Mon, Jan 26, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Bodies at the border: ‘Many Mexicans have no option. This flow will not cease’

While people risk everything crossing the border for a new life in the US, Washington gears up for another immigration battle

By Rory Carroll  /  The Guardian, NOGALES, Arizona

Illustration: Yusha

At the age of 56, Carmen Martinez knew she could not outrun the border patrol so she glued patches of carpet to her trainers — a low-tech tactic to blur her tracks and gain an edge in the desert contest of cat and mouse.

It did not work. A helicopter from US Customs and Border Protection spotted her group as it entered the Arizona desert one recent night, scattering her companions and leaving the Mexican grandmother alone, hiding behind a bush.

It was not much of a contest. Arrayed against her were ground sensors, camera towers, mobile surveillance systems, blimps and drones. A ground patrol swiftly captured her.

Martinez was deported to the Mexican city of Nogales, her hopes of returning to New York, where for 10 years she worked as a restaurant cook, shredded.

“I had to come back to Mexico,” she sobbed, slumped on a Nogales border post bench, tugging at the carpet on her soles. “My dad died and my mum got diabetes. If I didn’t come back I wouldn’t have forgiven myself. Now I’m stuck.”

However, at least she is alive. Had Martinez eluded the patrol she would have faced a trek through arid scrub, baking by day, freezing by night, a forbidding desolation even for the young, fit and well-equipped.

Immigration reform is expected to convulse Washington this year, with a Republican-controlled Congress vowing to challenge President Barack Obama’s alleged softness on undocumented people and border control.

In fact, in the past six years the number of border agents has doubled to 23,000 and swaths of desert have become militarized. That and a sluggish US economy have curbed the influx.

From a peak in 2000 the number of people trying to illegally cross from Mexico had fallen 80 percent by 2013. But the number of recorded deaths has remained broadly steady, with an annual average of 394, meaning the proportion of crossers who die has surged. The figure last year was 445.

“Deaths have jumped since traffic was pushed away from the cities and deeper into the desert and treacherous terrain,” said Cameron Jones, a Tucson-based activist with non-profit group No More Deaths.

Arizona’s Tucson sector, which straddles the Sonoran Desert, is the deadliest crossing, raising the stakes for the disparate groups that try to help — or repel — the migrants.

On one side are No More Deaths and the Samaritans, which leave water, food, socks and blankets in remote locations.

“If you have the chance to save a life you should take it,” said Patrick Miller-Gamble, 19, a No More Deaths volunteer from Boston, as he bounced in a battered Dodge Ram laden with supplies down Ruby Road, an old mining trail.

A shiny border patrol SUV with agents in camouflage uniform tailed behind for a few miles. After it had gone Miller-Gamble and another volunteer parked the car and hauled backpacks past cacti and mesquite trees to an established drop-off point, only to find the supplies left several weeks earlier untouched. Fewer people were using the trail because of increased enforcement, forcing them to take ever wider loops, said Miller-Gamble’s colleague, who declined to be named. “A checkpoint out here really is a death machine. It’s this thing that you have to get around.”

The pair drove deeper into the desert and scrambled down a ravine to a more remote site about 13km from the frontier. All the tinned beans and energy bars left previously, plus about 30 liters of water, had gone.

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