Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009: Deadliest Year for Arizona/Mexico Border

Sonoran Desert, photo by Marlene H. Phillips

For the border state of Arizona, the year 2009 will be remembered for a marked decline in Mexican immigration to the United States, a trend many economists attribute to the loss of jobs in the still-struggling American economy. But here in the Sonoran Desert, 2009 will also be remembered as being possibly the most lethal year for the Arizona/Mexican border.

According to a report in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star, the number of bodies recovered in the Tucson sector of the Mexican border in fiscal year 2009 (October 1, 2008 - September 30, 2009) was 206, the third highest ever recorded. But the article also shows that when comparing known deaths to apprehensions of migrants, 2009 was the most lethal year in history: the ratio for 2009 was 88 deaths to every 100,000 migrants apprehended, far higher than any other year. In comparison,the ratio in 1988 was 3 deaths for 100,000 apprehensions.

Underlying these statistics is the ongoing effort to beef up border security. The Obama administration, like the administrations preceding it, has taken a strong stand on cracking down on migrants crossing the Mexican border, adding a virtual fence of steel towers with infrared sensors, remote controlled cameras, radar, lighting and communications devices to the physical fences already in place. But the fact that deaths continue to rise against this backdrop of increased surveillance comes as no surprise to groups that moniter border fatalities. Isabel Garcia, head of the Tucson-based human rights organization Coalicion de Derechos Humano (The Human Rights Coalition), told the Nogales International Bulletin: "An increase of military and police-natured responses lead to more deaths. Even though less people are crossing, more people are dying.” The non profit organization No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, also based in Tucson, has long believed that an increase in surveillance drives desperate people deeper and deeper into the desert, making survival more difficult; they reiterated that belief in their December 2009 newsletter: "The border blockade strategy has militarized the U.S./Mexico border, which drives migrants into remote desert regions." The group, bearing the motto 'Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime,' recruits volunteers to illegally deposit water, food and blankets to help migrants survive the harsh Sonoran Desert, working with other border groups toward their goal "to end this needless death and suffering in the desert by providing humanitarian aid while advocating for a more humane and just reform of current immigration policies." When reporting on the number of deaths in the desert for 2009, the group made no effort to disguise their disgust with current immigration policies; their online article was titled: "A Border Success Story."

For most of the nation the U.S. Mexican border story is one of economics. For those of us who live in Tucson, Arizona the story goes beyond economics and becomes one of survival, as desperate men, women and children die in the desert we call home. Garcia feels "we have not seen the worst of it yet," leading me to wonder how high the toll must be before the rest of the nation takes notice.

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