Most of the 2,000 mile border between the U.S. and Mexico is very remote, an extreme version of rural. While there are a few cities on the border, like San Diego and El Paso, most of this boundary, the most frequently crossed international border in the world, traverses harsh desert and rugged mountains.
While the controversy surrounding immigration policy and border crossings is much discussed, a less known fact is that since the year 2000, over 6,000 men, women, and children have lost their lives crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. This number represents the number of remains found, and the actual number of deaths is undoubtedly higher.
The severe and unforgiving land here is responsible for the majority of these deaths. Most die from exposure, which includes heat stroke, dehydration, and hypothermia.
Some believe that the number of deaths has been driven by U.S. border enforcement policy that has intentionally funneled those crossing the border illegally into more and more dangerous corridors, especially in Arizona. Others discount that. In 1994, the U.S. government explicitly adopted a policy of “prevention through deterrence,” reallocating enforcement resources to urban centers in order to force border crossers to more rural and more dangerous parts of the border. Since that time, while the overall numbers crossing the border have decreased, the number of deaths relative to apprehensions has skyrocketed.
One group of borderland residents has made it a mission to remember those deaths by planting commemorative crosses near the sites of their deaths. (See video, below.)
How does this situation affect rural communities on the border?
At the most superficial level, the large number of unidentified remains creates significant work for local morgues and coroners’ offices. Medical emergencies have also put strain on hospitals and first responders. Beyond this, the cost is sometimes a political one, splitting communities along ideological lines.
Then there is the much-ballyhooed border wall. While some see it as a symbol of isolationism and xenophobia, others want it to be higher, longer, and more impenetrable. Still others have concerns about it blocking critical wildlife migration pathways. However it is viewed, it is a distinctive sight that makes a strong statement in the rural borderlands.
Opinions on the human cost of the border situation seem to vary depending on how people view those who are crossing. Like most immigration issues, viewpoints diverge. Some see border crossers as dangerous criminals, running drugs and guns and threatening community safety. Others view them as regular people looking for better, safer lives. Views on the economic impact of immigration and the effect on jobs are similarly divided. (And often left out of the conversation entirely are refugees, who are not always easy to identify, but for whom we have an international legal obligation to protect.) Even the language we use to describe these people spans a telling range; by calling them “illegals” or “migrants,” we show our tendencies to dehumanize or empathize.
The truth, though, is neither black nor white, and there is no solid data on who these people are. Both sides bolster their positions with anecdotes and propaganda, causing rural communities and the broader nation to be fiercely split on both the nature of the problem and how to resolve it.
While some are providing humanitarian aid to migrants by putting out water for border crossers, others are shooting first and asking questions later. Popular entertainment and media coverage that emphasizes one perspective or the other with no real attempt to create a middle ground of dialogue exasperates the situation.
Contributing to this situation is the dramatic increase of border enforcement in recent years, most notably through the increased Border Patrol presence. Our nation now spends over $15 billion on border enforcement. Opinions on the efficacy of these expenditures also vary. Many border residents believe this is essential to curtailing illegal border crossing, as well as human and drug trafficking. In addition, increases in Border Patrol numbers has brought many jobs to rural areas, not only in direct employment of agents, but in their contributions to local businesses, as well as the construction and operation of related detention facilities.
Other border community members view things differently with a concern that the region is increasingly being militarized. Border patrol agents are numerous, and in some communities, act recklessly and treat others with suspicion. This is not helped by the fact that most agents don’t live in the communities they patrol. Also of concern is the general atmosphere of fear and suspicion that the border situation has engendered. This has contributed to a greater number of guns and more fractious viewpoints.
A related issue is the way that immigration has divided families. Many families in rural communities are split by borders or by legal status. Border enforcement policies have made it harder for family members to return to their home countries if they want to. Recent efforts by the government to increase deportations, including those of families, have left people sometimes fearful, sometimes hateful, and often at odds.
Like other parts of our country, things often seem to be getting more and more polarized.
Is this a full-blown humanitarian crisis or a seriously threatening domestic security situation? It’s not one or the other and has aspects of both. The answers are not simple or binary.
Our task is to find common ground. Perhaps we can begin by agreeing on some shared values – that human suffering and deaths are a tragedy, that people have a right to be safe, that we are a creative and prosperous nation that has the tools to address this issue, and most importantly, that we need to heal our communities and move forward together.