By **Margaret Regan**
Two weeks ago five young Americans were hiking the trails in the Tumacacori Wilderness in southern Arizona, a few miles north of the Mexican border.
The terrain here is rugged, with rocky pathways snaking through up-and-down canyons in the mountains, and desert cacti ready to pierce a walker’s skin. But the volunteers had a reason to be out trekking this forbidding turf on a winter’s day. They were members of the Tucson activist group No More Deaths, and they were leaving food and water out for the migrants who throng these trails when they slip over the border into the U.S.
Not all of the migrants make it through.
On February 9, the young volunteers, the members of No More Deaths, were about two miles east of Ruby, a remote ghost town long since abandoned by the miners who once dug their claims here. Loaded down with gallons of water—each one weighing more than eight pounds—and boxes of food, they decided to walk down a narrow canyon they had never passed through before.
Suddenly, in the path ahead of them, they saw a shallow grave.
A small rough cross, lovingly hand-made by some unknown party, was stuck in the ground. Rocks had been strewn across the dirt. But the rocks couldn’t really do the job of covering the body. The decomposed remains of a human being were sticking out of the ground.
There are few, if any, other public lands in the United States where one can expect to find human bodies lying in the canyons and on the trails. In the Arizona borderlands, it’s a relatively common occurrence. Migrants traveling through the rough wilderness of southern Arizona die in extraordinary numbers. During the 2009 fiscal year, which ended on the 30th of September, 206 migrant bodies were found. This winter, the number of human remains found is running well ahead of the tally last year at this time; with 61 bodies found between October 1 and January 31, the death toll is about 30 percent over last year’s.
A serial spell of bad weather partly accounts for the higher death count. Last summer was deadly hot and deadly dry, and this winter has been unusually cold and wet. But the migrants are also dying in higher numbers because they’re walking through more remote terrain, where they’re more likely to get into trouble, and where there’s less chance of getting help.
Most of Arizona’s border with Mexico is walled up these days, either by the so-called “pedestrian fences”—16-foot steel walls cutting through the fragile desert—or the “vehicle barriers,” metal poles rising up at the dirt close enough together to keep cars out. These barricades run across some 80 percent of the 376 miles Arizona shares with Sonora, the Mexican state that’s its closest neighbor. The barriers don’t stop anybody from coming, though. They just slow people down—or push them to dangerous places like the Tumacacori Highlands.
Rocks had been strewn across the dirt. But the rocks couldn’t really do the job of covering the body. The decomposed remains of a human being were sticking out of the ground.
So far, there’s no wall along the border in this untamed part of Arizona, mostly because it’s almost too hard to get construction vehicles in here. The Border Patrol doesn’t patrol much here either, unless you count the occasional agent on horseback. Migrants make the treacherous trip through here in large numbers, traveling on foot with their coyotes—people smugglers. They cross over from Mexico near Sasabe, and if they can walk for three days, they can make it as far north as the Arizona town of Amado on Interstate 19, well past the Border Patrol checkpoint. North of Amado, the coyote will have a car waiting for them, and they have a fair shot of succeeding of getting deep into the United States.
Ever since the economic downturn hit, fewer border crossers are making the trip north. In 2006, Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector, a district covering most of southern Arizona, made about 500,000 migrant arrests. In 2009, the number of arrests was cut in half, to 250,000. But even as the numbers drop, the risk of death has increased dramatically. Back in 1998, when migrants could more easily travel along safer routes, three migrants in every 100,000 died. Today, with migrants squeezed into the dangerous outback, some 51 migrants out of every 100,000 perish.
In the last two years, we’ve almost finished walling off Arizona. But no matter how many walls we build to keep migrants out, they keep coming. And the more miles we build, the more people die.
Two years ago, when the wall was much shorter, No More Deaths volunteers found the body of another migrant, the young girl whose story I tell in my book, The Death of Josseline. Fourteen-year-old Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros was found in almost the same place as this new body, and almost exactly two years before. Cedar Canyon, where she died, is a short distance away from Ruby. The new body was found Feb. 9, 2010; Josseline’s body was found Feb. 20, 2008.
The news of the new death shows that nothing has changed since Josseline’s tragic death.
As No More Deaths volunteer Dan Millis did two years ago, the young people who found the new body called the Santa Cruz County Sheriff. The sheriff estimated the remains had been there six or seven months, and they were so decomposed that the gender couldn’t be immediately determined. There was one comforting difference in the two cases. When Josseline fell ill, she was abandoned by her coyote and left to die alone. That carefully made cross and those stones suggest that this new person had been cared for by a fellow human at the time of death, and respectfully buried.
Still, like Josseline, this unnamed person had a tragic end to his or her American journey. The remains were zippered into a body bag, hauled out of the wilderness and driven up the highway to Tucson, only to be placed with dozens of other migrant bodies in cold storage at the Pima County morgue.
Copyright 2010 Margaret Regan
This entry originally appeared on Beacon Broadside.
Margaret Regan is the author of The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands. Regan appeared on Talk of the Nation this week, and you can read an excerpt from her book at Tucson Weekly.