Last month, a six-year-old named Gurupreet Kaur died in an attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Originally hailing from Punjab, India, and hoping to join her father in the United States, Gurupreet, her mother, and three other Indian migrants made the trek through a remote stretch of the Sonoran Desert in an attempt to secure asylum in Arizona. As the June temperature reached more than 108 degrees, Gurupreet’s mother split off from the group in search of water. She would never see her daughter alive again.
“We trust that every parent, regardless of origin, color or creed, will understand that no mother or father ever puts their child in harm’s way unless they are desperate,” her parents, whose full names have not been released to the media, said in a statement released through the U.S. Sikh Coalition.
Gurupreet’s death speaks to the dangers of the journey to America: More than 2,100 migrants have died crossing into Arizona since 2001. Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Arizona, told me that he is “looking at a body or a sun-bleached bone” every day. Tasked with investigating unexplained deaths in the state, Anderson’s job has become more difficult over time. According to his office’s most recent annual report, in the year 2000, Pima County’s medical examiners successfully identified 82 percent of Undocumented Border Crossers, the office’s term for migrants who have died attempting to cross into America. By 2018, that figure had dropped to 33 percent. Of the nearly 3,000 UBCs examined by the office since 2000, 1,050 remain unidentified.
Forensics teams such as Anderson’s have limited information to work with; even in death, the desert is harsh and unforgiving. Bodies are weathered, sometimes mummified, by the unrelenting heat. Often, by the time a corpse is found, animal scavengers will have already stripped it down to skeletal remains. Nowhere is the sheer weight of structural vulnerability more visible than here. Whether you can drive through the brunt of the journey or must undertake it on foot maps neatly along racial and class divisions. So does access to dental records, often a last resort for forensics teams where a corpse has been altogether ravaged by the desert. “The stresses of poverty are written in their skin, in their bones, and in their teeth,” Anderson said.
This morning, The New York Times reported that on Sunday, ICE will stage raids in an attempt to indiscriminately deport thousands of undocumented migrants living in the U.S., including those whose children are citizens. And as President Donald Trump continues to escalate his threats to seal the border, summer temperatures are on the rise. It’s a deadly confluence of events: migrant deaths spike dramatically each summer as the desert gets hotter.
According to the immigration advocacy group No More Deaths, it is physically impossible to carry enough liters of water to survive even a handful of days in the Sonoran desert. But a compilation of footage taken from 2010 to 2017 and released by the organization shows a consistent pattern of Border Patrol agents pouring out water jugs left out for migrants and sabotaging other attempts at providing aid to those who travel the desert.
The attitudes informing such actions aren’t hard to find. Just last week, news emerged of a secret Facebook group in which Border Patrol officials made jokes about dying migrants and depicted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being sexually assaulted by President Trump. And weeks before that, federal investigators unearthed a series of texts by Matthew Bowen, a Nogales Border Patrol agent, calling asylum seekers “disgusting subhumans,” “savages,” and “beaners.” The texts came to light after Bowen hit a Guatemalan asylum seeker with his truck.
Families like Gurupreet’s face an impossible choice. Under Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy, (formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols), migrants are stopped outside ports of entry and barred from pursuing asylum claims. For the past several months, the Trump administration has moved to limit the number of asylum seekers allowed entry into the country each day, a process they call “metering.” Asylum seekers are thus left to wait for an indeterminate amount of time, with no guarantee that they’ll be seen at all.
Remain in Mexico has spelled disaster for vulnerable migrant populations. Though the Department of Homeland Security states that migrants will receive “appropriate humanitarian protections” while waiting to cross the border from Mexico, conditions on the ground grow more dire each day. In 2018, Mexico recorded more homicides than in any year since the country began keeping records. As disoriented asylum seekers roam the streets, several have experienced “violent assaults, sexual violence, and kidnapping,” according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch. Meanwhile, border towns are wholly unequipped to accommodate the influx.
“Shelter space is limited. Many are makeshift, having popped up to accommodate those who have been forced to wait in Mexico. People are afraid to go outside,” said Kennji Kizuka, a Senior Researcher with Human Rights First.
Kizuka told me of visiting a church-based shelter in Juarez where “a few dozen people were staying.” He added, “The day before our visit, a man had been shot and killed a block away. Everyone heard the gunshots.”
“At this shelter, we met a little boy who had had cancer and has a prosthetic eye. Under the Migrant Protection Protocols, people with known health issues aren’t supposed to be returned to Mexico,” he continued. “This child requires special monitoring to ensure there’s no recurrence of the cancer, he needs his prosthetic cleaned, and that’s difficult to do when you’re sleeping on the floor of a church.”
While shelters are overflowing, asylum seekers grow increasingly desperate. Some, like Gurupreet’s family, make the difficult decision to cross the border outside ports of entry. Faced with months or years in Mexico’s deadliest cities, many see no other choice.
“Most of the bodies we recover are young, healthy adults in good shape,” Anderson told me. “These people are in their 20s and 30s, and they’re still dying. So I can’t imagine — I don’t want to imagine — what will happen this summer as families faced with fewer prospects undertake the journey.”
Less than two weeks after Gurupreet died, Border Patrol agents recovered four more bodies along the border. Three of them were children. Deterrence policies have done little to prevent migration, but they have been wildly successful at making the journey more precarious and violent. “Children will die due to circumstances at the border,” Anderson said. “There is simply no question that children will die.”