Death in the Sonoran Desert

In 1982, I traveled to a desert wash west of Tucson, Arizona, for the International Indian Treaty Conference, a forum sponsored by the American Indian Movement (AIM). The gathering was in the Gu Achi district of what was then known as the Papago reservation. The 28-million acre territory on the Mexican border is now known by the traditional name of its inhabitants, the Tohono O’odham.
In summer, the Sonoran Desert is a forbidding environment, where every living thing will prick you, sting you or bite you; and the 115-degree heat and merciless sun can induce sunstroke or kill you. I recall that the O’odham from Mexico – the “desert people” live on both side of the U.S.-Mexico border – complained about harassment by U.S. Border Patrol agents when they traveled to the reservation on the Arizona side. The O’odham on the U.S. side told me that their land was a prime drug smuggling route, with the dangerous trail for illicit cargo known as the “burro highway.”
The tribe’s official website now notes that the U.S. Border Patrol often “has detained and deported members of the Tohono O’odham Nation who were simply traveling through their own traditional lands, practicing migratory traditions essential to their religion, economy and culture…. Border officials are also reported to have confiscated cultural and religious items, such as feathers of common birds, pine leaves or sweet grass.”
The problems along the border have intensified, especially after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, with hundreds of thousands of impoverished Mexican migrants coming north in search of jobs.
According to Walking the Line (2005), a compelling documentary film by Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest, more than 3,000 migrants died from dehydration during treacherous desert crossings over the previous decade.
Walking the Line, which focuses on crackpot vigilantes policing the border, also makes the point that federal border control schemes have had the effect of funneling migrants to the Tohono O’odham Nation’s 75-mile border with Mexico.
The controversy over illegal immigration has intensified with the passage of SB 1070 (Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act) in Arizona. The law, which goes into effect at the end of July, allows local police to question a person’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion” if a person is stopped for another criminal violation. The law has been decried as an invitation to racial profiling. Latinos, or anyone with brown skin, will be the likely targets of law enforcement authorities under the new law, contend opponents of SB 1070.
Many groups and governmental units across the country have signed on to a boycott of Arizona as a travel and tourism destination. Although somewhat conflicted, I flew to Phoenix in June for a Jewish newspaper conference where SB 1070 was a recurrent theme. A workshop panelist mentioned that he too had ethical qualms about traveling to the conference; he said that a friend in Arizona assured him: “It’s a dry hate.”
In fact, right-wing extremists have joined with mainstream politicians in supporting SB 1070, which is part of a fear-inducing campaign that scapegoats undocumented Mexican immigrants for all manner of crime in Phoenix. State Sen. Russell Pearce, author of SB 1070, is an associate of J.T. Ready, a high-profile neo-Nazi active in anti-immigrant activities, according to Bill Straus, Arizona regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
In response to my question about a TV new report in mid-June about two men in camouflage garb shooting high-powered rifles at migrants near the border at Rio Rico, and wounding one man, Straus mentioned that a Republican congressional candidate in New Mexico proposed planting landmines along the border. And, he added, an Arizona radio talk show host suggested setting up a tower one night a week and allowing guests on a TV reality show to take pot shots at Mexicans trying to enter the U.S.; the show would be called “Immigration Roulette.”
The Tohono O’odham went on the record in May as opposing SB 1070. “This law creates a hostile atmosphere for minority groups who will have to carry identification at all times just to prove their right to be here,” said Ned Norris Jr., the tribal chairman.
The economic disparities between the U.S. and Mexico guarantee that more desperate Mexicans will undertake the dangerous trek across the Sonoran Desert. Regardless of our political views, we should show some compassion for the poor souls who come to this country in search of opportunity, often only to be victimized or die a terrible death under the desert sun.