Death in the Desert

Nogales, Arizona.

As he drops his last purification tablet into a pail of swirling, murky water, Sergio, 26, stares out toward the desert. Recently deported from Arizona, where he has a young child and where he has lived for the majority of his life, he explains, “I have to return, it’s my home.”

Lacking official U.S. documentation, Sergio, like other undocumented migrants is unable to get a driver’s license. Using a fake ID, he was originally deported to Mexico after being pulled over in a routine traffic stop and jailed for four months.

In fluent English, he explains that immediately upon his deportation he attempted to cross the desert but was captured by U.S. border patrol agents and jailed for another eight months. He has no family ties in Mexico’s frontier states, he explains, his life is in Arizona.

On Apr. 13, the harshest anti-immigrant bill in the country, SB 1070, passed through Arizona’s state legislature. Criminalising people for not having proper identification, the bill requires police to check the legal status of anyone they suspect of being undocumented.

Just two days later, a huge operation with 800 agents and officers from nine federal and local law enforcement agencies arrested 50 people working in the shuttle service sector, in what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials described as including “unprecedented cooperation with Mexico’s Secretariade Securidad Publica”, in an investigation that has “implicated high-level members of human smuggling organisations”.

On the same day, members of the anti-immigrant Tea Party organisation held a few rallies in Arizona’s Maricopa County. Former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo blamed undocumented migrants for committing murder and pointed to the case of an unsolved killing last month of an Arizona rancher named Rob Krentz.

“The blood of those people is on the hands of every politician who runs a sanctuary city,” said Tancredo, speaking in Tempe.

On Pacifica Radio, Isabel Garcia, co-chair of the Tucson-based Coalition for Human Rights, said that she “put the onus and blame on the federal government, in addition to the state government, for funneling and purposely creating Arizona as the laboratory for all of these anti-immigrant measures”.

With urban border crossing points such as Nogales heavily fortified, migrants deported to Mexico and wanting to return to their families in Arizona make dangerous treks across the desert.

According to U.S. civil rights groups, the number of migrants who die each year attempting to enter Arizona increased from nine in 1990 to over 200 by the mid-2000s.

The Barack Obama administration has continued its predecessors’ policy of using death as a deterrent, which under U.S. and International law has been deemed illegal.

In 1994, with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, then President Bill Clinton officially militarised the border with ‘Operation Gatekeeper’ and ‘Operation Hold The Line’. By redirecting government resources to the major U.S./Mexico urban crossing sites – Tijuana/San Diego, Nogales/Nogales, El Paso/Juarez – where water, food, and shelter are more readily accessible, successive U.S. administrations have explicitly used open desert conditions as an immigrant deterrent.

Engracia Robles, a nun with Sisters of the Eucharist, helps run a small volunteer walk-in centre for deportees.

With no money, a location to sleep is hard to find, she says, and “people often sleep in the cemetery” just a few hundred feet away.

“People come in with their feet blistered, cuts on the face and bruised. They are hungry, destitute; shoes are broken from walking in the desert for days,” she said.

IPS witnessed an emotional family reunion at the centre, as two children separated from their parents for months were finally brought together again. Wiping away their children’s tears, the parents embraced their children for nearly half an hour before letting go.

Nearby, at the Mariposa port-of-entry, hundreds of trucks pass fuming up the hill crossing the border.

“This is a NAFTA border,” explains Connie Romero, a volunteer with Arizona-based No Mas Muertes. “Money moves freely, people with money do too, but the poor are pushed into a dangerous cycle of crossing the desert.”

On the Mexico side of the border, sitting beneath a tree near a bus bench across from the local cemetery, one group of deportees spoke with IPS about the dangers of desert crossings.

Garcia Augustin, a construction worker, explained, “We have been in the U.S. for the last 18 years but we were shipped back by [Joe] Arpaio [referring to the sheriff of Maricopa Country, where Phoenix is located]. We have no family here. We have nothing here.”

Another labourer, deported recently, could not understand why a country so large and with so much opportunity would not allow him to work, as he was breaking no laws. “Sheriff Arpaio does not like people with brown skin. John McCain, the senator of Arizona, hates me because I’m brown. But Obama is a black man, he should understand, but he also hates me. Why?”

Corey Jones, a local kindergarten teacher, undergoing a training seminar with Samaritan Patrols, a migrant advocacy organisation, says, “Arizona is the site of a social struggle. On one hand you have very powerful wealthy people that benefit from the labour of a super-exploitable class of workers, and on the other hand you have some of the poorest people in North America seeking to make a living any way they can.”

JEB SPRAGUE received a Project Censored Award in 2008 for an article he published with the Inter Press Service (IPS) from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Visit his university website: