US border policy is creating a crisis of death and disappearance in the Southwest borderlands. I spent a few days last month with a group of faith leaders and volunteers walking through the scorching, 118 degree weather in the Ajo Corridor of the West Desert in Arizona. Our objective was to place gallons of water in what little shade exists in hopes that anyone crossing through this deadly terrain will eventually come upon them.
These are humans beings, literally being hunted in the desert.
It is so much worse than I could have ever even imagined.
At one point, we found slippers—pantuflas—that are used to cover a person’s feet so they don’t leave footprints in the sand that can be used to find the person.
They appeared to be child-sized.
We also came across some fragments that could have been bone or other organic matter. Our group did a grid search for human remains nearly 50 people wide; thankfully, to no avail. We only walked for a couple of hours and in such a short span of time, came across both of these haunting examples of the realities faced by migrants passing through this area.
This is tragically the deadliest stretch of land along the U.S./Mexico border. Almost half of the recovered human remains of border crossers found in 2017 in Arizona were found in this section of the West Desert. The majority of these deaths are caused by extreme exposure to the elements and dehydration. Since 2001, there have been 130 reported cases of migrant deaths on this stretch of desert, and some estimates say that up to 10 times as many people have died on the land than have been found.
The humanitarian aid group No More Deaths has consistently documented the way border enforcement pushes migration routes into some of the most remote, dangerous areas of the desert through their “Prevention through Deterrence” policies. They have also documented Border Patrol’s abuse of people held in their custody.
As attacks on immigrant lives increase across the US and pathways to asylum and other relief are cut off, more people are pushed to cross the border in order to reunite with their families and seek safety. The volunteer-led, grassroots organization that hosted us, No More Deaths, is doing crucial and lifesaving work along these Arizona borderlands. They strongly believe that human dignity and decency are sacrosanct and not to be compromised based on the shifting sands of government policy. We join them in asserting the right of all people to receive the basics of humanitarian aid, including rights to food, water, and medical assistance. In the face of increased repression, they continue to provide support to people undertaking the most dangerous journey of their lives and to advocate for the safety and protection of immigrant communities.