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Deaths will continue with or without immigration reform

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For nine years, Steve Johnston has toted gallons of water, food packages, clothing and blankets up and down Arizona’s rugged border terrain, leaving the provisions on immigrant trails into the U.S. in the name of saving lives.

While bipartisan supporters say that the U.S. Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, S 744, will solve the nation’s illegal immigration problems if passed by the House of Representatives, Johnston offers a stark, contrasting view.

“I’m convinced S 744 will kill more people,” he says.

Johnston, 68, is a volunteer for the Tucson-based humanitarian-aid group No More Deaths, which is among several humanitarian and immigrant-advocacy groups that oppose the immigration bill, in part, for what they call its lack of foresight.

Johnston says the bill will “stress (volunteer) capabilities” by increasing border-enforcement efforts in Arizona and further funneling migrants into the most dangerous routes in the mountainous terrain of the Sonoran Desert.

He bases his prediction on trends from the past. Border enforcement strategies have been linked to a migrant-death rate in Arizona that has dramatically increased since the state became the most common entry point for illegal immigration into the U.S. in 1998.

Johnston’s prediction is plausible but not inevitable, says Doris Meissner, director of the Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton.

“A straight-line analysis is that deaths have remained high in Arizona and the bill is unlikely to lower those numbers and may even increase them,” she says. “However, the whole premise of comprehensive immigration reform is to create a system whereby people come into the U.S. to meet labor market demands and would be able to do so in a safe and orderly fashion. That should reduce reasons why people try to cross the southwest border illegally and thus decrease the number of deaths.”

There are several components of the bill that could impact migrant deaths and humanitarian work.

Primarily, S 744 calls for spending tens of billions of dollars on greater border-enforcement measures. This includes doubling the number of Border Patrol agents at the southern border to more than 38,000; constructing 700 additional miles of border fencing; deploying aircraft; building watch towers; and mandating area-specific technology such as camera systems, ground sensors and drones.

Much of those resources would be targeted toward high-risk zones like the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which in the 2012 fiscal year made one- third of the arrests of undocumented immigrants and one-half of marijuana seizures nationwide. Arizona already has 318 miles of some kind of border fencing, according to the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson and Yuma sectors. The remaining 70 miles have environmental obstacles that act as natural barriers.

Arizona became the focal point for illegal immigration as the result of a concentrated border-enforcement strategy that began in 1993 when “Operation Hold the Line” beefed up security with manpower and technology in busy illegal immigrant corridors into Texas. The Clinton administration followed with “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, increasing enforcement in the busiest illegalimmigration entry point – San Diego, Calif.

The strategy was aimed at forcing those who hoped to cross into the U.S. illegally into mountainous terrain with weather that fluctuates from blistering hot in the summer to frigid cold and snow in the winter acting as a deterrent. But it didn’t.

Migrant crossings and apprehensions plummeted in California and Texas following those policy changes, but they dramatically increased in Arizona. In 1992, there were just more than 95,000 apprehensions in the Tucson and Yuma sectors combined. By 2000, that number jumped to more than 700,000.

The apprehension numbers have now dropped to pre-1994 levels, the product of increased enforcement, fewer jobs available in the U.S. and an improving economy in Mexico. Deaths have not.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, death counts have fluctuated between 170 per year and 250 per year since 2005. During that same period, apprehensions in the Tucson sector have decreased by 73 percent. The bottom line: The death rate is rising compared to reported apprehensions.

Those numbers alarm people like Gene Lefebvre, who was active in the 1980s Sanctuary Movement and who co-founded No More Deaths.

“Whether enforcement is high or low, people will try to come across if they believe they have more opportunities here,” Lefebvre says. “Over the years, numbers (of apprehensions) have been driven by the U.S. economy and jobs, as well as poverty on the other side.”

He says an improving U.S. economy will lead to more illegal immigration and more deaths in the desert.

“(The government) projected that people would die, but what they didn’t project, what they didn’t count on, was the desperation of people,” he says. “People came anyway.”

Data indicate fewer people are trying to cross illegally through Arizona, but the desperation of the people who do come over explains why the death count remains high, says Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, a professor at the University of Arizona and program coordinator for the Binational Migration Institute. Those who make the trip take more dangerous routes as enforcement blocks easier access points, she says.

“We’re talking about people who are looking at the risk in a very different way than you or I would,” she says. “You and I wouldn’t want to go through the desert. Being with family is an incredible push factor for people. Overriding the deterrents of going through the desert are factors people face in their hometowns – they can’t make enough money to buy food or medicine for their family. They’re willing to take that chance.”

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has found more than 2,000 bodies of suspected migrants in its jurisdiction since January 2001. It handles more unidentified remains than any other medical-examiner office in the country.

Humane Borders, another humanitarian-aid group based in Tucson, has worked with the Pima medical examiner office to put together a map plotting coordinates of migrant remains using geographic information system (GIS) software. The map also provides information concerning common demographics of migrants who die while crossing the border.

Because of advanced levels of decomposition, not all bodies can be identified when found. Still, the bodies that are identifiable by age, gender and cause of death offer a picture of who the migrants are: Eighty percent are male. Exposure is the cause of death in nearly 75 percent of cases. More than 40 percent of bodies are found on the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation. Most of the dead were between the ages of 20 and 49.

According to Gregory Hess, the office’s chief medical examiner, the biggest problem working with hundreds of unidentified bodies per year is storage.

“The unidentified bodies don’t go anywhere fast,” he says.

After the investigation is complete and there is no positive identification, the office generally calls to have the bodies buried in the Pima County plot or cremated, Hess says. That can add up to thousands of dollars in costs per year to the county.

It’s tragedies like those that another component of S. 744 hopes to cut down. In addition to its focus on enforcement, the bill calls for construction of 1,000 distress beacons along nearly 2,000 mile-long U.S. – Mexico border.

Currently, there are 22 distress beacons in the Tucson sector and 24 distress beacons in the Yuma sector. Factors on where the distress beacons are placed include how remote an area is, how many agents are deployed in the area, number of immigrant deaths in the area and what technology is available to help patrol, says Nicole Ballistrea, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector.

Distress beacons were first installed in Arizona in 2002 and consist of tall red posts equipped with buttons that can be pushed in emergencies to call for help. The towers are solar powered and lighted at night. Instructions for pressing the button and sending a distress signal appear in multiple languages. The instructions do not say the beacon is connected to Border Patrol. After being treated medically, border crossers without appropriate documentation are deported.

The Tucson sector beacons have been activated about 180 times “over the last few years,” Ballistrea says. Other than that estimate, there is little information on how effective distress beacons are.

Johnston, of No More Deaths, approves of the distress-beacon component of S 744, but says he believes it could be improved if the beacons were equipped with cell-phone towers, so migrants in distress could use their cell phones in areas with poor reception.

“That’s the thing that will save the most lives,” he says. “Right now, migrants have to climb to the top of the highest mountain to get reception, and that’s very difficult. If the beacons have a cell-phone tower and use that ability, I’ll be in favor. Otherwise, it’s just a PR thing.”

The U.S. Border Patrol and local Arizona humanitarian groups have a checkered history. In the past, Border Patrol agents have ticketed humanitarian volunteers for littering after volunteers left water bottles and food out for migrants. Videos also exist of Border Patrol agents destroying the water and other provisions left out by the humanitarian groups.

Right now, relationships between the aid groups and the Border Patrol seem better, Johnston says. He attributes the improvement to Manuel Padilla Jr., who became the Tucson sector Border Patrol chief earlier this year.

“At the moment, the sector chief is sympathetic to our cause,” Johnston says. “Still, water is being destroyed. Blankets are still being taken away.”

Rubio-Goldsmith, who has studied the interaction between U.S. Border Patrol agents and border communities, says the Border Patrol has the difficult task of balancing justice and mercy.

“Border Patrol doesn’t like people going through their land, yet Border Patrol is there and they are supposed to help,” she says. “How they respond is kind of a mixed bag.”

Ballistrea says the Tucson sector Border Patrol maintains an “ongoing dialogue with multiple humanitarian groups.”

In instances where migrants coming into the country illegally become distressed, Border Patrol agents must “first and foremost act as humanitarians,” she says.

“Employees who disregard (their oath) and instead choose to violate the trust of the citizens they swore to protect will be held accountable,” she says. “Although (Border Patrol and humanitarian groups) may originate from different backgrounds, we share a common goal in saving lives. Agents are often called upon to shift from law enforcement to rescue mode in a moment’s notice.”

The best way to reform immigration policy is to work on economic policies affecting migrant workers and focus on the root motivator for why so many Mexican immigrants come to the U.S., Lefebvre says.

“There has always been a flow between the U.S. and Mexico,” he says. “People accepted that as a fact of life. Until 1994, (policies) were loose most of the time. When there was a tough economy, there were restrictions. When we needed workers, we encouraged them to come.”

In the past, workers would come from Mexico to work in the agriculture, construction or hotel industries. They would work for six months to a year, send money home and then go home themselves, Lefebvre says. Some came back and some didn’t.

“They preferred to live in Mexico, but came to the U.S. to save money for their families and for farmland,” he says.

S 744 would reform worker visas, and that change in system could stem the flow of illegal immigration, says Meissner, of the Migration Policy Institute. The bill, if passed, could also lead to more migrant rescues by increasing air surveillance, she says. It could lead to more humanitarian efforts from BorStar. If enforcement continues to increase in Arizona, the bill could shift primary migration patterns to Texas. And yes, she says, it could lead to more migrant deaths in the Arizona desert.

“It’s probably some of all of the above,” she says. “But, Border Patrol is quite successful at this point. Adding more policy on border enforcement doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because border enforcement alone is not a viable enough strategy.”