Immigrant Advocates: To Stop Desert Deaths and 'Disappearances,' Do Away With Border Enforcement

Two Arizona immigrant-advocacy groups are urging the immediate dismantling of militaristic border-enforcement infrastructure and personnel in order to stop the running tragedy of migrant deaths in the desert.

No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos reach that controversial conclusion in a report released this past week, "Disappeared: How the U.S. Border Enforcement Agencies are Fueling a Missing Persons Crisis."

The continuing deaths are one of the greatest humanitarian crises in modern America, with untold thousands of immigrants lost or found dead because of a 20-year enforcement tactic that has closed off most of the easy land crossings between the United States and Mexico. Motivated by bad economies and gang violence in their home countries, many immigrants and refugees — guided by ruthless and greedy smugglers — begin their work careers in America with a perilous journey through rugged, often-hostile desert terrain in Arizona and other states.

"Extreme heat and bitter cold, scarce and polluted water sources, treacherous topography, and near-total isolation from possible rescue are used as weapons of border enforcement," states the report, the first in a planned series of three. "The rugged environment along the border routinely injures those crossing with sprains, blisters, and heat-related illness; many become lost and disoriented in these vast and remote expanses of wilderness, resulting in disappearance and death."

The advocacy groups make no apologies for using the word "disappeared" to describe migrants on a desert crossing who are never seen again. The word typically refers to state-sponsored kidnappings (and likely executions) of suspected dissidents. No More Deaths and Derechos Humanos use it in the report to imply that U.S. authorities intentionally scatter the migrants, either hoping they get lost or callously disregarding that potential outcome.

"We recognize the weight that the language of disappearance holds; we use it to call attention to the fact that disappearance is not a natural or inevitable phenomenon but rather is a direct consequence of U.S. border-enforcement policies and practices. This deadly process has ripped holes in families and communities that will last for generations."

While no one knows precisely how many lives have been lost, the report says that various reviews of data including recovered remains and missing-persons reports indicates that at least 8,600 immigrants have died crossing into the United States since enforcement tactics changed in the 1990s.

The United States, and the U.S. Border Patrol in particular, is entirely responsible for the deaths and missing people because of the "Prevention Through Deterrence" policy that is "pushing traffic" into inhospitable landscapes, according to the report.

On many dark nights in the desert, groups of men, women, and children in search of a better life encounter Border Patrol agents, trucks, and helicopters that chase them across the cactus and rocks, often resulting in migrants becoming lost, injured, or killed.

A video (see below) that accompanied the release of the report provides additional statistics the advocacy groups drew from calls by migrants to the No More Deaths hotline in 2015 and surveys of interviewed migrants in the past five years.

According to those statistics:

41 percent of migrants chased by the Border Patrol are injured by elements of the terrain

18 percent of migrants are injured by Border Patrol agents during apprehensions

42 percent of migrants are "lost" during Border Patrol chases in the desert

• 37 percent of migrant chases in the desert involve helicopters, making it more likely migrants will become lost

The video also relates the story of three migrants being chased by the Border Patrol in March 2015. One fell off a 200-foot cliff while running through the darkness.

"It is inherently deadly to police that terrain," says one of the report's authors, Alicia Dinsmore of No More Deaths, a group that has worked for years to provide assistance to migrants, including supplying remote desert locations with jugs of water for traveling migrants. "Enforcement tactics shouldn't put people's lives at risk."

In order to fix the problem, she says, "You'd have to get rid of all that infrastructure — the building of walls, putting in sensors, the watchtowers." And you'd have to call off the Border Patrol.

Dinsmore isn't concerned with the potential that less enforcement will tempt more people to attempt to cross the border, because she believes the government should simultaneously take action against policies that drive people to flee their homeland. She notes the North American Free Trade Agreement has hurt Latin American economies, in particular.

The notion of revisiting NAFTA may be the only common ground Dinsmore shares with President-elect Donald Trump. Dinsmore fears Trump will worsen the migrant-disappearance problem, not by building a massive wall along the entire border but by having walls and security fences installed where it's comparatively easy and cheap, thus funneling migrants into more dangerous terrain.

The Border Patrol declined to directly address the report. In a statement released to New Times and other media, the federal agency spread the blame to include smugglers and touted its migrant-rescue efforts:

"Many immigrant deaths result from smugglers who knowingly victimize people wanting quick passage into the United States. Smugglers lie, telling their 'customers' their passage will be safe, but in reality, the terrain is treacherous and the conditions are extreme. Many are led to their deaths by smugglers more concerned about making money than they are about the lives of others.

"The Tucson Sector Border Patrol deploys assets and resources to areas where a majority of immigrant deaths and rescues occur. We currently have 36 rescue beacons throughout the sector. In addition, all U.S. Border Patrol agents are trained to handle immediate medical needs in the field. In the Tucson Sector, we have more than 230 agents trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), as well as 54 Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) agents.

"CBP values human life, and we collaborate closely with foreign government officials, law enforcement partners, and community organizations to educate potential immigrants about the true dangers of crossing the border illegally."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also issued a news release highlighting those rescue efforts. The release related the story of an unaccompanied 17-year-old Guatemalan boy who'd illegally crossed the border from Mexico into California on December 7. After he called police on his mobile phone to say he was lost, agents with the Border Patrol's El Centro Sector found him — and began processing him for removal.

"The desert can be an unforgiving place," El Centro Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott was quoted as saying. "Thanks to the quick response of our dedicated agents, this child did not have to suffer the consequences that can arise from being lost in the desert."

Though the incident demonstrates how migrants can become lost without any help from the Border Patrol, advocates warn against assigning blame to the immigrants, whom activists view as refugees. Although the groups' report focuses on the safety issues raised by Border Patrol chases in the desert, both Dinsmore and Raquel Rubio Goldsmith, an adjunct professor and coordinator of the University of Arizona's Binational Migration Institute, balk at the suggestion that migrants should be advised not to run from the Border Patrol.

"If you have a helicopter coming down with lights, you don't know if it's coming down on you," says Goldsmith, who conducts research into border-enforcement practices and teaches ethnic studies classes.

Asked again if migrants would be safer to stay in place when encountering agents, considering the report highlights the dangers of running through the desert, Goldsmith says, "I just can't answer that."

Goldsmith and Dinsmore suggest that the average American simply does not comprehend what goes through a migrant's mind during a pursuit — from the fear of being harmed by the Border Patrol or its dogs to worries about what their capture will mean for the situation of their family back home.

"If you have someone who borrowed $5,000 to come across, they're going to be in deep, deep trouble [if they get caught]," Goldsmith says. "They are not free decisions. The circumstances are out of their control. You and me — we can't speak for others that way."

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern