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Story Publication logo May 21, 2024

Disappeared Migrants in Arizona: Advocates Blame Immigration Policy for Deadly Border Conditions

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Óscar Andrade searches for remains in the Avra Valley, west of Tucson, Arizona. Image by Joshua Miner. United States, 2024.

Like every other Sunday, at 5 a.m. Óscar Andrade parks his white pickup truck alongside his small church. He’s here to meet his volunteers, part of a faith-based search-and-rescue team called the Capellanes del Desierto, to search for bones. 

Acting on a request from a family member, Andrade and another chaplain, Yovani Santos, drive  40 minutes west of Tucson along unpaved backroads. By the time they reach the Avra Valley, the cold January morning has already given way to the hot Arizona sun. Andrade passes out radios before the group splits up, looking for remains skeletonized and scattered by four months in the desert.

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The radio finally crackles around noon: Santos has found a thin, bleached bone, too broken and weathered to estimate how long it's been exposed to the elements. It could be a rib bone of a jackrabbit, he says, or it could be all that remains of a missing person. Either way, it's not large enough for DNA analysis. With no other option, Santos leaves the bone and continues on.

Óscar Andrade holds a bone shard most likely from a human skull. Image by Joshua Miner. United States, 2024.

The Capellanes del Desierto ("Desert Chaplains," in Spanish) is part of a network of activists, medical examiners, local officials, and nonprofit organizations in Southern Arizona trying to address one of the overlooked effects of U.S. border policy: Every year, migrants traveling from Central and South America disappear while trying to cross from Mexico to the United States on foot. 

Since 2014, the International Organization for Migration has documented more than 5,000 migrant disappearances at the U.S.-Mexico border, although this number is likely an undercount: An independent estimate from the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano indicates as many as 120,000 migrants disappeared en route to the U.S. between 2006 and 2016. Many more cases have gone unreported altogether. 

When remains are recovered they often cannot be identified. Some migrants fall victim to the harsh environmental conditions or the cartels that control undocumented migration at the border. But advocacy groups say these migrants aren't just missing, they are disappeared, a term originating from "desaparecidos," used by Latin American human rights activists to describe people who vanish due to government repression. 

These groups say "Prevention Through Deterrence," the U.S. government's policy of border militarization and enforcement, has driven migrants into remote and dangerous areas. As politicians in Washington, D.C., demand harsher border security, these activists fear new legislation will condemn even more migrants to an uncertain fate. 

Perla Torres, the Family Network director at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, insists on the importance of language to humanize migrants and examine the causes of their disappearance.

"These deaths are almost naturalized in a way that, 'Oh, it's because of the elements. It's because of exposure. It's because of hypothermia. It's because of dehydration.' Based on the decisions that they took, this is the natural path of what has happened to them, leading them to their death," she says. "When in reality, when you put the word "disappeared" instead of "missing," that takes that burden away from the victim and really means this was premeditated. This was thought through by our government." 

The U.S. Border Patrol is responsible for search-and-rescue operations along the U.S.-Mexico border. Although the purpose of the Border Patrol's Missing Migrant Program (MMP) is to "rescue migrants in distress, prevent migrant deaths, and recover human remains along the southwest border," MMP data only reflects deceased migrants

In April 2022, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued an audit report criticizing the Border Patrol for failing to collect or report complete data on migrant deaths. While Border Patrol has implemented some of the GAO's recommendations, including improved plans for monitoring and evaluation, none of these changes appear to address the plight of missing migrants. 

If anything, migrant rights NGOs say, Border Patrol involvement is more dangerous for missing migrants. According to a report by the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, Border Patrol is more than twice as likely to contribute to a migrant going missing through enforcement tactics than to participate in the search for a migrant in distress; when Border Patrol has participated in searches, 27% of cases end in disappearance. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also highlighted how the U.S. immigration system prevents the identification and investigation of missing migrant cases in a 2019 visit to the U.S. southern border.  The Border Patrol did not provide comment on these criticisms prior to this article’s publication.

According to Torres, "Prevention Through Deterrence" and stricter border policies are to blame for increasing disappearances. "Our migrants are being funneled through the most dangerous areas of our desert. We see this in writing through laws that have been implemented." 

By referring to these migrants as disappeared, Torres says, “we understand that these deaths were a direct result of brutal policies implemented here in Arizona and the use of our desert as a weapon against people."

The Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition), a volunteer-run group focused on immigrant rights, has protested the effects of "Prevention Through Deterrence" for years. Although the intersectional grassroots organization originally formed as a response to reported Border Patrol abuses, the Tucson organization began receiving phone calls from people looking for family members who had migrated and then disappeared. Soon, they began working with other organizations to respond to the new crisis. 

"Almost all the people that were found were unidentified," says Isabel Garcia, co-chair of Derechos Humanos. "So we knew there were family, people in Mexico—from the most part, it was Mexico—that would never know what would happen to their folks. Never." 

According to Garcia, two-thirds of those found are never identified. Despite the physical recovery of their remains, their fate remains unknown to their families. Countless more migrants will never be found at all. "We can't even venture to say how many. Some people say, 'Oh, ten times more, three times. I have no idea," says Garcia. "And I think that's criminal."

Crosses for dead and disappeared migrants at the Coalición de Derechos Humanos office. Image by Joshua Miner. United States, 2024.

Many families have turned to local officials for help finding their loved ones. The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME) has been working to identify the remains of undocumented migrants since 2000. By examining skeletal remains, along with any medical and dental records, a forensic anthropologist can determine an individual's age, sex, height, population affinity, and other traits in order to identify their remains.

Identifying migrants, however, presents a set of unique challenges.

"When you have no ID card, no inkling of who they are, it's kind of a needle in a haystack," says Caitlin Vogelsberg, a forensic anthropologist with the PCOME. "There are thousands upon thousands of missing-persons reports being collected by various entities, whether it be consulates or humanitarian groups, and we have several thousand unidentified individuals still here."

To further complicate the process, most sets of remains are incomplete or fit a similar biological profile—Central American men between 25 and 40 with indicators of poor health and few dental records.

Without unique biological profiles, DNA matches are the best hope for identifying remains. However, the PCOME hasn't had consistent funding for DNA analysis of unidentified migrants since 2018. 

While the team of chief medical examiners in Pima County have been supportive of the work to identify migrants, "it's a little bit harder to get that passed by the county or by other agencies," Vogelsberg says. "And so if it's an American citizen, or if it's a criminal case, we can get funding through the police departments or the sheriff's departments, but it's been a bit harder for our other unidentifieds." 

She's optimistic that a new partnership with the Arizona Department of Public Safety will bring funding for migrant identification. Until then, DNA analysis is left to nonprofit organizations. 

At the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a three-person team works with families of disappeared migrants to offer DNA sample collection and a network of support. As part of its forensic identification team, Colibrí takes reports from families and provides DNA kits to both U.S. residents and those living abroad. Close relatives can provide samples that may later be used to match the identity of a set of remains to their loved ones. Although Colibrí only has the resources to test likely matches, they are able to provide closure to a small number of families.

Most are not so lucky. As the Family Network director, Torres works with the families of disappeared migrants who are looking for their loved ones, many of them from outside the United States. Colibrí hosts workshops in Mexico and throughout Central and South America to help families understand the forensic identification process and provide a community of support.

"Imagine being a family who lives in these rural villages in Chiapas, for example. They have no concept of what this desert looks like or what this landscape must look like, and then on top of that, the intense violence and militarization that's happening," says Torres. "And all they know is that one day, their son left to migrate—as many people do, maybe, in this town or in this village—and he just never made it back or made it home or never made contact." 

While Torres provides DNA kits to families at the workshops and at other Colibrí events, she also emphasizes the importance of disappeared migrants' lives. Through a project called Historias y Recuerdos ("Stories and Memories"), family members have the opportunity to record and share the stories of their disappeared loved ones. 

"Giving them a space to talk about their missing person, talk about who they were to them—who they were to other people, to their friends, to their family—really brings a lot as a form of educating the public about who these people were," Torres says. "And who they could have been." 

Given the unreliable statistics about migrant disappearances, she believes stories are the best way to help people understand what's going on at the border. 

Although many activists fear the fallout of Congress' attempts to overhaul immigration protections and the looming 2024 presidential election, Torres is undeterred.

 "A lot of people are quick to say we are a border in crisis," she says. "And I think that we are a community that is constantly being prepared to take on the challenges of whatever is next when it comes to immigration. So we are constantly fighting back."

Border Patrol officers surveil the border wall from their vehicles in Nogales, Arizona. Image by Joshua Miner. United States, 2024.

Regardless of what comes next, the Southern Arizona community remains strong, protesting and memorializing migrant deaths and disappearances. At El Tiradito, a historic site in Tucson's Barrio Viejo, local activists and families have created an impromptu shrine to migrants killed on their journey to the U.S. 

Around 200 veladoras—tall prayer candles adorned with the Spanish names of saints and religious figures—cover the ground at the shrine. Some were placed by families, while others were part of a monthly vigil for migrants whose remains were recovered between 2022 and 2023. Although some candles bear names, many are labeled desconocido, or unknown. 

With their remains unidentified and their families still searching, these migrants remain disappeared. But the flickering flames in the veladoras are a promise from family members, activists, and the Arizona migrant community: You are not forgotten. We are still searching.

Veladoras for identified and unidentified migrants at El Tiradito shrine in Tucson. Image by Joshua Miner. United States, 2024.


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