The Cross-Border Issues Group small group — Richard Schaefer and myself — traveled to Tucson last night with a goal to follow through on our promise to Roberto’s family to try to find out what happened to him in the desert in May. We also want to connect with the various groups that research migration, handle the bodies of migrants pulled from the desert, and speak to Border Patrol officials, an attorney who works with migrants’ legal issues, and whoever else crosses our path in the next few days who is on the migrant trail.
My buddy Donie Gignac is not only kind enough to put us up, but she didn’t even get bugged when we came in late — after 1 a.m. — and still got up in the morning to make us coffee! She didn’t mind us rambling on and on about what we’re doing and who we would like to connect with. And, as a good librarian, she had some solid leads for us. She shined us on to Adjunct Lecturer Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith of the Mexican American Studies & Research Center at the University of Arizona. She also suggested Isabel Garcia, attorney, Pima County Legal Defender’s Office. We love librarians!
Our first appointment of the day was with Rubio-Goldsmith. She is an older woman, probably approaching 70. Her hair is tied back in a bun and she walks with a cane. Before bad knees took travel off her docket, she was in Chiapas researching the effects of NAFTA on that poor Mexican state. She is comfortable and confident on camera, and outspoken about migrant issues. She told us that immigration laws haven’t necessarily changed much in recent years, but the way they’re enforced has. She told us that for many years, Mexican immigrants, many of whom were undocumented, would be convicted of petty crimes and misdemeanors — or even for more serious offenses. They would pay fines, serve time, whatever was deemed appropriate, and would put those events behind them. Now, she said, those individuals are being targeted by ICE or the Border Patrol. “They pound on doors at 2 a.m. demanding to see ‘Jose Perez,’ let’s say. They storm in, demanding to see everyone’s papers. They round people up who don’t have proper documentation and they leave children behind. I’m a historian. It reminds me of Nazi Germany,” she said. It also constitutes double jeopardy, by U.S. law.
She also described deportation policies that select some 70 people out of approximately 800 to be “tried” as immigration criminals. “They say they’re randomly selected, but we don’t think so,” she said. She said that the group is tried together. “A judge may spend an hour or an hour and a half on the entire group. The good judge will talk to each migrant, but translation services aren’t always very good,” she said. Then, the entire group is found “guilty” and signs documents attesting to that. The result is they can be prohibited from legally entering the country for 10 or 20 years–or if they have a prior criminal history of any kind–they are forbidden to return to the U.S. for life. Rubio-Goldsmith admonishes, “Although right now they are using those procedures with immigrants, when rights are stripped from any group, it isn’t difficult to imagine that those same policies will ultimately be applied to the general public.”
Our next stop, after popping into a gas station for directions, was the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. Dr. Bruce Parks, Chief Medical Examiner, told us about the huge numbers of cases his office receives of migrants found in the desert. In 2001, the office received so many bodies in July — I think he said 69 — that they had to rent a refrigerator truck to hold them all. Ultimately, they had to purchase an additional cold storage unit for the bodies because the time it takes to identify them is lengthy and difficult, and meanwhile more cases are coming in all the time. The bodies are hard to identify because many have no, or invalid, identification. And the desert is a harsh environment. Animals and insects ravage the bodies. The heat bloats the body and then dries it out. It is hard to get fingerprints or any other identifying marks from the bodies. Many times all they find is bones — incomplete skeletons — bleached by the sun. But they try very hard to put a name to the bodies of mostly young, very recently healthy, men. They catalog all items found on the body, plus the location where it was found. They document the clothing and then Parks said, “We launder the clothes the migrant was wearing because colors change from dirt and sweat, or a design fades. After washing them, we have found names and numbers written on the inside of shirts.” If someone remembers what the person was wearing prior to going missing, it might help to identify him or her.
Parks also said that most of the people die from dehydration and/or heat stroke. “A person can be fully hydrated and still succumb to heat stroke if the body cannot regulate its temperature. People usually maintain a 98.6 body temperature through sweating, if they are in the heat. In extreme heat, their temperature rises, they may experience abdominal pain and exhibit unusual behavior and become disoriented,” he said. They sit down and they die.
Parks gave us a tour of the facility, but quickly whisked us out of the in-take room as a vehicle arrived to deliver a body. He handed us off to Robin Rieneke, a U of A anthropology graduate student who is working in their office investigating cases of missing migrants. She receives information from the Mexican consulate, parents, and migrant groups. She is a friend and classmate of Wendy Vogt, whom we met in Oaxaca. Vogt had told her about Roberto.
She explained that she sent one of their forms electronically to Vogt, who filled it out with the requisite information — Roberto’s name, age, height, weight, clothing, tattoos and anything else that could help identify him. He had four black plastic bracelets, black pants, “rocker” shirt and a black backpack, she reported. They also document the last place he was seen alive. Because so many of us have approached the coroner’s office about Roberto, Rieneke has more information, including a map written by Abel, one of the people who traveled with Roberto.
Rieneke is angry that the U.S. government has enacting these “funneling policies” that make it more difficult for migrants to pass through normal urban areas — El Paso, Nogales and Tijuana. The U.S. deems the harsh desert environment as a natural barrier to migrant travel. But it isn’t. What it is is an extreme danger to people who don’t think they have an alternative. And, as Rubio-Goldsmith said, it is a human rights issue. She said she applied for funding to study the human rights abuse present in the way the U.S. government controls its border, but learned that capital punishment is the only human rights abuse in the U.S. that qualifies for research money.
Rieneke checked her files on unidentified migrant bodies against the information she had on Roberto. One individual was found in July in roughly the same area and had a black plastic bracelet. She plans to ask the forensic anthropologist to check to see if she thinks it could be Roberto. But, she thinks Roberto’s body is still in the desert.
Tonight, we will take Donie to dinner and maybe get some sleep instead of driving across New Mexico and Arizona in the middle of the night. It’s an idea…
Tags: Central American migrants, Centro de Orientacion del Migrante de Oaxaca. A.C., COMI, Cross-Border Issues Group, Dr. Bruce Parks, Mexican American Studies & Research Center, Oaxaca, Pima County Legal Defender's Office, Pima County Medical Examiner, Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Robin Rieneke, Tucson, University of Arizona, UNMYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.