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.