South of the border: fear and loathing in the Sonoran Desert

Features Stories

“O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim

For preacher and monk the honoured name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.

Such folk see only one side of a thing” 

Siddhartha Gautama, parable of the blind men and the elephant


Arizona’s Sonoran landscape is dominated by earthy hues of sepia and sage, intermittently pockmarked by creosote brush and saguaro cacti, with the poppies and owl clover readying themselves to unfurl at the first signs of spring. The Sonoran desert, which covers vast swathes of Arizona, California, and Sonora, Mexico, is one of the largest on the North American continent, covering some 120 000 square miles of largely uninhabited terrain, and is certainly one of the most hostile. It is a place of sublime beauty, yet is also the locale of one of the most significant humanitarian crises occurring on the continent, namely the trafficking of narcotics and human cargo across the U.S.-Mexico border, and unremitting cartel violence borne of this particular enterprise.

The border shared by the United States and Mexico runs just over 3 000 kilometres (1 900 miles) in length and is delineated by a fence, which varies between iron grating towering over the landscape to an inconspicuous barbed wire fence in some of the remoter regions of the border area. There are 52 official points of entry along this border, which see hundreds of thousands of travellers entering the United States annually. Yet, it is the nearly half-million undocumented travellers, who fly below the radar and “jump the fence” at various remote, undisclosed points of entry along the border, who are of utmost interest to policy makers and humanitarian workers alike in both the United States and Mexico. Texas has the lion’s share of borderland and saw the most apprehensions of undocumented immigrants in 2013; yet it is Arizona, with its 600 kilometres (372.5 miles) of border, that has seen the largest number of undocumented immigrants annually brave the perilous conditions found in the Sonoran desert in the past decade.

In September 2013, the Tucson sector of the U.S.-Mexico border, covering some 422 kilometres (262 miles) of borderland, had sent some 29 000 deported migrants to Nogales (Sonora), Mexico, so far in the year—an indication of the probability of matching the previous year’s apprehensions, which totalled an astounding 45 000 migrants. The muscle of the U.S. Border Patrol is largely concentrated in the Tucson sector, which boasts nearly a quarter of the 18 500 agents patrolling the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border. The conspicuously redundant manpower of this organization, which boasted a capture rate of 87 per cent of illegal migrants in the Tucson sector in 2011, has been shown to be deceiving, however, with recent reports suggesting an apprehension rate of 47 per cent. While thousands of migrants are caught and apprehended annually by this organization in Arizona, nearly the same number go undetected.

In the landmark ruling for case Arizona vs. the United States, the Supreme Court upheld the most highly contested clause of an Arizona bill, which requires law enforcement officers to determine the status of an arrested or detained person during a lawful stop, if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person may not be a United States citizen. What this amounts to, according to skeptics, is legally sanctioned racial profiling, due to the arbitrary nature of what constitutes a “reasonable suspicion” during a “lawful stop.”

In addition, policies such as Operation Streamline operate in conjunction with the U.S. prison system to imprison fleeing migrants in privately owned federal prisons. The Bureau of Prisons in the U.S. Department of Justice has colluded with private prison corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, to build large Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons, contributing some $744 million and $640 million USD in taxpayer dollars to these particular companies’ revenues, respectively. In return, these private prison companies make generous campaign contributions to various state officials at various levels of government.

For the migrants, such a policy is accompanied by a host of other problems; in the first place, if a family travelling together is apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), adult males in particular will be separated from the other members of the family, transported long distances, and repatriated to an unfamiliar city in Mexico.

Despite the obvious dilemmas inherent in breaking up a family in such a way, there are many indirect effects of such a policy. In the first instance, as alluded to above, the migrants will often have little to no familiarity with the area they are finally deported to, having no way to get in contact with family once repatriated in Mexico and little to no money to travel. A recent University of Arizona study shows that nearly 40 per cent of apprehended migrants report having their property seized by U.S. border agents and never returned, leaving them without their belongings and having exhausted the majority of their funds during the journey. The grim reality is that they may become indefinitely separated from their families.

There are other problems associated with this deportation strategy, namely the safety, or lack thereof, of the immigrants once they have crossed back into Mexico. In the Tucson sector, immigrants are repatriated into Nogales, Sonora, a town renowned for its recent history of violent crime. Despite efforts by the Mexican government through their Humane Repatriation Program—an effort to repatriate migrants to the interior of Mexico—and the work of humanitarian NGOs in the area, migrants are often still deported during the night, arriving in unfamiliar border towns like Nogales as easy targets for criminals.

The Kino Border Initiative (KBI) is a bi-national humanitarian aid group founded in 2009. Despite the KBI’s presence on both sides of the border, its primary focus is providing direct humanitarian aid via a medical centre, a homeless shelter for women, and a soup kitchen in Sonoran Nogales. The KBI assists many more souls in need of nourishment through its soup kitchen. Serving two meals a day throughout the week, the KBI managed to serve 48 788 meals to those in need last year.


‘Why do they come here?’

Despite the significant legal and corporeal risks incurred by venturing across the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, many hundreds of thousands annually decide that the reward far outweighs the risk; given the substantial risks, many U.S. nationals cannot conceive of a reward that justifies them, leaving one with the puzzling question: “Why do they come here?”

The answers to this question vary. Many in the conservative crowd, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) argue that these migrants are arriving in the United States and only doing harm by filling American labour positions, an intolerable state of affairs while the U.S. unemployment rate sat at 6.6 per cent as of January 2014. Those of the liberal persuasion maintain that migrants are simply seeking a better way of life, refugees from government corruption, violence, and utter poverty that characterizes the lives of many in Latin America; the difficulty in making sense of this crisis is that both arguments are made with equal vigour and will often cite the same statistics to substantiate their claims.

Natalia Perez (not her real name), an undocumented Mexican migrant who hiked into the United States in 1988 through Tijuana, says she came here for the employment opportunities.

“Finding a job is hard here, because it’s not guaranteed [for an undocumented immigrant],” said Perez, speaking in Spanish for our interview. “But I came here for a better job. A better life.”

I spoke with Perez in her small home in Northern Phoenix, where she lives with her second husband and 11 children, whose ages range from 20 months to 18 years. Perez works cleaning houses, making $40 USD a day to scour anywhere from three to six houses throughout the Phoenix area. Her journey to Phoenix was an arduous one; she flew into Tijuana with the father of her children, where they were escorted upon their arrival to a hotel and instructed to wait there for their coyote, an individual who facilitates crossing. The migrant normally commissions a coyote or pollero (chicken-herder), a necessity for which the migrant must expect to remunerate with upwards of $3 000 USD in return for the promise of the coyote to guide the migrant through the Sonoran desert to an arranged pick-up location on the other side of the border.

“We left at around 10 at night . . . [and] walked until 3 or 4 in the morning. We waited to walk, in case there were helicopters or planes. They were looking for us,” recalls Perez. “I was scared. I didn’t know any of these people.”

Upon their arrival in California, Perez and the father of her children moved to the interior, spending three years in the state prior to heading to Las Vegas for another three years. Perez ultimately found herself in Phoenix, where she will have resided as an undocumented Phoenician for the last 20 years, come this July.

“Life is hard as an immigrant here,” said Perez. “But I like Phoenix. I’m just hoping for an [immigration] reform.”

Perez admits that crossing the border is different now; when she crossed, the security presence was much less ostensible, massive walls had yet to be erected, cartel violence was not devastating the border lands, and hiring a coyote had only cost about $250 USD. Yet despite the many differences between Perez’s experience and the border crossing experience of the undocumented migrant today, the motive behind the journey remains similar.

“The Border Patrol will tell you that they know the majority of the people that they catch are good, hard-working people who are just coming for work,” said West Cosgrove, director of education at the KBI. Despite Cosgrove’s generous presumptions, when asked to corroborate these facts, the CBP declined to comment.

Sarah Launius, a volunteer with the Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No Mas Muertes, has a slightly different view of the CBP than Cosgrove. She says that despite a reasonable working relationship with the CBP, this relationship can become incredibly strained.

“[If you go online] there is a video of a border patrol agent dropkicking some of our water jugs,” said Launius. This is bad news for Launius and her fellow volunteers at No Mas Muertes—one of the most significant corporeal risks to immigrants crossing through the Sonoran desert is dehydration. If attempts are continually made to sabotage the food and water drops made by the organization, whether by CBP officers, locals, or cartel members, the chances of an immigrant dying of malnutrition or dehydration raise significantly.

In spite of the conservative agenda, which often depicts these immigrants as violent free-riders who are good for nothing except stealing employment from deserving Americans, further analysis suggests that there might be more to this story than the visceral xenophobia exhibited by various members of the United States’s elite, such as Steve King, the infamous Iowa Republican who once constructed an analogy, with his typical poetic finesse, in which he compared immigrants to dogs.

Approximately half of Mexico’s 120 million citizens live in poverty, which is defined as income of $177 USD per month for urbanites and $113 USD per month for those in rural areas. Furthermore, a study conducted by Mexico’s Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice last year revealed that five of the 10 most violent cities in the world were to be found in Mexico, most of them in the northern or central parts of the country, with easy access to border crossing routes. For many citizens of Mexico faced with these conditions, there is nowhere to turn save north. For many, heading to the United States is the only feasible option for improving their lot—which is often a poor one, from no fault of their own.

‘No one chooses this unless it’s last resort’

The decision to try for a new life across the border is just the first difficult decision faced by migrants on their journey to the United States. The journey, which often ends up costing the individual migrant upwards of $4 000, is longer for some than for others and offers a serious potential to be a costly failure.

“The only way you come up with that kind of money is you literally sell everything [you have] in Mexico,” says Cosgrove. “You sell your house . . . you go in debt.”

In 2012, roughly 15 per cent of the migrants apprehended in the Tucson sector were from countries other than Mexico; for these migrants, simply getting to the jump-off points in Mexico, wherefrom their journey must continue on foot, is a long and arduous trek. Many Central American immigrants arrive in Mexico by travelling atop a train known simply as La Bestia (the Beast), a journey that has become increasingly perilous as cartel-related violence runs rampant the country.

The immigrants in transit atop predictable train routes are easy targets for drug cartels in the country, which often kidnap, beat, rape, and/or extort the migrants passing through their territories. A 2011 report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH, from Spanish) found that cartels typically charged $2 500 USD for the release of kidnapped victims, earning these criminal institutions an estimated $25 million from approximately 11 000 kidnappings orchestrated during the six-month period in which the report was carried out.

If the Central American migrant is fortunate enough to make it to northern Mexico, the end of the line for those atop La Bestia, they then join ranks with the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who annually decide to attempt the journey into the United States. The migrant-coyote dynamic has changed slightly in recent years however, due to an increase of drug cartel-related violence along the border.

“You almost have to [hire a coyote] these days,” says Cosgrove. “The cartels won’t let you cross on your own. You have to pay them.”

The Tucson sector of the border is now largely in the hands of the Sinaloa cartel, which gained control of the region after the ousting of the Zeta cartel in 2011. In addition to charging migrants and coyotes to pass through their territory, in some instances, cartels force them to act as drug mules by carting drugs such as marijuana across the border, on top of subjecting them to the physical terrors faced by those on the train.

Given the intimately connected nature of these illegal enterprises and migration, it is no surprise that the immigration debate is the subject of such heated contention in both countries. Border security and the humanitarian crisis occurring on the U.S.-Mexico border are only one side of this story, however; much debate has recently gone on in the U.S. congress about possible immigration reform legislation which would provide an easier road to citizenship for the estimated 11.7 million undocumented migrants currently residing in the United States as of 2012.

“Our response within the U.S. has been a kind of half-hearted gesture toward the fact that the system is not working, and that’s actually kind of questionable, right?” asked Launius. “Any types of broader reform that we talk about can’t be collapsed into increases in enforcement. They do actually have to be addressed separately. Essentially what we’re saying is that immigrants in the country are a threat to national security. If we’re going to allow any pathway to legalization, we also have to continue to crazily ramp up border enforcement and internal enforcement. There’s a question of whether the political will can ever be there.”

I spoke with Ana Garcia (not her real name), a 16-year-old figure skater competing in the U.S. junior national championships, who was smuggled into the United States on a bus when she was three months old. This budding figure-skating champion was accompanied by her three-year-old brother and their parents, leaving their home in Sonora so her father could expand his independent business. Despite enjoying life in Phoenix, Garcia feels as though it is restricted. The development of her talent and passion for figure skating is held back immensely by her inability to attend frequent international competitions with her team, sidelined from fulfilling her dream due to her undocumented status.

Over one million unauthorized youth (as of 2010) are prevented from developing their talents to their fullest extent. Hundreds continue to die along the border and thousands more are incarcerated annually for no other reason than seeking peace and humane standards of living. It is imperative that the individuals of Mexico and the United States raise their voices and reconcile their petty theoretical differences in debating the essence of this elephant, lest the beautiful hell of the Sonoran desert claim yet another life.