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for people who care about the West

Dying to come to the USA

 

Cochise Stronghold rises abruptly from the desert outside Tombstone, Ariz., a craggy nest of pink granite spires and domes. Rock climbers like me flock to the area for its tall, coarse slabs, weird rock formations, epic sunsets and remote backcountry feel. Although it’s never happened to me, many climbers I know have encountered tattered backpacks, energy bars with Spanish wrappers, clothing or migrants themselves, a group drawn similarly drawn to Cochise’s inaccessibility, but for obviously different reasons.

Increasingly, immigrants aren’t making it beyond secluded border areas like Cochise: New statistics released by the U.S. Border Patrol show that while fewer people are sneaking over the border than a decade ago, more are dying in the process. According to the National Foundation for American Policy, someone attempting to enter the U.S. illegally today is eight times more likely to die than approximately 10 years ago.


In the 1990s, stepped-up enforcement in border cities like San Diego and El Paso pushed immigration highways into remote parts of the desert, where, unprepared for the harsh environment or abandoned by their guides, many migrants died. (I highly recommend Luis Alberto Urrea’s fantastic book on this topic, “The Devil’s Highway”). The problem has worsened as the Border Patrol has hired more officers and built more highway checkpoints between major cities, according to Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, who analyzed the new data. In addition to staying out of cities, migrants are increasingly forced to walk further north of the border before being picked up to avoid roadside checkpoints.

For many years, southern Arizona was the deadliest place to cross: In fiscal year 2005, nearly half of all migrant deaths occurred in Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. But the danger zone appears to have shifted to south Texas, where between October 2012 and February 2013 alone, 70 human bodies were found.

Changing immigration demographics may partially explain the shift to south Texas. According to the Border Patrol, more non-Mexicans, mostly from Central America, are crossing, and because many hitch rides on freight trains that travel up the gulf coast, the Texas-Mexico border is most logical place to cross.

Southwest border deaths by fiscal year. Courtesy U.S. Border Patrol

The crossing is becoming more violent, too, as increasingly remote human trafficking routes overlap with those of drug smugglers. Sometimes, they’re one and the same: Meyer says human trafficking operations “are rarely mom-and-pop like before” because of how expensive and difficult the crossing has become, and are increasingly intertwined with drug operations. “Migrants are viewed much more as just merchandise,” she said, and smugglers, paid by the person and in a rush to avoid Border Patrol, frequently leave slow walkers behind.

In a March brief, Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy offers a solution: create more legal avenues for foreigners to work in the U.S. on a permanent basis.

“The current visa categories for agriculture and nonagricultural work are considered cumbersome and are only for seasonal work, not the type of year-round jobs filled by most illegal immigrants in the United States,” he writes. Anderson points to the Bracero Program, which helped Mexican farm laborers work legally in the U.S. during the 1950s. “When in 1954 enforcement actions were combined with an increase in the use of the Bracero program, illegal entry, as measured by INS apprehensions at the border, fell by an astonishing 95 percent between 1953 and 1959,” he notes.

Cochise Stronghold

Yet talk of immigration reform, to date, has focused more on getting high-skilled, high-tech workers into the country. And the immigration bill in its current form leaves out any discussion of how to make crossing safer, Meyer said, although previous reform proposals included a provision on studying migrant deaths. She'd like to see not just study but more water caches and funding for the Border Patrol’s search and rescue team.

“You have all these people with no idea about what (crossing the border) really means,” she said. “They’re all exposing themselves so innocently to something that can be so harsh.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user zrim.