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Excerpt: "Activists say harsh security measures have 'funneled' migrants into deadly routes with thousands perishing on the trek."

Thousands of migrants have died along desert crossings between the US and Mexico. (photo: Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera America)
Thousands of migrants have died along desert crossings between the US and Mexico. (photo: Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera America)

How the US Is Killing Thousands of US-Mexico Border Migrants

By Gayatri Parameswaran and Felix Gaedtke, Al Jazeera America

18 March 15


Activists say harsh security measures have 'funneled' migrants into deadly routes with thousands perishing on the trek.

he stench of death and decay hung over the morgue at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner where dozens of white body bags lay on metal trays on a warm February afternoon.

"We have 90 unidentified remains at the facility right now," Dr Greg Hess, the chief medical examiner, told Al Jazeera, pointing at body trays on the right side of the room. "Most of these people we believe to be undocumented border crossers."

About 100km from Hess' office, thousands of migrants have tried to cross the US-Mexico border through the US state of Arizona, which cuts through the arid Sonoran desert where summer temperatures soar above 40°C.

Many poorly equipped migrants, hiking for days on end, eventually succumb to the adverse conditions. Since 2001, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has received more than 2,200 recovered remains of suspected migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.

The morgue at the Pima County Medical Examiner's office in Tucson, Arizona. (photo: Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera)

The morgue at the Pima County Medical Examiner's office in Tucson, Arizona. (photo: Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera)

Dr. Hess unzipped a body bag with an "Unknown" name tag to reveal the limited contents within.

"Here, [this is] not uncommon. We have a skull and a little bit of property. What are the odds that we will identify this person in a very timely manner? Probably very small," he said.

In 2013, 168 migrant deaths were recorded in Pima County, and 95 of the bodies remain unidentified.

The Medical Examiner's Office routinely works with the Colibri Centre for Human Rights, an NGO that assists families to find remains of their loved ones who disappear at the borderlands.

The Colibri Centre was established amid the increasing discovery of unidentified remains of border crossers since the early 2000s.

In a tiny office, Chelsea Halstead, programme manager at the Colibri Centre, sifted through folders of missing persons' reports.

"People started calling here to try and find their loved ones who had died while crossing. They couldn't call the police because there were language issues or jurisdictional issues, or because the person in question wasn't an American citizen. In other cases, they were too scared to call the police," Halstead told Al Jazeera.

US law enforcement officers often rely on data from SIM cards to try and identify bodies. (photo: Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera)

US law enforcement officers often rely on data from SIM cards to try and identify bodies. (photo: Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera)

Halstead and her small team at the Colibri Centre take detailed missing person's reports from families calling in, then catalogue and compare them with profiles of unidentified remains that come into the Medical Examiner's Office across the hallway.

In some cases, they successfully find a match and help return the skeletal remains and property to bereaved families.

"Death is a social experience. Even though it's sad and it's difficult, it's social and it's important for the community," Halstead said. "When you don't have a body, you don't have that socially agreed upon narrative of what happened to this person. You don't get to collectively pass them along to the land of the dead."

Jasmin Morales' is one such family currently seeking help from the Colibri Centre. Jasmin's brother, Julio Cesar Morales, disappeared in 2009 while trying to cross from Mexico along with Jasmin and their father.

"My brother wanted to find work. In the town where we used to live [Tierra Blanca in Veracruz, Mexico], there is not much work," Jasmin told Al Jazeera over the phone.

More than half of Mexico's population lives in poverty and the country has one of the highest murder rates in the world .

Under these conditions, many such as Julio make the perilous journey north in search of a better life.

Jasmin, her brother, and their father spent a week in the Sonoran desert. At the end of the journey, they lost Julio after an encounter with US Border Patrol agents one night.

"To be honest, I don't know what happened to my brother because the desert is something ugly," Jasmin said. "I'd love to find my brother alive, at least for my mother because she has the hope that he is still alive."

Jasmin, however, acknowledged the reality that her brother could be dead.

"They [Colibri Center] asked me for authorisation so they can look for him in the morgue. They told me it has been many years since he disappeared. So, it will be God's will. I don't really know if he is in prison or dead, but we want to know what really happened."

The border wall in Nogales, Arizona is heavily guarded and effective at keeping migrants out. (photo: Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera)

The border wall in Nogales, Arizona is heavily guarded and effective at keeping migrants out.
(photo: Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera)

Mexican migrants didn't always take the arduous Arizonan desert route to cross into the US.

Todd Miller, author of the book Border Patrol Nation : Dispatches from the Frontlines of Homeland Security, told Al Jazeera that border-security policies over the years have pushed people to trek through the unforgiving desert.

"The operations that took hold in the mid-1990s cut off traditional immigration routes in urban areas such as El Paso or Nogales or San Diego, creating a funnel effect. People were funnelled into areas that were supposed to be a deterrent, a lethal deterrent," he said.

In 1990, eight undocumented-person deaths were recorded in Pima County, compared to 225 in 2010.

Although unauthorised migration to the US along the Mexican border has decreased over the years, the US Border Patrol Agency has kept growing in size. Currently border enforcement costs $18bn each year.

Increased militarisation of the US-Mexico border explains the expanding budgets, Miller said. "Forward operating bases only used to be in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now you'll see it on the southwest borderlands." 

At the foothills of the Silver Bell mountains deep in the Sonoran desert, civil society group No More Deaths routinely conducts search-and-rescue operations to help migrants in distress.

On a recent February afternoon, a team of volunteers navigated through the vast landscape dotted with saguaro cacti.

"We get calls in distress that report someone in a group has started vomiting or started having diarrhoea. Often we also hear that people felt so sick that they were left behind," volunteer Genevieve Schroeder told Al Jazeera.

Schroeder showed Al Jazeera a recent recovery map where migrants were located.

"On the map the Silver Bell Mountains are like 70 miles [110 km] from the border, but the walking distance could be double that," she said.

"People weren't going this far a few years ago and now they are. They are now taking one of the longest routes that they could be forced to take," Schroeder said.

In 2005, the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice implemented Operation Streamline, an initiative that subjects undocumented migrants to criminal prosecution, prison sentences, and deportation.

Schroeder said Operation Streamline has a direct impact on the number of deaths along the border.

"The deaths are happening further and further north of the country. People are putting themselves at higher and higher levels of risk, not seeking out rescue even when they are sick, even when they are lost, even when they have fallen behind because they may be facing a very lengthy prison sentence."

As the sun set over the desert, painting the sky in vivid shades of crimson, Schroeder's colleague Maryada Vallet expressed their organisation's collective frustration.

"The number of human remains that we find here every year is as if a Boeing aircraft had to crash in our desert every single year since the last 10 years. And we still can't figure out that this is a humanitarian crisis and not a law enforcement issue?" your social media marketing partner


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-16 # randyjet 2015-03-18 10:07
I have to laugh at this article since it used to be that such folks told us that walls and fences do not work. Now they complain that they DO work too well. So rather than put up more such fences, they want them to come down so that it is easier for crooks to enter the USA.

This also ignores the personal responsibility of those who are dead. They CHOSE to break the law, and knew the risks. The US did nothing to them that they did not do to themselves. Such "reasoning" would allow a lawsuit against a homeowner for having a swimming pool in which somebody drowned after having broken into it. GET REAL!
+1 # Glen 2015-03-19 06:05
Randy, how should the U.S. have treated Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine? What should be written on the Statue of Liberty?

Thought you need to know that swimming pool owners, even with a fence can be sued if an uninvited someone drowns in their pool.

It is a touchy subject, but the U.S. is ignoring the misery in Mexico, caused by the U.S. and a lawless society and Mexican government. The violence just across the Mexican border cannot be ignored but the U.S. is doing a good job. True, the U.S. cannot support endless numbers of people, so it is now becoming more than an economic issue, it is a highly moral dilemma.
-19 # Roland 2015-03-18 10:23
Doesn’t the title to this article mislead a little? How the US is killing thousands of border migrants”. Are we killing them? Is it our fault or is it the fault of the people trying to illegally cross the border?

We have made it harder, at points where it was easy to illegally cross. What if a country was able to fence the entire border effectively? The border migrants might try something very risky. Would this be the US’s fault? Why is the individual breaking the law not held responsible? What if the border was so secure that the best places to break the law were crossing a fast moving river or swimming up the coast? If they drowned would it again be our fault?

What if they hurt themselves climbing over a fence?

It seems as if it will always be our fault unless we securely bus them across the border into our country.

I am well aware that most people crossing into our country are doing this for a better life. We used to only allow people who we believed could support themselves into the country. In a country with so many entitlements, we can not allow all of the world’s poor to come here. It also takes jobs away from the people here.
“A nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.”
“A nation without borders is like a house without walls - it collapses.”
+9 # Radscal 2015-03-18 14:11
"We used to only allow people who we believed could support themselves into the country."

The very first law passed under the U.S. Constitution was the Naturalization Act. Its restrictions on whom the country welcomed had no mention of ability to "support."

"That any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen..."

Of course, unfree black persons were welcomed in large numbers, but citizenship was not in the cards (or laws) for them.
+8 # reiverpacific 2015-03-18 12:52
Wonder if they hired Latino labor cheap to build that wall?
And "many people crossing into this country" are as a result of US/CIA usurpation of their own nations trying to establish a democratic self-sufficienc y, just for one example, the recent overthrow of Zelaya's popularly-elect ed center-left Honduran government in favor of US-trained death-squad patrolled, oligarchy-hired elites, making it the murder capital of the hemisphere, many fleeing or sending their kids to the "Homeland of the usurper" for sheer survival.
You deport all the "Illegals" working here on the cheap and you'd have to close many fancy to average restaurants nationwide, and much of the crop-picking trade that services Taco Bell, Burger King and the other billion-dollar purveyors of shit-food, agricultural labor or domestic workers doing hard graft that most Americans won't dirty their lily-white hands on -but will bitch from their bar stools about "them furriers", whilst themselves on unemployment rather than do such "menial" work; I see and hear it all the time.
The Latino-a's where I live are the hardest-working and most hospitable folks in the area to those of us who care to befriend them and I welcome their diversity in food, music and sense of family. Many started as "illegals", worked their way into residency and even citizenship with family support.
Actually, I was an "illegal" at one time, arriving on an "forbidden" one-way ticket but was sponsored by the Oregon Arts Council to stay here.
+13 # Radscal 2015-03-18 14:05
The War on Drugs is largely responsible for Mexico's high murder rate (same as here), and NAFTA is largely responsible for the economic hardships in Mexico (same as here).
+5 # indian weaver 2015-03-18 15:37
The Mexican NAFTA is a slimy slippery hidden genocidal policy of our government. We impoverish millions of Mexican camposinos due to the FTA. Their land is taken by huge Amerikan food corporations thru the corrupt Amerikan and Mexican governments. Then these millions of innocent workers like you and me flee for their lives, with their families, to struggle for survival in Amerika, who destroyed their lives in the first place. This then allows the fleeing herds of impoverished Mexicans to be rounded up and herded into detainment prisons and other privately owned prisons. This is a food factory for the prison owners since they are paid $26K per prisoner by the government. So it's all a matter of so much meat being butchered and sold to the relatives who own the prisons. Genocide by any other name, FTA for the politics. Genocide it is, a version trumped up by our genocidal fascist terrorist regime in Washington, DC. Like war, genocide is big money and its made thru obvious military wars and less obvious law enforcement wars against the Mexican ranchers and farmers.
+2 # PABLO DIABLO 2015-03-18 20:28
SO SAD. Wanting to work should not be a Capital Offense. WAKE UP AMERICA. How far could we go spending $18 Billion per year on Creating jobs.

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