Death in the desert: The dangerous trek between Mexico and Arizona

Over 2,100 migrants have died crossing into Arizona since 2001, and those numbers show no signs of slowing down.

A discarded shoe lies along the porous U.S.-Mexico border fence which stretches through the Sonoran Desert.
2011 Getty Images

The 389 miles of Arizona’s arid southern border with Mexico cuts through 100,000 square miles of sparse desert: the yawning, dry Sonoran, populated with prickly pear, ocotillo and buckhorn cholla cactus. The fauna there is as tough as the flora — diamondback rattlesnakes, desert centipedes, bark scorpions and collared lizards, creatures with rugged skin and the ability to cope with extreme temperatures.

Unlike human beings.

The trek from Mexico into Arizona’s eastern stretches can be dangerous even for experienced hikers prepared with water, food and layers of clothing. But for many immigrants crossing the border illegally, oftentimes lacking such necessities and putting blind faith in a coyote, or guide, it can prove deadly.

Since 2001, more than 2,100 migrants have perished beneath the Arizona sun.

It’s not a clean death. Dying from what coroners call exposure to the elements can be brutally elongated. The human body shuts down slowly, over the course of a few days or, in some cases, hours. In his award-winning book “The Devil’s Highway,” which follows the case of the Yuma 14, Luis Alberto Urrea describes the steps in gripping detail. “Those in shape will, sooner or later, faint,” he writes. “This is the brain’s way of stopping the machine, like hitting the brakes when you realize you’re speeding towards a cliff.”

By the last stage of heatstroke, hallucinations set in, and the body’s nerves are aflame. “You are having a core meltdown,” Urrea says. “Your temperature redlines — you hit 106, 107, 108 degrees. Your body panics and dilates all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off. You blush. Your eyes turn red: Blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimson.”

It’s a painful, horrific way to die, yet many immigrants understand it’s now a necessary risk. Yet the trek to the United States hasn’t always been quite so dangerous.

More agents and stricter enforcement policies intentionally funnel migrants into the most inhospitable stretches of eastern Arizona and western Texas, where the terrain is the hardest and hottest. A study published last year by the University of Arizona showed that the funnel effect had turned Tucson into “the single most traversed crossing corridor for migrants along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.”

The policy of prevention through deterrence is based on the faulty logic that migrants would choose not to try crossing the desert if it was their main option.

But the steady number of corpses turning up in the desert proves otherwise. And the number has actually proportionally increased, given that net migration from Mexico now hovers around zero.

According to the Pew Research Center, the decline in immigration results from various factors, including a weak U.S. job market, stronger border enforcement and Mexico’s birthrate decline.

Fewer immigrants are arriving, but the death toll remains the same.

U.S. Border Patrol agents drive along the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

This likely relates to a strict deportation quota of 400,000 removals per year imposed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency during Barack Obama’s administration. Since taking office, Obama has overseen the deportation of nearly 2 million people.

Many deportees are compelled to return to the U.S after being removed because of their long relationships and roots in American communities. Some speak only English and don’t even remember their countries of origin, having been brought to the United States as babies or children. For them, re-entering the U.S. without authorization isn’t about migrating. It’s about going home.

In a two-year span starting in 2010, more than 205,000 parents of U.S.-citizen children were deported. Of the people caught trying to cross the border, 75 percent previously lived in the United States, like Tiger Martinez, a deportee who perished in the Arizona desert after at least four failed attempts to return to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol is rescuing more migrants than ever. In 2012 the agency reported rescuing 1,312 migrants from the desert borderland in 2012, an increase of more than 22 percent from 2011. Last year 2,346 were rescued, a jump of 79 percent from the year before.

But others aren’t so lucky. In the first two months of 2014, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson recovered at least 14 bodies along the border.

Most of the remains found this year have been skeletal, consisting of just bones, says Dr. Greg Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County. Identification is difficult if not impossible.

Just one migrant was identified by name. The others were added to a freezer of unidentified corpses.

“We keep waiting for it to slow down,” Hess says, “and it doesn’t seem to stop.” 

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