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The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson, Arizona, built three concrete boxes in the Evergreen Mortuary Cemetery in north Tucson that contain unidentified remains. A high school art class has painted the boxes in a celebration of life.

AJO – It was a simple message scrawled into a basalt rock lying near-empty cans of beans and jugs of water that volunteers had left deep in the Sonoran Desert for undocumented immigrants passing through: “Gracias.”

But to Mikal Jakubal, who, as a volunteer with the Ajo Samaritans, had been making weekly trips into the backcountry to stock water drop locations, the note was affirmation that the group’s efforts were appreciated.

“For the most part, we will never hear from the people who use this,” Jakubal said. “We don’t know what it was like getting to this point. We don’t know what is after this. But you have this one little connection across massively different life experiences: They found some water and you found a thank you note.”

Mark Diekmann, a volunteer with People Helping People in the Border Zone in Arivaca, located 11 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, said those moments make his work worthwhile.

“Every time you give somebody water, they appreciate it. Every time you give somebody warm clothes,” Diekmann said. “Every time you give them a warm place to be and they know, for the moment, that they’re going to be OK.”

Two decades ago, when the U.S. Border Patrol began to focus on more populated areas in California and Texas and general enforcement increased across the southern border, migrants began venturing into more remote areas to cross the U.S.-Mexico border undetected. Since then, local humanitarian aid groups in southern Arizona, such as the Ajo Samaritans and People Helping People in Arivaca, have been working with a core mission: to mitigate suffering and death in the harsh desert wilderness of Arizona borderlands.

Even so, the bodies of 227 undocumented border crossers were found in the Arizona desert in 2020, a record. Dr. Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, attributes the increase to last year’s hot, dry summer.

“When I started here in the late 2000s, I don’t think anybody would have dreamed that we’d still be seeing these types of numbers now,” Hess said.

And absent meaningful efforts to address the factors that drive people to risk their lives crossing miles of unforgiving desert, the problem will continue, Hess and other experts say. It is an issue driven by global factors. Although most of the migrants come from Latin American countries, people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East are represented among those crossing the border.

“You can’t even describe what we are doing as a Band-Aid on a gushing wound,” Jakubal said.

He said a long history of U.S. policies in Latin America has contributed to the reasons migrants are risking their lives to trek for days through harsh terrain in hopes of finding better lives in the U.S.

In other words, Jakubal said, “what’s going on at the border now is like a symptom on top of a symptom on top of a symptom of the deeper problem.”

A shift in policy

Doug Ruopp, a veteran volunteer with the migrant aid group Humane Borders, remembers a time before people started to die at striking rates in the Sonoran Desert. He moved to Tucson from New England in the late 1990s to become a bilingual teacher. Back then, the border crossings he heard about were different.

As a teacher, his students talked about family members from Mexico planning a weekend visit.

“Then one of the kids would say, ‘Oh no, he didn’t come this weekend, they fixed the fence in that spot, so he couldn’t get through,’” Ruopp said.

“That was 20 years ago,” he said. “We hadn’t become a military-industrial complex along the border yet.”

Multiple federal immigration policies were implemented in the mid-’90s through a strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence, which redirected migrants to routes in more remote and dangerous parts of the border by concentrating enforcement resources in urban areas.

With traditional routes disrupted, a 1994 Border Patrol report predicted, migrants would be “forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” It described the terrain as one that could place migrants “in mortal danger.”

Operation Hold-the-Line in 1993, a Border Patrol strategy that sent agents and enforcement technology to the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, was “an immediate success,” according to Customs and Border Protection’s website. Apprehensions of people who were crossing the border dropped by more than 70% in the El Paso corridor, according to an Office of Inspector General report. The next year, the government enacted a nearly identical policy, Operation Gatekeeper, in San Diego, with similar results. Both were initiated under former President Bill Clinton’s administration.

But border crossings did not stop – they merely shifted. Migrants carved routes through expanses of wilderness where they were exposed to extreme temperatures and dangerous terrain.

Thousands of people have died in the process. The number of deaths is like a major plane crash happening every year in the same area, said Mike Kreyche, who maintains the death mapping initiative for Humane Borders.

“One airplane crash in an area is traumatic, but here it’s happening on a regular basis,” he said.

After decades of this reality, he said, the group maps these deaths to get the public to realize just how many people are dying on the border. Sometimes, he said, “it doesn’t feel like there is an end in sight.”

Identifying the dead

In the 1990s, said Hess, the Pima County medical examiner, only a handful of remains of people they identified as “undocumented border crossers” were recovered each year.

“All of the sudden, in the year 2000, it went from less than 20 to in the 70s,” he said. In 2002, that number jumped to nearly 150 remains recovered.

“And then it hasn’t stopped.”

In 2020, with some of the hottest, driest months on record, the remains of 227 people were recovered in the Arizona borderlands, setting a record for remains recovered in a single year, according to data compiled by Humane Borders.

The found remains of border crossers who died in southern Arizona end up at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, a small red brick building in Tucson. The office serves as medical examiner for the three counties that make up the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, Hess said, “so they all come here.”

Staff then work to figure out who the person was and what happened to him or her. In the past 21 years, since the office has been keeping track of these types of deaths, about 65% of the bodies have been identified, Hess said, “but the odds of doing it in a timely manner are based on the condition of the remains.”

Facial features, tattoos, scars, fingerprints and evidence of surgical procedures, for example, help examiners piece together a more detailed story of the deceased. But as time and the harsh elements render remains into sun-bleached bones, those clues start to dry up.

Sometimes, phones, photos, IDs and other personal property provide clues as to who the person may have been, Hess said. Items found along with remains that have yet to be identified now hang in sleeves inside an old gym locker in the medical examiner’s office. Among them: a face mask, a stash of Iraqi dinar and a wallet-size image of a child.

But examiners can’t identify someone based on those items alone, so they work with non-governmental organizations and foreign consulates to contact probable family members and make identifications based on DNA matches.

One such organization, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, which started in 2006 with a small volunteer initiative inside the Pima County medical examiner’s office, has received thousands of missing person reports and helped identify more than 200 people who died crossing the desert.

It’s a lengthy, expensive process, said Tony Banegas, the center’s executive director. The process of analyzing DNA samples takes about 12 weeks and costs roughly $2,000 per analysis, he said.

But more than anything, it’s emotional. Family members are left searching for closure for those who have disappeared.

“What hurts the most is not knowing – not knowing if their loved one is alive or dead somewhere under a tree or in a canyon out in the Arizona desert,” Banegas said.

It’s a question thousands of families still have not answered. He said the Colibrí Center so far has more than 3,000 unsolved missing persons cases in its database.

Although it’s clear to Banegas, who has been working to address this issue for nearly two decades, first as the honorary consul for Honduras and now with the Colibrí Center, that the way to create real change is to address the root causes of migration.

He called the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019 a “step in the right direction.” It is set to open up funding and resources for the Colibrí Center and other groups that work on the front lines to track and address the high rate of death and suffering on the border.

“I hear a lot of people saying, ‘I had no idea that many people are dying,’” Banegas said. “I don’t want to hear that anymore.”

Continuing a culture of humanitarianism

For people living along the border, it’s a difficult reality to ignore.

“When we say, ‘How would you feel if in a park in your community somebody came across a dead body, what would you do?’ People are kind of horrified,” said Mimi Phillips, who lives in Ajo, an unincorporated community about 40 miles north of the border. “We come across 15 to 25 bodies every month that have been reduced to bones, to skeletons, and those are just the ones that are found.”

When Phillips moved there nearly two decades ago, Ajo was a far cry from the vibrant copper mining center it once was. Remnants of that bygone era – a mile-wide pit as deep as the Empire State Building and a 1914 plaza featuring Spanish-Colonial style architecture were still there, but, after the mines closed in the 1980s, Phillips said, Ajo was “kind of going to ruin.”

She arrived as part of an effort to revitalize the community through a job with the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, a tri-cultural community development organization that was working to reenergize Ajo “soulfully and economically,” Phillips said.

But as Ajo looked forward to rebirth, death was occurring in its backyard: the millions of acres of desert that straddle the border.

Humanitarian aid has long been ingrained in the fabric of Ajo, Phillips said, “it was always just something people did.”

“When someone came to your door, you gave them food and water, or if they came to your door and their feet were blistered, you helped them,” she said.

But as migrant deaths and disappearances increased in the early 2000s, Ajo residents got more organized in their humanitarian response, beginning regular water drops in the desert and attending meetings with the Tucson Samaritans group, which patrols the desert and leaves supplies to aid migrants. With that group’s support, the Ajo Samaritans were formed in 2012.

At the time, the Border Patrol's presence in the area was limited. About 25 agents patrolled more than 7,000 square miles of land around Ajo. But that changed quickly. In 2012, the Border Patrol opened a new, 52,900-square-foot facility in Why, a small town about 12 miles southeast of Ajo, that provided workspace for hundreds of additional agents. The next year, the federal government spent $13 million to build housing in Ajo meant to attract Customs and Border Protection personnel.

With that influx in Border Patrol personnel and infrastructure in the area, Phillips said, humanitarian aid work became a “very fearful thing.”

And those fears were exacerbated by interactions with the Border Patrol, including the prosecutions of volunteers with the aid group No More Deaths and the routine destruction of water jugs and other supplies left for people crossing through the desert.

Four No More Deaths volunteers were convicted in January 2019 for leaving food and water for undocumented migrants in a restricted area, but their convictions were overturned in 2020. In November 2019, Ajo resident and No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren was acquitted by a federal jury of charges that he illegally aided two undocumented migrants. It was his second trial; the first had ended in a hung jury.

To humanitarian aid groups, the government’s actions send a clear message.

“What we were doing to save lives was considered littering,” Phillips said. “But the reality is: What is litter? Are they the water bottles or the people who died?”

Today, many of those anxieties and tensions remain, but so does the volunteers’ commitment to their work.

At least once a week, a core group of volunteers with the Ajo Samaritans load up trucks with crates full of gallon water bottles and cans of beans and drive out into the desert. Then they hike to one of their established water drops.

Every observation along the way – a ravine with shade, a zip-up hoodie draped over a palo verde tree, a station where all the beans are gone and another where they’re untouched – is collected as intel the group uses to constantly reevaluate how to maximize its impact. Everything is documented in extensive log books shared with affiliates who do the same work and share a core set of principles.

The whole process is like “piecing together a little bit of a puzzle,” said Cheryl Opalski, a part-time Ajo resident and Ajo Samaritans volunteer, as she knelt over a wooden crate that protects the water jugs from animals and the elements to count how many had been left compared with their last visit.

“I know there is less water and a lot less beans that were here a week and a half ago, so that tells me somebody had been through and needed some stuff,” Opalski said.

The group hiked out to two more stations before heading back to their trucks. Along the way, Opalski picked up an empty jug that had her handwriting on it, and she tucked it in her backpack.

At the day’s final station, as the group gathered around for a lunch break, she brought out a marker to write messages of hope on the freshwater jugs: “Buena suerte,” which means “Good luck,” and “Vaya con Dios,” which means “Go with God.”

Desperation in what’s left behind

Southeast of Ajo and 11 miles north of the border is another unincorporated community: Arivaca. It’s the third point in what several desert aid volunteers referred to as the “Ajo-Arivaca-Tucson triangle” – a network of aid organizations supported by larger organizations in Tucson.

Tiny Arivaca boasts a library, a post office, a small cantina, two gas pumps and fewer than a thousand residents. But what it lacks in infrastructure and population, it makes up for with a rich cultural history. The area long has been home to a wide variety of people, from miners and ranchers to hippies and retirees.

It’s not uncommon to find ranchers, humanitarian workers and retirees sitting together around the bar in La Gitana, said Mark Diekmann, a volunteer with the aid organization People Helping People in the Border Zone, or PHP for short.

When he got to Arivaca two years ago, Diekmann, 70, was on the search for a new home – he had developed lung problems and the high altitude of Colorado made it difficult to stay in his home of the previous 40 years. He set out with his dog, Buddy, and traveled around a bit before landing in southern Arizona.

The desert drew him there, he said, but the character of the people made him stay.

“For a small town, how many people there were with so much compassion blew my mind,” he recalled.

Diekmann bought some land and a 10-by-10 foot Tuff Shed he saw on a parade float in Phoenix, and started to assemble his off-the-grid paradise in the desert. It wasn’t long before he became acquainted with another reality in the area.

Scattered throughout the wash near his house were items left behind by border crossers. Some of the most common items – black water bottles and pieces of carpet migrants use as shoes or shoe coverings – are peppered among the rock and cactus garden he keeps just feet from his front porch.

“You take a walk and you see the backpacks and camouflage and the shoes that are discarded and fallen apart,” Diekmann said. “You see the desperation just from what’s left behind.”

As he saw it, there were two options: “I can ignore it, or I can try to help out,” he said. As a self-described “old hippie” with activist roots, he chose the latter.

He got involved with People Helping People, an aid organization of locals who provide food, water, clothing and medical care to people they find on their ranches or near their homes.

“A lot of the people are exhausted, they’re in rough shape,” Diekmann said. “They’ve spent every penny they have to try to get someplace safe … and they finally give up and walk into town and say, ‘Hey, anybody, just take me someplace. I can’t take it anymore.’”

After completing some training, he started working regularly in the PHP aid office, answering calls about someone needing help, providing assistance and educating people who stopped by.

When he first started, they would get a couple of calls a week, Diekmann said, but “now, we’re getting a couple a day.” The group has begun to focus all its attention on crisis relief, he said.

It’s the kind of work you could do all the time, if you let yourself, Diekmann said. “It’s truly an in for a penny, in for a pound sort of thing.”

What it would take to stop

A little more than an hour into the hiking portion of a recent water drop, Opalski reflected on what it would be like if she could hike the desert just to enjoy the scenery.

“The best thing for the work that I do would be if I never had to do it again,” she said. “I’m happy to do this, but it is a shame that this is what we have to do to keep people alive.”

It’s a sentiment shared among many involved in this type of work – a motivating force driven by the feeling that if they weren’t doing the work, nobody else would be.

“I think many of us would say that if there was an effective governmental organization that was reducing harm and making our desert safe, we’d be happy to pass that on,” said John Orlowski, another veteran volunteer with the Ajo Samaritans.

But until that’s the case, he said, volunteers are hoping more governmental organizations and land management agencies will simply engage with them, by making such small changes as granting access to federally controlled roads that could make their work much easier and listening to their experiences as the people working and living on the front lines every day.

Orlowski said he thinks back to the search and rescue work he did in Yosemite National Park when he was younger.

“If there were even three deaths from dehydration in a year, it wouldn’t be humanitarian aid organizations going in, it would be the national park working to figure out what they have to do,” he said.

Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, said the single biggest policy change that could have an impact is increasing legal pathways to citizenship by improving how asylum claims are processed and making other visa programs more accessible.

Still, it’s not lost on anyone that lasting change needs to take place at a much deeper level, by addressing the root causes of migration.

And although there’s some hope that the Biden administration will invest in resources to address those issues, Diekmann said, things change slowly.

“We have to take it one day at a time, and these people are here today,” he said. “They’re here now, dying of thirst with cut hands and feet and no food and water and someone needs to be here to help them.”

Cronkite Borderlands Project is a multimedia reporting program in which students cover human rights, immigration and border issues in the U.S. and abroad in both English and Spanish.