," insists Scudder, "but if you have limited resources you're going to put your resources where there are the most crossings. That meant Nogales, and then when we got Nogales under control it shifted to Douglas. We're not trying to push people into harder terrain, because it's not just harder for them, it's harder for us."

Critics disagree, saying the U.S. policy is linked to a series of horrifying death-in-the-desert episodes -- at least 291 of them along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border last year. And even as the Border Patrol denies responsibility, it has acknowledged the problem and has moved to alleviate it. The Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue Team, or BORSTAR, is a medic-centered sideline to the agency's law-enforcement duties. Between Oct. 1, 2001, and July 4 this year, the team rescued 364 people in 89 separate events in the Tucson sector alone.

Now, besides adding agents to its force of about 500 in Nogales (out of 1,700 in the entire sector), the Border Patrol is also relying on images from flyovers and new electronic surveillance towers in the desert. Yet in the first week of July, two people died in an area patrolled by BORSTAR.

According to Scudder, the Border Patrol is seeking a difficult balance: It must enforce U.S. immigration laws, which require people to enter at an official port of entry, even while trying to reduce the risks for those who enter illegally. Like other U.S. officials, Scudder says blame lies not with federal policy, but with the smugglers who take money from migrants while promising safe passage into the country.

"We don't want anybody to die in the desert," he says. "Crossing illegally should not be a death sentence. But we're not the ones telling them to go there."

Scudder makes no apologies for Operation Safeguard. In the Tucson Sector, from October through June of last fiscal year the Border Patrol apprehended 371,593 crossers. From last October through the end of this June, the number was 249,354. "So we're down more than 120,000 apprehensions from last year, which was down from the year before that," Scudder says. "We were catching 1,400 people a day in Nogales when I started, but we don't catch 100 a day now. That shows what Operation Safeguard does -- it's a strong deterrent. So if it does shift people into the West Desert, where are those 120,000 missing people?"

Perhaps a few have become very good at eluding the Border Patrol. Certainly some are dying -- more than ever in the Tucson Sector, even though the death rate is declining along the rest of the border, according to a study released July 5 by the Mexican government. During the first six months of this year, according to the study, 167 migrants of all nationalities died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, 117 of whom were Mexicans. The study did not include earlier figures for all nationalities, but did report that 210 Mexicans had died during the same period in 2001, and 283 died during the first half of 2000.

By any measure, the human cost is unacceptable to the two church-based Arizona groups that are now venturing into the desert on their own.

The first to go into action was Humane Borders. Directed by Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church, Humane Borders is a system of 33 member organizations that since last year has set up water barrels along migrant routes through some of the most inhospitable borderland tracts in Arizona and California. Humane Borders advocates policy changes that would make it easier for Mexican citizens to enter and work here legally, and would alter the Border Patrol's fixation on urban crackdowns.

Hoover, a loquacious Texas clergyman with a doctorate in political science and a specialty in social ethics, is an unashamed media hound. "Part of our mission is to tell this story," he says.

Early in 2001, the group focused some of its effort on the Cabeza Prieta refuge, a rugged, saguaro-studded haven for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope, stretching 56 miles along the Arizona-Mexico border. According to Tom Bauer, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, there are signs along the border warning of mortal risks facing those who try to cross the desert on foot. Clearly, the signs aren't always effective. There are open 10,000-gallon tanks on the refuge to serve the antelope, but a Mexican migrant would find them only by luck. When Humane Borders proposed to place other water tanks along routes used by migrants in the past, however, the Department of Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service objected. To preserve the wilderness, the agencies restrict vehicles to a single dirt road through the refuge. Remote tanks would have to be replenished by volunteers carrying heavy water bottles on foot, a "treacherous" situation in the heat, Bauer says.

The agencies denied Humane Borders access to the refuge. A few months later, in May, the 14 Mexican migrants died on the refuge. By some accounts, they were less than a mile from one of the water-tank sites proposed by the group -- an account vigorously disputed by Bauer.

In the aftermath of those deaths, Fish and Wildlife did allow 30-foot, blue-flagged poles to be erected at about 10 existing stock tanks on the refuge. That raises the likelihood that people, and not just antelope, will find them. According to Hoover, the Border Patrol has credited one of those flagged tanks with saving at least 33 lives.

That has not resolved the conflict, though. On July 3, a federal jury in Phoenix convicted Florida farmhand contractor Francisco Vazquez-Torres for his role in the immigrant-smuggling ring that organized the deadly border crossing, and an Associated Press report said he faces life in prison when he is sentenced later this year. And two Yuma attorneys, on behalf of 11 of the victims' families, have filed their $41 million claim against the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charging that the government's decision to block Humane Borders from the refuge contributed to the deaths. The claim seeks $3.75 million for each family.

Bauer says he is "not certain" whether Fish and Wildlife has an obligation to the health and safety of illegal migrants, adding that there is "ongoing discussion" about such subjects within the agency. Critics, however, say the government clearly has obligations.

"The government has to take on the responsibility of doing something to safeguard folks who are crossing in these areas that are known to be dangerous," says James Metcalf, one of the lawyers filing the claim. "The legal status of the individuals doesn't mean the landowner can wave off all responsibility. And then there's the fact that you had an organization trying to come into a specific area and volunteer -- at no expense to taxpayers -- to place water stations that would have saved these lives."

Now the federal agencies have another four months to respond to the $41 million claim and possibly negotiate a settlement. If that fails, the attorneys say they will file a civil suit in U.S. District Court.

The record pace of deaths in recent months now has moved a second church-based group into action. On July 1, Ufford-Chase joined Southside Presbyterian pastor John Fife and a few supporters gathered around a volunteer's SUV and slapped magnetic signs on its doors identifying it as the Samaritan Patrol, then sent it, a driver, a medic and a translator into the desert searching for people in distress. Every day that week, a group went four-wheeling along dirt roads south of where June's deaths were concentrated, stopping at washes (migrants commonly follow dry streambeds until they find a road) and hiking 20 to 30 minutes in each direction, calling out "Somos amigos!" -- "We're friends!" -- as they looked for migrants in distress.

Samaritan Patrols didn't encounter anyone during the first week, although late on July 2 another body was discovered about a mile from a point Ufford-Chase had passed earlier that day. But had the group found somebody, it would have been ready. The patrol leaves Tucson at 4:30 a.m. with 30 gallons of water, a case of tuna fish, an emergency medical kit, rehydration packets, a satellite phone, a GPS unit to track its position, binoculars and walkie-talkies.

The migrants' plight attracted 50 potential volunteers -- students, retirees, church members, schoolteachers, professors and veteran activists -- to a July 7 orientation in the sanctuary of Southside Presbyterian. The room, like the audience, was ecumenical: a circular adobe space with a flagstone floor, a ceiling of wood beams, and a niche under each window holding votive candles and small, carved religious figurines. It evoked both a Hopi kiva and a Mexican Catholic chapel, and it was half-full of Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews and members of other religions.

The Border Patrol has declined to comment on Samaritan Patrol, but no doubt has a keen interest in the group -- interest, and perhaps wariness, because of its long-running conflict with John Fife, who co-founded the sanctuary movement 20 years ago. That was a nationwide effort by 330 churches to transport and shelter refugees, most of whom were fleeing the U.S.-backed civil strife in El Salvador and had been denied legal entry to the United States. Some sanctuary workers helped refugees cross the border illegally, and transported them through the country in defiance of U.S. law.

Two decades and two felony convictions later, Fife was obviously spoiling for another fight during a sanctuary reunion in March. "There may be a need for another civil initiative to protect these people again," he said of Latin American economic migrants and potential asylum seekers.

Although Samaritan Patrol makes a point of operating aboveboard, including telling the Border Patrol what it's going to do in advance, several volunteers were concerned about how much trouble they could get into. A. Bates Butler, one of the sanctuary defense attorneys, pointed out at the reunion that in the current anti-terrorism climate, people testing the Border Patrol's authority are more likely to go to jail than they were 20 years ago. So, volunteers asked, if the Border Patrol catches them driving dehydrated migrants to the hospital -- one option in the Samaritan Patrol protocol -- could their vehicles be impounded? Fife and Ufford-Chase believe they can work within the law as long as they are providing humanitarian aid. But they are advising volunteers, for example, that while showing a migrant a map is OK, giving the migrant the map could be illegal. Exactly how much slack the Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Service will cut Samaritan Patrol remains to be seen.

Still, it is enough to give some hope to the Mexican workers who wait to cross the border -- but not much.

Sol de Justicia Presbyterian Church, two blocks south of the 16-foot steel wall separating Nogales, Sonora, from its Arizona counterpart, serves dinner three times a week to migrants on their way north and recent deportees from the United States. That's where Alfonso and his friends, most of them 20- to 40-year-olds staying at a government-sponsored shelter down the street, sat talking about why they want to return to the United States.

Carrying one of the work documents issued by the Mexican bureaucracy, Alfonso had been searching for a job on the Sonoran side of the border all day. "I've got paperwork for everything," he complains in a gravelly voice, " but I can't find a job."

Even if he finds work here, the best they could hope for might be manual labor paying $85 for a six-day week. In the United States, Alfonso had made $17 an hour as a roofer; another diner, Juan Luis, says he got $32 an hour in construction. As bad as the pay in Nogales is, Juan Luis says, jobs further south pay only a third as much. "This country is messed up and poor," he says.

As a group, the men left the little church and shuffled down the dusty city street toward the shelter. There they would spend another night biding their time, waiting for another chance to cross. Inevitably, some among them would dare to cross the desert.

James Reel

James Reel is a writer living in Tucson, Ariz.

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