Migrant Deaths on the Rise Despite Lower Apprehension Numbers

Behind the escalating political rhetoric and ugly racial profiling of Arizona’s immigration law and mid-term election politicking there are still hundreds of men, women and children dying along our southern border. The Arizona Daily Star reports that this month may set the July record for the number of deaths.  Typically, July is the deadliest month in the Arizona desert for migrants. By mid-July the Pima County sheriff’s office had already recovered 38 bodies.

The national media and politicians seldom ever acknowledge the humanity of these people dying of thirst in the Arizona desert or by drowning in the Rio Grande. Many of these folks who perish have U.S. citizen families, relatives and loved ones waiting for them in the United States. They are not statistics.

Tucson Weekly Writer Margaret Regan does an admirable job of explaining this humanitarian crisis. She traces the heart wrenching journey of one of these migrants in her recent book “the Death of Josseline” about a 14-year old girl who lost her life crossing the Arizona desert in 2008 with her 10-year old brother.

Even with Arizona’s get tough stance on immigration people are still dying every day. Immigrant apprehensions are down due to our slow economy and tougher border enforcement, but the number of deaths continues to rise.

Yesterday, the Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership released its green paper on the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration program Operation Streamline. The program launched near Del Rio in 2005 prosecutes and jails any undocumented person who crosses the border. Often they are charged with felonies and can be held in jail for up to six months.

By treating the crossing as a criminal rather than a civil offense, Operation Streamline has overwhelmed the federal criminal courts and been a boon for private companies who build jails.

The paper is definitely worth a read. What’s even more depressing is their finding that, indeed, migrant deaths are increasing. This is despite programs like Operation Streamline, which the U.S. government put into place to deter people from crossing.  Grassroots Leadership reports that 419 people died in 2009 up from 390 in 2008.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when NAFTA gutted Mexico’s agrarian economy and disenfranchised the poor in the mid-90s, the U.S. cracked down on border enforcement at the same time. Let’s face it, borders are built to keep the poor people out. The 18-foot border wall is more about globalization and the widening gap between the rich and poor.

That gap is widening here too. You can feel it. The way things are going with the U.S economy, maybe Canada will build a wall someday to keep us out…I’m just saying.

But I digress…If you are faced with the notion of slowly starving or the perilous unknown most reasonable human beings will choose the latter. I was reminded of this yesterday, while reading a news report that U.S. law enforcement were fishing people out of the Rio Grande over the weekend near McAllen.

Right now the river in the Rio Grande Valley area is more dangerous than it’s been in 40 years.  It’s at the highest flood levels we’ve seen since Hurricane Beulah in the 60s. It’s swollen, clogged with debris and has deadly undertow currents. Still, people are willing to take the chance and try to swim across it.

Could the United States at least partly solve this humanitarian crisis if we had a guest worker program? Seems like a logical question for Congress to ponder. People in Arizona may feel safer with their anti-immigration bill, but it won’t change the massive inequalities between rich and poor and the economic forces that push people to swim across a deadly river or cross a desert riddled with skeletal remains and (now neo-Nazi vigilantes). Just ask the sheriff in Pima County.



Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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Published at 4:05 pm CST