OPINION: A Lifeline at the Border: No More Deaths

by Matthew Bray

For decades there has been an increased militarization of the US-Mexico border. For most of the country’s history, the southwest has been culturally and economically connected to the northwest Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California Norte. After the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees fled the wars in their countries and crossed our southern border, the US government began to construct walls and other barriers to stem the tide. In 1994, the government implemented Operation Gatekeeper, whose aim was to deter would-be migrants from crossing at the historic and well-worn crossings around the Tijuana/San Diego corridor. To some extent, the plan worked—fewer people crossed near the major population centers. But they did not stop coming. Instead, people were pushed out further and further into the extremely inhospitable terrain of the Sonora desert of southern Arizona. By the late 1990s, southern Arizona became the epicenter of a migration, and ground zero of an increasingly deadly journey. There do not appear to be good statistics of how many people die crossing into the US, but several thousand deaths have been documented over the last two decades, and it is estimated that several hundred die each year from dehydration, hypothermia, drowning, or exhaustion.

As communities in the area around Tucson, AZ learned of the deaths taking place in their backyards, the sadness and indignation of these deaths spurred local activists to action. In 2004, a “Multi-Faith Border Conference” was held in Tucson to call for a humane border policy and immigration reform, and respect for human rights of migrants and immigrant contributions in the community. No More Deaths was born, and quickly announced a summer campaign to provide aid to desperate migrants in the major desert crossing areas. Their work was galvanizing. They become most well-known for maintaining a year-round presence in the desert near the most popular and dangerous crossing spots in Arizona. No More Deaths volunteers go out regularly into the desert looking for anyone who may be in need of water, food, blankets, or medical assistance. They leave large bottles of water along with survival kits and messages of support in areas where migrants are known to cross.

It was perhaps inevitable that this direct humanitarian work would bring No More Deaths in conflict with law enforcement. Not long after it started its work, two volunteers were arrested and charged with felony conspiracy to transport migrants when they were caught transporting to Tucson for medical aid two people they had found dying in the desert. This led to the adoption of the No More Deaths slogan, “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime.” No More Deaths volunteers have also been convicted of littering on the nature preserves in the area by leaving water bottles, food and other survival supplies in the open for access by the migrants. Despite the pressures, No More Deaths has only grown in size and reputation, its members having won praise and awards for their humanitarian work, and the work itself keeping the issue of migrant justice in the forefront of the public conversation.

The organization has also grown well beyond its desert aid initiative. Since 2006, No More Deaths has partnered with Sonora-based organizations in Nogales and Agua Prieta to provide aid to migrants, including to recently deported Mexicans repatriated without food, identification, or money. Many have been robbed by criminal elements operating in the desert (human and drug traffickers as well as bandits that prey on poor migrants) or stripped of their belongings by Border Patrol. No More Deaths recently published a report on this “shakedown” phenomenon. The organization has also reported on the medical neglect and abuse of detainees in custody, the special issues relating to migrant women and unaccompanied minors, as well as the health impacts of deportation on the affected migrants and their families. The organization has also joined cross border efforts to try and locate the bodies of missing migrants suspected of having died in the desert. Through its reporting and direct aid, the organization hopes to build on the power of human connection to change public attitudes and public policy, as well as to engage in community organizing that seeks to bridge the divide between the longtime borderland residents and the migrants crossing through the region in search of a better life. With roots in diverse faith groups throughout the region, No More Deaths has been successful in engaging the local communities on both sides of the border as well as providing direct help to the migrants whose deaths they try to stop.

In her book, Borderlands/La Frontera, Chicana activist and writer Gloria Anzaldua wrote that the “U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” In fact, few places on the planet provide a greater contrast between rich and poor, north and south, than this region. The drastic difference between the fortunes of people living on either side of this border help to explain the human suffering that takes place here, but also disguises the historic and cultural unity of the borderlands region.

No More Deaths is a rare group that courageously fights the odds to not only reduce the suffering but to unite the affected communities on both sides. By promoting “Faith-Based Principles for Immigration Reform”—human rights, family unity, and addressing the root causes of migration—No More Deaths provides an important corrective to the “enforcement first” approach championed by many in Congress. As increasing numbers of young children join the thousands of other migrants making the perilous journey through Mexico and across the border each year, No More Deaths’ work of preventing death through direct humanitarian aid becomes all the more vital.