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U.S. Border Security: A Death Sentence?

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

By Alexander Hobbs

Imagine you’re a migrant, desperately trying to make your way into the United States. You’ve made it to the border after days of traveling from your home in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, or elsewhere. You must now make a decision. Before you lies miles of empty Arizona desert. There are other ways you could go, safer ways, but the chance of being caught on those routes is higher. It’s easy to evade capture in the desert, but the environment is harsh and unforgiving. You decide to risk it and take the desert.

It’s a gamble thousands of migrants make every year. For many it doesn’t pay off. Every year hundreds of migrants die, tired and alone in the border regions of the United States. Their struggle and unfortunate fate is documented in the remarkable new film Who is Dayani Cristal?  by filmmaker Marc Silver.

Each year about 165 remains are recovered in the desert of southern Arizona’s Pima County. About 35 percent of those remains cannot be identified.

Over the last two decades, thousands of migrants have died trying to find a better life in the United States. A 2013 study by the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona using data collected from the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office shows that of the 2,238 remains found in the desert since 1990, almost half have died of exposure. Most of these deaths are a direct result of a change in U.S. border patrol policy that occurred in the 1990’s.

In the 1990’s, President Clinton authorized enhanced security along the Mexico-U.S. border in an effort to slow illegal migration. This policy caused migrants to choose the less policed desert routes over the more heavily guarded roads, instead traveling across informal crossing areas. The University of Arizona study shows that there was a concurrent spike in migrant deaths in the Pima county desert. Between 1990 and 2000, the death rate was approximately 10 people per year. In 2002, that number of deaths jumps to 42 people and continues to climb drastically to 142 in 2012.

The number of migrant deaths has continued to climb despite evidence that overall migration from Mexico is at net zero. Even though there are not more migrants trying to enter the United States, there is a direct correlation between the rising death toll and the U.S. border patrol policies that funnel migrants into the remote desert regions.

The problem of identifying remains is compounded by the fact that those who attempted to migrate illegally are part of a trans-border issue. Traditionally, when there is a missing person families go to the police. However, migrant families already in the U.S. are often afraid to contact law enforcement for fear of being deported. Families outside of the U.S.   may contact law enforcement, however the case would not be under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement. Both situations are devastating for families.

Each medical examiner’s office along the border collects its own information about recovered bodies and maintains its own databases of unidentified people. Consulates from countries where many migrants emigrate must work with each individual medical examiner’s offices in the states to try to match collected U.S. evidence with information from the missing persons databases domestically.

“Whenever there is a large number of missing human beings, human rights are at stake,” said Robin Reineke, director and co-founder of the Colibri Center for Human Rights. Reineke and her organization are prominently featured in Who is Dayani Cristal? With the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, Colibri is setting up a national database of information about unidentified migrant remains in order to streamline the identification process and help families in migrant-sending countries identify the remains of their missing loved ones.

“We think about families and their need to know as a core human rights concern,” said Reineke. “When we talk about human rights we are thinking about what the families need to heal and move on and continue.”

Thousands of migrants have died of exposure in the southern deserts of the U.S. as a result of American immigration policy. It is a human rights crisis that often gets ignored in debates about immigration.

“I have not seen a film that represents what we are going through on the border better than Who is Dayani Cristal? primarily because I think it provides a very powerful human story,” said Reineke.

“When we talk about the deaths and the suffering like the family is going through in the film it forces us to humanize an issue that is very dehumanizing. My hope with the film is that it makes people uncomfortable about what is going on at our border.”


This is the third post in a four-part series of Arts-Policy articles that examined global migration through a cinematic lens.


This discussion is part of the World Policy Salon series, which are made possible through the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America. World Policy Salons promote dialogue among the next generation of leaders in business, policy, and the media, regularly convening midcareer professionals to discuss a range of foreign policy issues and global affairs.

Alexander Hobbs in an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Sebastian Barrera Duenas]


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