With Migrant Deaths Mounting, Border Residents Organize to Save Lives
“No matter who’s in charge or what party it is, the deaths continue.”
A big abrazo for everyone who turned out for our presentation in Patagonia, Arizona, on Saturday. We had a great turnout and are really thankful to the fifty or so kind souls who attended. There were a lot of excellent comments and questions, and Todd and I came away with many new ideas for stories and coverage along the border.
A big thanks to Maggie Urgo and India Aubry from Voices from the Border for organizing the event and to the Sierra Club. Erick Meza, coordinator for the Grand Canyon Borderlands Chapter of the Sierra Club gave an informative presentation on the border wall and its impacts on wildlife. Todd and I spoke about border journalism and the current situation at the border, and we made a plug for paid subscribers so we can keep this project going and become sustainable. We recorded the event and will have it up for you as a podcast to listen to in the coming weeks. If you value our work and want to see more, please consider supporting The Border Chronicle with a paid subscription. We appreciate ya!
With Migrant Deaths Mounting, Border Residents Organize to Save Lives
Every week, Joel Smith, a former Marine, drives into the desert to leave water for migrants trekking through the Devil’s Highway and other deadly corridors in the Sonoran Desert.
Smith is operations manager for Humane Borders, a nonprofit volunteer organization founded in Tucson, Arizona, more than two decades ago. The organization came together in response to migrant deaths in the desert, which had been increasing since 1994, when the Border Patrol adopted its “prevention through deterrence” strategy. The centerpiece of this strategy was to close off urban crossing points, pushing migrants into more remote and dangerous routes.
The thinking, according to former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Doris Meissner, who oversaw Border Patrol at the time, was that because the journey would now be so deadly, migrants would stop trying to cross. Migration would, she claimed, “go down to a trickle once people realized what [it’s] like.” But that never happened. Last year, 225 bodies were recovered in the Arizona desert—the highest number since 2010. Most people who die perish from dehydration and exposure. An untold number will never be found, says Smith. “To me, our border policy is a conscious and deliberate policy of death,” he says.
Smith, 59, began volunteering with Humane Borders in 2009, after the factory he worked for closed and moved to Mexico. “I remember reading the newspaper during breaks at work and there would be articles about people dying in the desert,” he says. “Healthy people. Just because they were looking for jobs.”
In 2011 he became operations manager at Humane Borders, which means he’s responsible for maintaining the 4x4 trucks that volunteers need to access the dirt roads that lead into the desert, where they set up water stations. He also maintains the 55-gallon water barrels and tests the water quality. In the past vigilantes have shot up or stabbed the barrels. In 2019, Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, a conspiracy theorist and leader of a militia called Veterans on Patrol (Meyer is not a veteran), stole six water barrels. Altogether the damages cost the nonprofit more than $6,500, Smith says. Someone also carved “Trump 2020” into one of the barrels with a knife. “They’ve done just about everything they can do to the stations,” he says.
Smith also serves as a liaison with land and property managers who give Humane Borders permission to set up water stations on their land. Altogether, the nonprofit has 42 water stations dispersed throughout the southern Arizona border. And they have about a dozen volunteers, he says, who drive out and refill the water barrels. “We can always use a lot more volunteers,” he says. Smith is so dedicated to this mission that he has a blue flag tattooed on his forearm to match the 30-foot blue flags that mark the water stations in the desert. “It’s what I believe in,” he says.
The Death Maps
In just about every migrant shelter on the Mexico-Arizona border, a map hangs on the wall documenting all those who have died in the desert region. The maps, created by Humane Borders with the help of the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office, are a constant and devastating reminder of the mass deaths that have accumulated over the years. Each death is marked by a red dot on the map, and after nearly 30 years of prevention through deterrence, the maps are awash in a sea of red.
On most days, Smith wakes at 3 a.m. “An old habit from my days working in a factory and having toddlers,” he says. Sometimes he hikes deep into the desert to places where migrants’ bodies have been recovered. Each location is preserved with GPS coordinates by law enforcement and turned into the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office along with the remains. Smith uploads the data onto Google Earth so he can see if the migrant routes are shifting and where he should place more water stations. “They don’t have any idea of the hell they’re entering,” he says of the migrants, who walk for miles on foot in the soaring temperatures.
One morning he hiked up a hill with a view of the Cerro Colorado, where a young woman’s body had been recovered, and he sat and watched the sun come up and wondered what had led her to such a remote place. “I wondered what she was doing up on that hill all by herself. Her sleeping bag and a few of her things were still there,” he says. “She died alone up there.”
In 2021, across the nearly 2,000-mile southern border, at least 728 people died or disappeared during their journey, according to the Missing Migrants Project, run by the United Nations International Organization for Migration.
With the mounting number of deaths over the years, border communities have increasingly stepped in to try to save lives. In Arizona, in addition to Humane Borders, at least five other organizations—No More Deaths, Tucson Samaritans, Ajo Samaritans, Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans and People Helping People —do water drops in the desert. In Texas, where many migrants also perish, the South Texas Human Rights Center has a water station program modeled after Arizona’s, and in California volunteer groups include Border Kindness, Water Stations, and Border Angels.
In Arizona, as in the other border states, 2022 looks like it will be another devastating year for deaths. As of July 1st, 126 bodies were already recovered in the Arizona desert. Whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, Smith says, the deaths continue. “This started with Clinton, and it continued during Bush, Obama, and Trump. It doesn’t matter who is in power,” he says. “If I was in Biden’s shoes, I’d sit down and write an executive order and have the Border Patrol putting out water to save lives. Instead, he’s finishing Trump’s wall. No matter who’s in charge or what party it is, the deaths continue, which is the biggest tragedy of all.”
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