The Link Between Trump’s Attacks on Immigrants and Deaths in the Desert

Trump’s policies reduce people first to “illegals,” then to deportation statistics, and, finally, to a scattering of bones in an arroyo.

John Washington July 31, 2017

Border patrol agents with rifles descended on No More Deaths’ camp on June 15 and took four migrants who were in treatment for heat-related illness. (CBP Arizona)

ARI­VA­CA, ARIZ. — For three days the Bor­der Patrol trucks sat on the hori­zon, watch­ing the clus­ter of trail­ers, out­build­ings and a geo­des­ic dome that com­prise one human­i­tar­i­an camp and med­ical clin­ic in the desert. Agents patrolled the perime­ter, gaz­ing through binoc­u­lars, their walkie-talkies sound­ing through­out the night. On the first day, they set up a check­point to stop and search all traf­fic com­ing in and out.

The group stared down at the jawbone. Morgan-Olson says she remembers thinking: “This is somebody’s father or son.”

Inside, four men’s lives were in per­il. They were being treat­ed for heat-relat­ed ill­ness­es after cross­ing the bor­der and walk­ing near­ly 20 miles through the moun­tain­ous and canyon-sliced desert. All four were from Mex­i­co, ages 19 to 40, and had drunk con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water from a cat­tle tank. They were severe­ly dehy­drat­ed. It was unclear whether Bor­der Patrol would pro­vide med­ical care if they were seized. Though Bor­der Patrol claims it pro­vides nec­es­sary treat­ment, a report pub­lished in 2011 by No More Deaths, the group that runs the aid camp, found that 86 per­cent of migrants in cus­tody who need­ed med­ical atten­tion were denied it.

With agents cir­cling the camp, anx­i­ety rose inside. Dur­ing the night, one patient became so pan­icked he couldn’t breathe. It was not an envi­ron­ment where some­one could receive good care and heal,” says Cather­ine Gaffney, a long­time vol­un­teer with No More Deaths, who was present. (Note: This writer also vol­un­teers with the group.)

On the third day, June 15, Bor­der Patrol got its war­rant, over the objec­tions of a doc­tor who insist­ed that the patients need­ed at least 24 hours of con­tin­ued treat­ment. A heli­copter swooped in to hov­er some 30 feet above the camp, kick­ing up dust, and a con­voy of trucks descend­ed, accom­pa­nied by a gov­ern­ment film crew. Agents with rifles fanned out.

We’re not here to arrest any cit­i­zens, we’re just here to take the bod­ies,” one of the agents told the vol­un­teers — using a com­mon, and dehu­man­iz­ing, Bor­der Patrol term for migrants.

The inhu­mane treat­ment of migrants and the intim­i­da­tion of those pro­vid­ing aid are noth­ing new. But vol­un­teers say that under Trump, Bor­der Patrol seems embold­ened. In anoth­er raid on the camp only three weeks before, Bor­der Patrol agents, threat­en­ing to obtain a war­rant, pres­sured eight migrants to turn them­selves in. Dur­ing that raid, one of the Bor­der Patrol agents seemed to take a cue direct­ly from Trump’s repeat­ed (and fab­ri­cat­ed) asser­tion about a flood of Mex­i­can rapists.

I’m just curi­ous if you know what you’re doing,” the agent told a vol­un­teer, accord­ing to her notes. You know that there’s an ille­gal that raped a 13-year-old and also a 14-year-old, how would you guys feel about that? I mean, are you seri­ous? You know what’s going on here, who you’re helping?”

The camp has served for over a decade as a emer­gency med­ical facil­i­ty, a stag­ing ground from which vol­un­teers take water, food and sup­plies to cache at sites along known migrant trails, and a space where migrants find some sanc­tu­ary. It is a space of shared human­i­ty,” says Gaffney, that is under attack.”

No More Deaths and Bor­der Patrol had a long­stand­ing ver­bal agree­ment that the camp is off-lim­its. But dur­ing the siege, Bor­der Patrol agents told vol­un­teers that they’d tracked the four migrants for miles after they crossed the bor­der, decid­ing to appre­hend them once they’d entered the camp. Vol­un­teers took this as a sign that the camp has become the real target.

Raids on med­ical camps not only affect the few migrants who are hound­ed and arrest­ed; they deter future human­i­tar­i­an efforts and push migrants into ever more remote and dan­ger­ous ter­ri­to­ry. This tac­tic extends a Bor­der Patrol strat­e­gy in use since the 1990s to push migrants away from safe cross­ing zones, osten­si­bly to deter them. Decades of con­tin­ued migra­tion, how­ev­er, have shown that migrants — whether seek­ing to reunite with fam­i­ly or flee­ing vio­lence, unem­ploy­ment or grind­ing pover­ty — will risk death to cross the border.

In May, No More Deaths vol­un­teers found at least nine sets of human remains. A group leav­ing water for migrants on the Organ Pipe Cac­tus Nation­al Mon­u­ment, in south­west­ern Ari­zona, found the first, which looked like a tib­ia. The next day, vol­un­teer Kate Mor­gan-Olson led a group back to the spot, where they came across a mandible, a sweat­shirt and a cross stuck in a rock cairn.

The group stared down at the jaw­bone. Mor­gan-Olson says she remem­bers think­ing: This is somebody’s father or son.” 

They marked the loca­tion with a GPS and con­tin­ued their search, mov­ing in and out of an arroyo. Soon, says Mor­gan-Olson, We couldn’t walk a cou­ple yards with­out some­one say­ing bone.’ ”

Anoth­er migrant-aid group, Aguilas del Desier­to (Eagles of the Desert), found more sets of human remains that month and more again in June, total­ing about 15 in the last three months. Accord­ing to offi­cial Bor­der Patrol sta­tis­tics, around 7,000 migrants have died while attempt­ing to cross the U.S.-Mexico bor­der since 1998. Accord­ing to accounts received by human­i­tar­i­an groups, thou­sands more have dis­ap­peared with­out a trace.
John Wash­ing­ton is a writer based in Ari­zona. He is the co-trans­la­tor of A His­to­ry of Vio­lence (Ver­so, 2016), by Sal­vado­ran author Óscar Mar­tinez. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @EndDeportations.
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