With migrant deaths approaching levels not seen in years, humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona say that the U.S. Border Patrol is using Covid-19 as a pretext to quietly dump large numbers of immigrants in one of the most remote and potentially dangerous communities in the Sonoran Desert.
Volunteers who have visited the dusty community of Sasabe, in the Mexican state of Sonora, in recent weeks, say that they have witnessed U.S. immigration agents continually off-loading large groups of people throughout the day, overwhelming the town’s limited immigration resources and placing individuals at significant risk of being targeted by organized criminal groups.
“We believe that Border Patrol is getting away with these horrible deportation numbers because no one knows,” Dora Rodriguez, a Tucson-based humanitarian aid volunteer, told The Intercept. “It is really easy for them to just dump people there and that’s it. Nobody says anything.”
Rodriguez and a growing group of humanitarian volunteers began turning their attention to Sasabe in mid-September, making biweekly visits to bring food and water to migrants after learning of the explosion in arrivals to the resource-strapped community. With a population of approximately 2,500 and a single town store, the port of entry at Sasabe has long been described as one of the quietest official crossings in the state. There is no migrant shelter in the town, and the influence and power of organized crime in the area is well known.
View of the border between Mexico and the U.S in the community of Sasabe in Sonora state, Mexico, on January 13, 2017.
In recent visits, Rodriguez has been joined by Sister Judy Bourg, a nun with the Sisters of Notre Dame, and Gail Kocourek, a volunteer with the Green Valley Samaritans, one of Arizona’s longstanding humanitarian groups. The women told The Intercept that they have personally seen groups of migrants numbering in the dozens gathered outside of Sasabe’s tiny immigration office. Through a visit to a local stash house and conversations with local contacts, the women were told that the Border Patrol is dropping upwards of 100 to 120 people in the community each day.
“We totally didn’t expect this,” Kocourek, a longtime volunteer in the Sasabe area, told The Intercept. “We’ve got hungry people being dumped into this community by the hundreds.” Kocourek added that Border Patrol enforcement activity in the area is unlike anything she has ever seen before. “It’s just tremendous right now,” she said. “I’ve never seen so much activity in that area.”
Operating under an order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in March the Border Patrol began rapidly expelling migrants at the border in the name of defending against the spread of Covid-19. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, however, pressure to enact the order did not come from public health officials, but instead from Stephen Miller, the president’s ultra-hardline immigration adviser. Miller, who recently contracted Covid-19 himself, has long sought to connect immigrants to disease as means to close off immigration at the border.
“We’ve got hungry people being dumped into this community by the hundreds.”
It’s not only Mexican nationals who are being dropped in Sasabe, Rodriguez said, noting that she had she met Salvadorans, Hondurans, and a father from Guatemala, who had been expelled with his 16-year-old son, during recent visits. “I understand when there are tons of people in Nogales and in Tijuana and in Sonoyta,” she said, referring to more well-known border communities where the Border Patrol often deposits migrants. “But they have resources — even if they’re limited, there are some resources. But in Sasabe, it’s nothing.”
Rodriguez and the other advocates say that the expulsions are making an already dangerous situation worse. Following a blistering hot summer — in Phoenix, the hottest in recorded history — more human remains have been recovered in the Arizona desert this year than at any point since 2013. On top of the rising death toll, the expulsions have come at a time of escalating tension in the desert, with the Border Patrol executing two militarized raids on a humanitarian aid station in the region in three months, federal agents arresting and tear-gassing Indigenous activists protesting border expansion on sacred lands, and the state’s for-profit immigration detention centers becoming some the nation’s leading hot spots for Covid-19.
Generally lasting no more than a couple hours from encounter to removal, the so-called Title 42 expulsions have radically altered the shape of migration and immigration enforcement along the border. The Border Patrol has long relied on a deterrence strategy that funnels migrants into the border’s deadliest terrain, pushing its land checkpoints deeper into the interior of the country and forcing migrants to walk further into the desert in the hopes of linking up with a ride. Agents will sometimes track a group of migrants for days before making an arrest, allowing physical exhaustion to assist in their apprehension efforts. Now, with the expulsions in effect, those exhausted migrants can be swiftly booted from the country. According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the government has expelled more than 147,000 people along the southwest border using the order.
While Mark Morgan, the senior official performing the duties of the commissioner of CBP, has described the expulsions as a “game changer,” advocates say that the expulsions rob migrants of due process rights and subject them to extreme danger when their removals involve being dumped in unfamiliar and remote communities with entrenched organized crime. Bourg, who has spent a decade providing humanitarian on the border, told The Intercept that the expelled migrants whom she met on a recent visit to Sasabe looked physically depleted. “They came in beat-up looking,” she said. Their eyes were red and glassy, she added. “They didn’t just cross and walk for half a day.”
In the past week, The Intercept has repeatedly requested a breakdown of the Border Patrol’s data on expulsions in the agency’s Tucson sector, as well as an interview with an official who could explain how determinations are made as to which ports migrants will be expelled through. The Border Patrol has provided neither. In April, an agency spokesperson acknowledged that Sasabe was seeing a “mild uptick” in expulsions but provided no numbers to assess the claim.
Immigrants walk in line through the Arizona desert near Sasabe, Sonora state, in an attempt to cross the Mexican-U.S. border, on April 6, 2006.
Photo: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images
A Grim Milestone
While the Border Patrol’s expulsion protocol remains unclear, what is evident is that 2020 has been a particularly deadly year for migrants attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert. For years, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has shared its data on suspected migrant death cases with Humane Borders, a humanitarian group that charts the data on an interactive online map.
As of this week, the medical examiner’s office has logged 181 cases of suspected migrant deaths recovered in its area of operations this year. The last time the office saw a higher total was in 2013, when 186 sets of human remains were recovered. The record for most human remains recovered in a single year was set in 2010, when 224 were found. With two and a half months yet to go in the year, advocates worry that 2020 could exceed that grim milestone.
“I think by the end of year, it’ll be the highest since 2010,” Mike Kreyche, the mapping coordinator with Humane Borders, told The Intercept. “I hope we don’t get up that high, but I think we’re going to approach it.”
This year, there has been a marked increase in the recovery of remains indicating a recently deceased individual, particularly in the brutally hot summer months.
What’s particularly alarming about this year’s data, Kreyche explained, is the column of information labeled “postmortem interval,” the estimated amount of time between an individual’s death and the discovery of their remains. In recent years, that number has generally been more than six to eight months — in some cases, remains discovered in the field could be years old. This year, however, there has been a marked increase in the recovery of remains indicating a recently deceased individual, particularly in the brutally hot summer months. In September, roughly two thirds of the recoveries recorded by the medical examiner’s office suggested a death in the prior three months. Overall, the 2020 data show that more than half of the recoveries of suspected migrant remains — 107 of 181 cases — indicate a death that occurred at some point less than six to eight months prior.
“There have been a lot more deaths,” Kreyche said, “particularly recent deaths.”
Montana Thames, a volunteer with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, said the past several months have been “very active” for volunteers providing aid on the ground. With temperatures continuously breaking 100 degrees, “people need help, people need aid,” Thames told The Intercept. “There have been a lot of people who haven’t made it.”
Last week, the Border Patrol raided No More Deaths’ humanitarian aid station outside of Arivaca, Arizona, approximately 25 miles northeast of Sasabe, for the second time in three months. The first raid was launched in the middle of a heat wave and featured members of the Border Patrol’s tactical team, known as BORTAC, pointing rifles while agents slashed through the organization’s tents with knives, confiscated sensitive medical records and dumped out gallon jugs of water.
Efforts to engage in a dialogue with the Border Patrol since then went nowhere, Thames said, and last Monday night BORTAC was again deployed in a heavily militarized operation that involved agents in night-vision goggles trashing the organization’s property. Twelve migrants were arrested, including some who were chased through Arivaca before being taken into custody. While the raid was “shocking” and unacceptable, Thames noted, “This is literally the everyday reality of migrants and undocumented communities in general.”
Rodriguez visited Sasabe the morning after the raid on the No More Deaths camp. She described witnessing multiple rounds of expulsions and said that at one point, as many as 50 people were gathered outside the overwhelmed Mexican immigration office. She was told that some of the migrants in town that day were among those arrested in the raid the previous night. Rodriguez spoke to one young man from El Salvador. His shoes were tattered, and his toes poked through at the ends. He said that he had spent 15 days in the desert. Rodriguez, who nearly died crossing the border as an asylum-seeker herself in 1980, was both moved and troubled by the young man’s story. “They are putting these people in the most horrible danger,” she said. “They have nothing.”
Driving back into the U.S. last Tuesday, Rodriguez and the other advocates encountered an enormous Border Patrol caravan heading south. “That road always has a lot of Border Patrol, but this was exceptional,” Bourg said. Rodriguez said the area was “like a war zone,” adding, “They’re running their own show over there and it’s a secret.”
Although humanitarian aid volunteers are now coordinating food and water supply runs sufficient to support 700 people in Sasabe each week, Rodriguez said more must be done. She believes the Border Patrol’s expulsions into the town need to stop.
“It’s like a playground for BP,” she said. “No one is making them accountable for this.”
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