Immigration's Body Count

Showdown in the Sonoran Desertby Ananda Rose

Oxford University Press. 208p $29.95

In the last decade or so, more than 2,000 migrants have died in the Arizona desert while crossing from Mexico into the United States. Most die from lack of water during the treacherous, days-long trek, including one woman named Yolanda González, who gave her baby her last sip of water before perishing herself.


These deaths are the most egregious effect of a U.S. immigration system and border policy that is almost universally decried across the political spectrum as dysfunctional. And as Ananda Rose points out, the deaths in the desert raise a moral question for those who call themselves “people of faith and conscience.” Does one help migrants who are breaking the law by entering the country illegally, if their lives are in danger?

This is not just a moral-academic question. Currently, to do this in the United States is in many cases a crime.

Rose, who holds a doctorate from Harvard Divinity School, spent weeks in the rough and tumble field on the Arizona-Mexico border searching out the answer to this question. She gets the perspectives of everyone from nuns running scruffy border town soup kitchens that serve desperate migrants to gun-toting members of groups like the Minutemen Project who try to augment official U.S. border patrols by mounting their own informal posses to track down “illegals.” In doing so, she attempts to tackle one of the most urgent yet intractable national problems.

Like others before her, Rose points out that U.S. border policies have had the same effect as the U.S. war on drugs in Latin America. Cracking down on the problem in one area has merely shifted it to another. A series of federal operations, starting in the mid-1990s—”Gatekeeper” in California, “Hold the Line” in Texas, “Safeguard” in Arizona—has not stopped illegal immigration. Instead, it has pushed it into the most desolate—and dangerous—areas of the Arizona desert.

The result of this “militarization” of the border and “funnel effect,” she says, has been a spiraling number of deaths.

Into the breach have stepped several religiously inspired organizations, including No More Deaths and Humane Borders. For them, the answer is clear. Their Judeo-Christian beliefs dictate that they must provide “radical hospitality” to the “stranger” in their midst. This is especially urgent when these migrants are facing triple-digit temperatures in the Sonoran desert, little food or water and “coyotes” or smugglers who rape women migrants so commonly that many take birth control pills before making the perilous trip, knowing what lies ahead.

The groups have installed water stations throughout the desert, or given basic medical aid or a ride to a hospital to dehydrated migrants whose lives seemed in danger. Some of the activists have faced criminal prosecution for their actions because it is a crime to “harbor” an illegal immigrant, for instance, by transporting him or her somewhere.

On the other side of the ledger, Rose explores the thoughts of the anti-illegal immigration crowd who, while expressing sympathy for migrants in distress, contend that laws must be obeyed to avert chaos. Offering help to the migrants, they say, merely encourages more illegal immigration.

They point out that they have taken casualties as well. In 2010 a rancher named Robert Krentz Jr. was shot to death, apparently by Mexican drug smugglers.

The mess on the border, of course, could be partially resolved by a more sane immigration policy, according to Rose and others. Princeton professor Douglas Massey, a leading researcher on Mexican migration patterns, says migrants from Mexico and farther south have been circulating for decades into and out of the United States to work on farms and factories. Some guest worker programs in the past virtually eliminated illegal immigration, he says, but since the 1960s, after abuses with the “bracero” program were exposed, this type of broad-based program was discontinued.

Rose doesn’t have any magical solutions beyond some proposals already on the table, and urges a grand dialogue involving everyone from law enforcement officials to human rights groups to the migrants themselves. While exploring all viewpoints, she clearly favors the “people of faith” who are reaching out to the migrants.

Parts of her book read like a doctoral dissertation, with some awkward term-paper-like language, and can be repetitive. But she provides a good overview of the clashing viewpoints involved in the debacle in the desert. Until the U.S. resolves its immigration mess, the opportunities and conundrums for people of faith who want to try to save lives in the desert seem likely only to expand.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Thomas Farrelly
5 years ago
"...urges a grand dialogue involving everyone from law enforcement officials to human rights groups to the migrants themselves," Might we also include the Mexican government, which has the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens? Is it really so corrupt, cynical, and feckless that the author and the reviewer expect nothing from it?


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