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Defying Death 

No More Deaths: Organizers of a 75-mile march in June hope to spotlight the inhumanity of Border Patrol policy

It's a melancholy morning in the scrawny desert west of town, around Memorial Day. Wind plumps the air with sullen grit; temperatures have trudged up to 90 degrees, and Roberto Hernandez is stung by gusts of grim memory.

Eleven years ago, the Guatemala native struggled through Southern Arizona's badlands for three hellish days, trying to reach a better life. "It was very bad," he says. "On the last day and night, I was out of food, out of water." When he reached Tucson, he spent several days sleeping under a bridge.

Hernandez is among the lucky ones. Today, he is a United States citizen with a job at the Tucson International Airport. In other words, he's still alive, while so many other migrants have found only death in this haunted land.

And that's precisely why Roberto Hernandez now stands on the littered shoulder of Highway 86 in Avra Valley. He's part of a group trekking 75 miles from the Mexican border to the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in Tucson. The point is simple: They want to make the public aware that hundreds of people are dying in their backyard.

This march (which was completed in six days ending in early June) is the first salvo in a flurry of activities through September, and gathered under a broad umbrella called "No More Deaths." Backed by a coalition of church-based and activist groups, the ambitious campaign ranges from flagged water stations and Samaritan desert patrols to "Ark of the Covenant" camps, set up to aid desperate travelers.

It's ultimately geared to influence policy in the nation's capitol. The time for a change may be at hand, according to Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigrant Forum in Washington, D.C. He says there is a growing consensus for some sort of reform. "Politicians of both parties, backed by the general public, don't know what to do, but want to do something. People are dying."

Death may indeed face a showdown here, over what's likely to become the most contentious summer the borderland has seen in years. It's also likely that No More Deaths will create one more public relations nightmare--and potential conflict--with the Border Patrol, an agency squeezed between enforcing laws that restrict assistance to illegal immigrants, and not appearing to thwart humanitarian efforts.

The marchers are traversing a region that claims more than 400 migrant lives annually. And they are hard deaths, says Claudia Smith, an immigration policy watchdog and attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. Some immigrants "simply go berserk, and their bodies are found by following a trail of clothes. Others, very conscious of their death, take their clothes off, make a little pillow, and lay down to die, tucking whatever identification they have under their clothes. It is a horrible, horrible death, and they just realize they cannot go on."

One of those battered spirits was summoned at the beginning of the march by Francisco Loureiro, head of a Nogales, Sonora migrant shelter. Standing on a bare hillside at the border, Loureiro recalled a young mother who set off into the desert several years before. "They found her breast-feeding her baby, but she was already dead," he said, to a hushed gathering.

Such gruesome accounts only strengthen the resolve of No More Deaths, says Daniel Strauss, a young marcher from Colorado Springs (see the accompanying story for more on Strauss). "The whole time I've been walking," he says, "I keep thinking about how we have water stations and support vehicles, and it's still hard. I imagine what it must be like for migrants, traveling without anything."

Strauss, Hernandez and other marchers hope to shift American attitudes about illegal immigrants and prod big changes in Border Patrol strategies blamed for the spiking death counts. From El Paso's Operation Hold the Line and San Diego's Operation Gatekeeper to Arizona's Operation Safeguard, these variously labeled Border Patrol operations share one key element: spinning a thick enforcement web around towns like Nogales and Douglas, thereby forcing crossers out into the desert, where they're more easily nabbed--and much more likely to die.

On July 1, 2004, David Aguilar assumed the Border Patrol's top job in Washington, D.C. But in an earlier interview, the longtime chief of the agency's Tucson Sector defended such strategies as necessary to block known people-smuggling routes. Smugglers simply "take advantage of the infrastructure available to them, beginning in Mexico," Aguilar said. That infrastructure "translates into highways from the interior of Mexico to the border."

In turn, those highways lead to areas that can accommodate gatherings of large groups for mass crossings--border towns with plenty of cheap flophouses and quick transportation routes. At the same time, Aguilar said that smugglers need similar staging areas on the U.S. side, thereby drawing them "into our communities.

"Once we take that (infrastructure) away, as we have done in San Diego, as we have done in El Paso, as we have done in Nogales and even in Douglas, the smuggler then continues to push for areas where he can continue his efforts.

"But no, the Border Patrol is not driving these people into more rural areas, is not driving them into the desert," he said. "The Border Patrol is applying their resources as any other responsible law enforcement agency would do."

Others claim the strategy is just savvy politics. Among them is Ron Sanders, another former Tucson Sector chief who has become highly critical of INS policies since retiring from the agency in 1999. Border Patrol agents have been concentrated in border urban areas that "have a lot more political power than rural areas," he says.

"It's as if you pulled all of your policemen out of South Tucson, and said, 'You know, that's an Hispanic area, there's not a lot of political clout down there. So we're going to put all of our (officers) up in the northwest area of Tucson, because those people have a lot more money and a lot more clout.' That's kind of the decision the Border Patrol has made in some areas."

Claudia Smith is equally critical. "The Border Patrol is driving people out into the desert," she says, "and not coincidentally, out of the public view. They're sending migrants into some of the most remote and dangerous areas in the Southwest.

"When you look at the Border Patrol's strategic plan, which was approved in late 1994, they anticipated, in their words, that 'people would face mortal dangers when re-channeled into the mountains and desert.' It also predicted that many people would be desperate enough that they would adjust to the new routes. And indeed they did."

These current policies are "not only morally unacceptable, but also a violation of various international agreements which we have signed, guaranteeing that we would protect life," says Smith. "We don't have the right to enact strategies that ensure that hundreds of people will die."

Such policy twists seem sadly ludicrous from the vantage of remote Highway 86, where Robert Hernandez pulls down his broad hat and rejoins fellow marchers on their long journey. "I'll never forget my experience 11 years ago," he says. "Today, I'm walking to support people from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador. My people."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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