Gardens of Bones

The Arizona border becomes a graveyard for desperate migrants

by NJFON Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown 

Skulls are found most often, because people recognize them as human and report them. The whiter they are, the older they are; the dry desert heat is a powerful desiccant. Few skeletons are found intact, as wild animals and the wind scatter bones across the desert terrain over time.

A makeshift memorial to a dead migrant. Photo credit: Nick Oza, USA Today Network
A makeshift memorial to a dead migrant. Photo credit: Nick Oza, USA Today Network

These were but a few of the jarring anecdotes shared by Dr. Greg Hess, Chief Medical Examiner of the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in March at a presentation to volunteers from Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors and the National JFON board.

His office is responsible for identifying the remains of UBCs (undocumented border crossers) in the vast and foreboding Tucson District of the U.S.-Mexico border, which spans 262 miles across three Arizona counties.

Our board had just wrapped up a two-day meeting to discuss strategy for helping the network expand immigration legal services. Now we were learning the grim fate of desperate migrants who likely were ineligible for any visa and certainly had no opportunity to consult with an attorney about legal options.

In 2017 alone, 147 UBCs were recovered in this sector, more than any other of the country’s 20 U.S. Border Patrol sectors. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office has more “cooler” space than anywhere else in the country, where bodies are stored until they can be identified. Even so, on a particularly hot July several years ago, coolers were at capacity with 129 bodies.

The high number of deaths in this corridor is due in part to its desolation.  It’s also a product of the types of migrants who attempt the journey. Over 80 percent of bodies recovered here are Mexican.  In contrast, the Texas-Mexico border, which is closer for migrants fleeing Central America, has fewer deaths because many of the Central American migrants are seeking asylum and want to be found by Border Patrol agents.

A primary focus of the office’s work is to identify the bodies so family can be notified.  Some remains are found with phone numbers of loved ones sewn into the waistbands, or with recognizable tattoos or dental work. (Apparently drugs or weapons are almost never found on the bodies.) But overall, the task of identifying the bodies is understandably daunting. Forms of identification found on the bodies can be aliases, DNA tests are extremely expensive, and U.S. databases are unlikely to have a record of the deceased.

When Dr. Hess was asked whether a border wall would help prevent deaths, he responded unequivocally, “No. Building a wall here would be impractical and silly.” His assessment wasn’t meant to be political commentary, just an observation of reality. He shared that his role is to present objective, clinical information on deaths within the county, including UBCs, without any political lens.

Bumper sticker with a message from Humane Borders,
Bumper sticker with a message from Humane Borders.

After visiting the Medical Examiner’s office, we traveled across town to a small nonprofit organization called Humane Borders.

We were greeted by the most unpolished and charming of presenters—Joel Smith, a long-haired, sun-beaten hippie who was more comfortable traversing the desert in a pick-up truck than speaking to a group of outsiders like JFON.

Compared to the complex and long-term legal services of JFON, the work of Humane Borders is straightforward and elemental– to provide water so people don’t die.

As Operations Manager, Joel is responsible for identifying the most strategic locations along the Arizona border corridor for its 50 water stations. He is also responsible for maintaining the water barrels (55 gallons each) at each station, refilling them and cleaning them after each use. Humane Borders has a contract with the government to do this work, and the Border Patrol agrees not to loiter near the water stations.

Do Border Patrol agents ever knock over the barrels?

“No,” says Joel, shaking his head, “but sometimes residents do. Not everyone supports the mission.”

A cement sentry and barbed-wire fence mark the desolate border between Mexico and Arizona.
A cement sentry and barbed-wire fence mark the desolate border between Mexico and Arizona.

If Humane Borders staff or volunteers encounter a border crosser, they are forbidden from transporting them.  Usually the exhausted migrants express gratitude for the water and choose to continue trekking toward civilization.

Sometimes, however, they are ready to give up the journey and request aid from the police, knowing that will lead to the process of being sent back.

Joel points out that the number of Border Patrol agents in this region tripled under President Obama and that there’s definitely no need for more here.  He reports that the agents themselves feel this way.  Like Dr. Hess, Joel scoffs at the idea that a wall would make an impact on the number of migrants heading north. “People will always find a way around a barrier,” he says.

I ask Joel why he has spent nearly a decade of his life immersed in this work.

“Look, if we had hundreds of bodies showing up in the Kentucky foothills or somewhere, there would be a public outcry,” he replies without hesitation. “People would be outraged and do something about it. But here, it’s just accepted as normal.”

I was struck by Joel’s perspective that the death of a border crosser should be neither inevitable nor acceptable. Foreign and desperate they may be, yet their lives are no more expendable than those of people living just a few miles north.

JFON’s work felt like but a small piece to a very complex problem. Our board quietly returned to the church van, somber, overwhelmed, and with newfound resolve to serve migrants who risk everything in search of a better life here.


Featured photo credit: David Bacon, Newsweek.


Recent Posts

Category :
Immigration Issues