The Sonoran Desert Turned Into a Graveyard for Migrants

“Roberto makes a dangerous decision to migrate to the US and then have his girlfriend to follow with their expectant child” It a decision that will haunt this family and girlfriend because his father made the trip many years ago, Roberto finds conditions have changed and this time the border has built defenses designed for his failure”.

Roberto had never expressed interest in “going north,” as Guatemalans call migration to the United States. When his aunt offered him a chance to apply for a work visa, he declined. But now he and Tomás talked about his going. Tomás’s deportation hadn’t soured him on the U.S. On the contrary, he still revered America, in exile more than ever. Guatemala did not offer people like them much opportunity, Tomás pointed out, even people as enterprising as Roberto. Whatever Roberto might be making at his barbershop, whatever he might make in the future as a nurse, would be dwarfed by the pay he would find in the U.S., even in a job like construction or meatpacking.

Caty and Roberto discussed the idea. Like Roberto, she didn’t feel hopeless in Cubulco, or not always. Yet she knew so many people in the U.S., including her younger sister, an American citizen whom Magdalena had given birth to in Tennessee. There was no one in Cubulco, it seemed, who didn’t have family somewhere in Tennessee. Nashville was 1,500 miles away, yet for how familiar it felt, it might have been the next town.

Going north wasn’t just about escaping desperation, not any longer. It was about being a success. People who went to the U.S. had nicer houses, nicer jobs, nicer lives. They sponsored religious festivals, endowed churches and paid the school fees and hospital bills of distant cousins. Their children had better prospects — a matter of newfound concern for Roberto and Caty, who in early 2019 learned that Caty was pregnant.

When, that summer, Roberto told his parents he was considering migrating, he had already made his decision. The plan was for him to go first. Once he was settled near Nashville, Caty would go. She wanted to give birth there so their baby would be an American citizen.

Finding someone to take him wasn’t difficult. Tomás called a “coyote,” or people smuggler, who had recently transported the nephew of a friend. When he came to the Sunúns’ store, Caty and Roberto realized they had seen him around town. It turned out Roberto’s father was friendly with him, though he had no idea the man was a coyote. He was a familiar face. He wasn’t going to mistreat a fellow Cubulero, Roberto reasoned.

The coyote told Roberto that his journey across the desert would take three days and that the entire trek would cost him 75,000 quetzals — about $10,000. This was many times what Tomás and Magdalena had paid, and Roberto couldn’t afford it — not even close. But it was a common rate, and migrants figured out how to pay. Families got mortgages on their homes or land to send members north, sold off livestock or took out private loans. Roberto could have asked his father to pay, but Lucas was opposed to his going. Caty’s father lent him the money. He didn’t realize he was sending his son-in-law to a very different border than the one he crossed 19 years earlier.

On his last visit to church, Roberto donated two conga drums to the band and sang a hymn. Caty was struck by one lyric: When I finish my journey in this world, Roberto sang, my soul will be lifted. On the morning of May 25, 2019, a pickup truck pulled up in front of the store. Roberto climbed in.

Geologists estimate that the Sonoran Desert has been accumulating for about two billion years. Today it occupies approximately 100,000 square miles — an area larger than Britain — that stretch from the Colorado Plateau in the north down through Sonora, Mexico, in the south, and from Southern California in the west to just east of Tucson. In the desert’s Pinacates Volcanic Field, as little as an inch of rain falls in a year. NASA used to train Apollo astronauts there — it was the closest thing to a moonscape they could find.

The eastern desert, which includes the Tohono O’odham’s tribal lands, is more hospitable, but even here the earth’s indifference to human need can seem vindictive. A route through the desert that missionaries, miners and migrants traditionally followed was called El Camino del Diablo, the Devil’s Highway. It followed an older trail that the Tohono O’odham used to send their young men down. Toward the desert was “the direction of suffering.” One early-20th-century account called the desert a “vast graveyard of unknown dead.” It can still feel that way. Hiking on the Arizona border today, even taking a walk outside Tucson, you can find human bones. Some are years old, some months.

Last December, I accompanied a pair of Border Patrol agents as they left the gates of the agency’s sprawling sector headquarters in Tucson and headed toward the border. Jesus A. Vasavilbaso and Daniel Hernandez had for about a decade been “sign trackers,” following migrants through the desert.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve come upon groups in the desert, and they have no food, no water,” Vasavilbaso said as he drove south on State Route 286. “And the journey they had — they had no idea what was coming. The terrain was so harsh, and they’re in the middle of nowhere. And we tell them: ‘You should be grateful and glad that we caught you when we caught you. What was coming, you were not going to make it out.’”

As migrants have sought out increasingly remote routes through the desert, more of them have died. This is a fact not seriously disputed by anyone familiar with the problem, including the Border Patrol. But if we are to look at these deaths as the Pima County pathologists do, as a kind of slow-motion epidemic, we must label the desert a proximate, not an ultimate, cause. There are various ultimate causes, but perhaps the plainest, certainly the most traceable, is federal policy. Confronted with images of holding pens and parentless children, it would be easy to assume the policy began with President Trump, the latest face of a revived — though hardly new — American hostility toward migrants. In fact, it has been in place through four presidential administrations.

Roberto and Caty.

In 1993, the Border Patrol apprehended over 1.2 million people trying to migrate without documentation. Bill Clinton entered office that year pledging to “get serious” about the problem, and in a strategic plan the following year, the Border Patrol introduced “prevention through deterrence” (the quotation marks are original). It called for an increase in security around border cities like Tijuana, El Paso and Nogales. As more agents assembled in these places, the thinking went, undocumented migrants would try to cross in increasingly remote areas, where the land and the elements would take over. “Mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and valleys form natural barriers to passage,” the plan read. “Temperatures ranging from subzero along the northern border to the searing heat of the southern border affect illegal entry traffic as well as enforcement efforts. Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.” Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time, said later that “it was our sense that the number of people crossing through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized” how dangerous it was.

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