After nine years of stunning mortality rates along the Arizona-Mexico border, the medical examiners are fed up. Molly Kincaid on one morgue boss’s battle for Washington’s attention.
So far this year, 203 migrants have died along the Sonora-Arizona border. The number is nothing out of the ordinary. The death rates in this part of the country began rising notably back in 2001, and have not declined over the last nine years.
The body count along the border shows up from time to time in Washington’s immigration debates. But with the president’s agenda crowded with health care, Afghanistan and the aftershocks of last fall’s financial crisis, these fatalities are in danger of getting lost in the shuffle.
“Do we have to have a thousand dead?” asks Anderson. “Do we have to have a bunch of kids? Do have to have—God forbid, I hate to even say this—but do we have to have some indication that we have a bunch of dead terrorists? Would that get Washington’s attention?”
And that has Dr. Bruce Anderson, forensic anthropologist at Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson, increasingly troubled. “This is a national disgrace,” says Anderson. The numbers bear him out. The ACLU recently put forth a study that stated the border has claimed over 5,000 lives in the last decade—concluding that this is a full-fledged humanitarian crisis.
Without strong political leadership in the nation’s capital to keep the issue alive, the job of sounding the alarms is increasingly falling to people on the frontlines—people like Anderson, a tall, deadpan sort who has not traditionally been particularly active in politics. His small corner office in the morgue is adorned with statistical charts and maps chronicling the migrant death crisis. Out of approximately 1,470 bodies that have passed through this office since 2001, about 400 remain unidentified and their remains languish here. While he acknowledges that a 70 percent identification rate is admirable given the incomplete information they are working with, these unidentified remains weigh heavily on Anderson’s mind. “I’m seeing young, healthy people dead from crossing our border—because they believed that’s the only way they could get here—to work jobs that I believe most Americans won’t work,” Anderson says. “I think it seems like a pretty stiff sentence to take somebody’s life for wanting to do that.”
Anderson’s views differ from many human-rights advocates, in that his sole priority is to see these deaths stop, even if that means closing down the border completely. “I just wish it was harder for them to cross, or that it was easier,” he says. “I could go either way on this. Just don’t let them into the country and make them risk their lives crossing our desert for a better life. Either don’t let them cross or give them a legal option.”
Anderson recalls the impenetrable borders of South Korea and the former Soviet Union, where he once did forensic work. If we really wanted to stop migration, he posits, we could post a guard every hundred yards or so along the desert. He stipulates that, unlike those countries, where they would “shoot first and ask questions later,” he does not advocate a militarized border.
With billions of dollars allocated to guarding the border, one might think the U.S. is already trying to keep migrants from entering. But much of the desert that envelops the border is not guarded or walled, and many accuse the government of using the inhumane tactic of allowing people to cross here—knowing they will likely die—in an attempt to deter others from crossing.
“It’s called ‘prevention through deterrence,’” says Kat Rodriguez, director of the human-rights group Derechos Humanos. Recently, she and a band of volunteers gathered to hammer together homemade crosses to honor those who’ve died on the border this year. Each one in the huge stack of clean white crosses told its own story and was inscribed with a victim’s name.
“The government’s strategy was to seal down the traditional crossing points through the urban areas: Nogales, Agua Prieta, Naco, Yuma, etc. By increasing border patrol in those areas, they shifted people east and west, pushing them into more isolated, dangerous terrain,” says Rodriguez.
Like most human-rights proponents, she advocates the creation of legal avenues for people to enter, and would be opposed to the possible solution of bolstering the border and creating an absolute barrier—as some politicians have proposed. There are, after all, practical problems with walling up the entire 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico. Some of those lands are Native American reservations; others are protected national wildlife preserves.
And then there’s the labor issue. As the economy recovers, Anderson suspects that the low-skilled labor needs will be on the rise, and he fears this could mean even more deaths on the border. “It’s my opinion that Americans won’t do these jobs,” he says.
Rodriguez concurs, explaining that the U.S. has created huge demand for this type of labor, and yet we haven’t readjusted our immigration laws and quotas to allow for the inundation of migrants to enter legally. “People say, ‘Why don’t they do it the right way?’” Rodriguez notes. “The thing is, the ‘right way’ is a completely ridiculous, outdated system.”
There’s a weighty incentive for those attempting the crossing. Most people have relatives already living in the States, and many have specific jobs waiting for them. As Anderson puts it, the U.S. “dangles and economic carrot for these people.”
It remains to be seen whether Anderson’s agitation will have an effect on the political landscape. President Obama has said he would address immigration reform after the health-care crisis is under control. But like a lot of folks along the border, Anderson sees this as an issue that can’t wait any longer. “What kind of number do we have to throw up?” he asks, growing increasingly anguished. “Do we have to have a thousand dead? Do we have to have a bunch of kids? Do have to have—God forbid, I hate to even say this—but do we have to have some indication that we have a bunch of dead terrorists? Would that get Washington’s attention? Because they sure to heck don’t seem to be too preoccupied with preventing deaths of people who come here to work low-end labor jobs.”
Molly Kincaid is a reporter based in Tucson, Arizona. She keeps a blog about migrant humanitarian issues at www.aperturasfronteras.com.