Documenting the Undocumented

The number of migrants crossing illegally from Mexico to the U.S. has declined dramatically. Yet the rugged borderlands of southern Arizona have become a death zone.


Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

— Naomi Shihab Nye, from Kindness

The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.
— Paul Farmer

Death assumes many different forms in the desert. Humane Borders counts the ways. The primary mission of this Tucson, Arizona-based humanitarian group is to maintain water stations throughout the remote reaches of the deserts of southern Arizona just north of the border with Mexico. These water drops are for the living. For those who don’t survive the perilous crossing, there is the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, a.k.a., the Death Maps.

Humane Borders, also known as Fronteras Compasivas, uses data from the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office to publish a spreadsheet of the unauthorized border-crossers who have died in the desert. Each entry includes precise GPS coordinates of their remains, the date of discovery, gender of the decedent and, if possible, a name and cause of death. The entries are then marked with a red dot on a map that is posted on the HB website.

Humane Borders maintains the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, a.k.a., the Death Maps.

Those who study borderlands migration point out that the official tally underestimates the actual number of people who have died. Not all remains are located. Vultures can pick a body clean down to the skeleton in only a matter of days. Coyotes and other mammals scatter the bones. Residents living in the remote corners of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, a well-trafficked corridor that accounts for about half of all annual migrant deaths in Arizona, have reported their dogs returning with human skulls after a morning’s romp in the desert.

The public record of the Death Maps provides no detail about the private lives of its entrants. What hopes carried Claudia Patricia Oqunendo-Bedoya, Case Report 02-01321, into the desert inferno in August 2002 when she succumbed to “probable hyperthermia”? Just two days before Oqunendo-Bedoya’s remains were recovered, another crosser, Jaime Arteaga Alba, Case Report 02-01310, was riding in a vehicle that may have been taking him to his final destination: a job site in the U.S. Was he jubilant that he survived the grueling desert trek? Was he planning his new future when he was killed on August 8 in a highway accident?

Although a line-by-line reading of the coroner’s shorthand yields little meaningful information about individual human lives, it does paint a detailed picture of the horror and heartbreak of illegal border crossings. From their first step into the desert, some migrants are already marked due to preexisting conditions such as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, or asthma. Others succumb to sinister acts of violence. Blunt force trauma to the head. Blunt impact injuries of “head, neck, torso and extremities.” There are gunshot wounds to the head, gunshot wounds to the chest, and sometimes multiple gunshot wounds to the head, torso, and extremities. Perhaps the most haunting of all: 33-year-old Jose Adrian Montenegro-Mendez, Case Report 09-00449, who suffered a single gunshot wound to the leg near Nogales in early 2009. Prevented from walking to safety, was Montenegro-Mendez left to tick off the hours until nightfall, contemplating what death from hypothermia would feel like as the desert temperatures began to dip below freezing?

In the 1990s, Pima County recorded 14 migrant deaths annually. In 2010, after a crackdown on urban crossings, there were at least 223 deaths in the Arizona desert.

But these causes of death are the exception. More often than not, people die of a lethal combination of dehydration and hyperthermia, what the coroners simply call “environmental exposure to heat in desert.” Some migrants, for example, may skimp on carrying heavy loads of water after being assured by duplicitous guides that their prearranged rides to destinations throughout the U.S. are only a day’s walk from the Mexican border. In desperation, some who reach a point of severe dehydration begin filling empty water bottles with their own urine. Some who stumble across an irrigation canal stagger into water that stinks of pesticides from agricultural runoff to the north. And many who seek this relief are too far gone to be revived from the surfeit of water all around them. Too weak or too delirious to climb up the steep walls of the concrete troughs, they drown, their bodies carried by the slow current to jam against headgates where they are later discovered by farmers on a routine morning check of their fields.

The sun is the most relentless hunter in the desert. Summer air temperatures can approach 120 degrees Fahrenheit; the surface temperatures of the ground can reach 160 degrees, truly hot enough to fry an egg. At this point the heat simply overwhelms the body’s capacity to regulate its own inner thermostat. Once caught in the crosshairs of the desert’s heat, victims cycle through a predictable series of downward spirals towards death. First there is weakness and confusion. In time, beset by muscle cramps, victims stumble and double over in pain, vomiting blood. It may take hours or days to reach the end stages of hyperthermia, in which body temperatures soar far past their normal threshold of 98.6 degrees. In a famous passage from The Devil’s Highway, writer Luis Alberto Urrea describes the final agonies of death from hyperthermia. It is worth quoting at length.

Your blood is as low as it can get. Dehydration has reduced all your inner streams to sluggish mudholes. Your heart pumps harder and harder to get fluid and oxygen to your organs. Empty vessels within you collapse. Your sweat runs out….

Your temperature redlines — you hit 105, 106, 108 degrees. Your body panics and dilates all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off. You blush. Your eyes turn red: blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimson.

Your skin gets terribly sensitive. It hurts, it burns. Your nerves flame. Your blood heats under your skin. Clothing feels like sandpaper.

Some walkers at this point strip nude. Originally, [Border Patrol] rescuers thought this stripping was a delirious panic, an attempt to cool off at the last minute. But often, the clothing was eerily neat, carefully folded and left in nice little piles beside the corpses. They realized the walkers couldn’t stand their nerve endings being chafed by their clothes….

Once they’re naked, they’re surely hallucinating. They dig burrows in the soil, apparently thinking they’ll escape the sun. Once underground, of course, they bake like a pig at a luau. Some dive into sand, thinking it’s water, and they swim in it until they pass out. They choke to death, their throats filled with rocks and dirt….

Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream.

Proteins are peeling off your dying muscles. Chunks of cooked meat are falling out of your organs, to clog your other organs. The system closes down in a series. Your kidneys, your bladder, your heart. They jam shut. Stop. Your brain sparks. Out. You’re gone. 1

Since January 1999, Humane Borders has tallied more than 3,000 deaths in the Arizona desert. The high numbers are a relatively recent phenomenon. A 2006 report from the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona observes that Pima County medical examiners processed, on average, the remains of 14 migrants annually from 1990 to 1999. Between 2000 and 2005, the average soared to 160 people. In the particularly deadly year of 2010, 223 bodies were recovered from the Arizona desert, nearly half during June, July, and August. Analysts attribute the spike to U.S. immigration policy that fortified once popular urban crossings in Texas, Arizona, and California, in particular the route from Tijuana to San Diego. The change created what is known as the “funnel effect”: an attempt to discourage crossers by forcing them to traverse the remote deserts and mountains of the borderlands. In 2000 Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization, told an Arizona Republic reporter that “we did believe that geography would be an ally to us … It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle, once people realized what it’s like.” 2 But instead of serving as a de facto fence, the rugged terrain became a death zone.

In fact the death rates remain high, even as the number of illegal crossings has dropped. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in the 2015 fiscal year, the last for which the DHS has complete information, an estimated 170,000 unauthorized people successfully entered the U.S. along the entire length of the southern border with Mexico — a steep decline from the 1.7 million who successfully crossed in 2005. But the Arizona desert has not seen a proportional drop in the number of migrant deaths; between October 2015 and October 2016, the remains of 144 illegal crossers were recovered.

View with houses in the distance.
Jose Lara-Avila, age 19, died here of hyperthermia due to exposure, very near a house full of people in Ajo.

Taylor James, a photographer based in Arizona, has begun using the Death Maps’ GPS coordinates to locate and document the sites where migrants have died. Like the coroner’s notes, the photos expose the bleak sadness of desert crossings that end in death. Some walkers survived the journey only to perish within sight of freeway exits or highway stop signs. One crosser, 19-year-old Jose Lara-Avila, Case Report ML 02-00800, collapsed just outside a neighborhood in the small mining town of Ajo. Was he too weak to ask for help? Or too afraid, even until the end, of being discovered and deported? Did he die listening to the crack of a baseball against a bat, kids shouting, a dog barking, a refrigerator door opening and closing, the sounds of a sitcom laugh track, the clatter of dishes on the dinner table? Did he watch lights flick on and off as the residents moved through their houses, all the windows finally going dark as they hit the last switch and went to bed?

The southern border is a territory where people die alone, sometimes in plain view of ordinariness and comfort.

As these photographs show, the desert has become a territory where people die alone, sometimes in plain view of ordinariness and comfort and sometimes lost in the indifference of the desert’s beauty. On a sunny day this past January, I accompanied Taylor and a couple of friends to the place where the skeleton of an unidentified male, Case Report ML 14-02960, had been recovered from the desert in December 2014. We traveled a gravel road about 10 miles east of Ajo until we hit a faint jeep trail. Following the dirt trail to its end, we parked the car and then bushwhacked through the barbed and tangled scrub of several desert washes until we reached a small rise. Someone had been there before us to plant a cross of red-painted metal on the site. While Taylor set up his camera, I took in the view. Within 15 minutes of our arrival, the sun set behind the ridge to the west, casting the near ground where we stood into shadow. The last rays found a break in the ridge. Like light spilling through a crack in an opened door, they spotlighted a distant plain bristling with saguaro, bathing the green cactus in a low-angled, liquid light until they glowed. I thought of the lines from a poem by Federico García Lorca, delirious with promise and desire:

Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.

Was this scene the crosser’s final view on that day in December 2014, I wondered. Was the beauty of the earth any kind of consolation? “In my experience, awareness of beauty goes away quickly,” Taylor said, recalling the time, a few years ago, when he grew weak, nauseous, and disoriented while on a scouting trip in the desert in 117-degree heat. That excursion ended with Taylor hooked up to an IV in the ER of the local hospital. “Everything is fine if you have water on your back, if you’ve got a car nearby, if you’ve got food — and if you know Border Patrol is your friend because you’re a white guy in the desert.”

I turned back to the site where ML 14-02960’s bones were discovered. Above the red cross stood a massive saguaro raising two pairs of arms to the sky. The stems in each pair were slightly crossed, resembling the way a man might raise his arms and cross the fingers on each hand in an exuberant gesture of good luck while setting out on a very long race.

  1. Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story (New York: Back Bay Books, 2008), 127–129.
  2. Tessie Borden, The Arizona Republic, August 10, 2000.
Adelheid Fischer and Taylor James, “Documenting the Undocumented,” Places Journal, February 2017. Accessed 09 Jun 2023.

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