In summary

In the Imperial County desert, a volunteer group routinely maintains large barrels filled with water to help migrants traversing the California desert. As rescues increase, the longstanding immigration policies that funneled migrants to such harsh terrain deserve scrutiny.

The terrain just outside the town of Ocotillo in California’s Imperial County is rugged. With volunteers from a humanitarian group, we recently drove alongside an old railroad track path tasked with servicing and repairing large barrels of water meant to keep people lost in the desert alive. 

Tropical Storm Hilary drenched the southeastern California desert a week before, turning old, parched washes into flowing rivers that reshaped the arid earth. Some of the barrels were knocked over, leaving water jugs strewn about. The emblematic orange and blue striped flags meant to alert anyone needing water about the barrels were now on the ground, covered with sand, a good distance away.

For 24 years, Water Station, an all-volunteer organization, has been installing large blue barrels containing water in Imperial County’s deserts to prevent people from dying from environmental exposure during March to October, the hottest months of the year.

Dr. John Hunter, a physicist from Escondido and founder of the organization, told me he was moved to act by the high death toll. According to reports, Border Patrol’s El Centro sector says that 24 of the 31 migrants that have died in Imperial County so far this year are likely due to environmental exposure. A Border Patrol spokesperson also indicated that rescues have surged from 84 to 240, a 185% increase.

“There were massive deaths in El Centro, and I got a truck and people started helping me,” Hunter said. “Forget the politics – I just wanted to solve the problem.”

Along the route, we crossed a small yellow wooden cross draped with a rosary. It was placed there by another humanitarian group to remember Rafael Borromeo-Lopez, a 52-year-old man from Veracruz, Mexico, whose body was discovered two years ago. 

A cross marks the spot where Rafael Borromeo-Lopez, a 52-year-old migrant from Veracruz, died in August 2021 at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Borrego Springs. Aug. 2, 2023.
A cross marks the spot where Rafael Borromeo-Lopez, a 52-year-old migrant from Veracruz, died in August 2021 at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Borrego Springs. Aug. 2, 2023. Photo courtesy of Pedro Rios

Over the years, Water Station volunteers have found dehydrated migrants needing medical help, as well as others who succumbed to the stifling heat.

Laura Hunter, a former elementary school teacher from Mexico and the president of Water Station, first joined in 2000 as a volunteer. In 2015, she said she found two young, disoriented men wandering the desert and barely alive after they had been dusted by a Border Patrol helicopter. 

This tactic, of using helicopter rotor blades to lift clouds of sand and debris into the air, confuses and endangers migrants who then scatter to escape the gusts of sand. If Border Patrol doesn’t apprehend them, they could become disoriented and die in the open wilderness.

Laura recalled a time when BORSTAR, Border Patrol’s search and rescue unit, notified Water Station of a group of migrants needing help in the Carrizo Gorge Wilderness area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Three of the migrants died there, and a fourth passed away at a local hospital. Accessible only by all-terrain vehicles, each year Water Station volunteers place water caches near the places migrants perished.

Border Patrol officials often blame human smugglers for taking migrants through dangerous crossing routes. But pointing the finger only at organized smuggling rings obscures Border Patrol’s role in methodically funneling migrants to their peril. 

In 1994, Border Patrol adopted a strategy of “prevention through deterrence” that, in part, intended to “force” migrants into inhospitable terrain “less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” This included “mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and valleys (that) form natural barriers to passage,” effectively incorporating the natural geography as part of the enforcement arsenal to discourage migrants from entering the United States.

Those strategic plans detail that “Border Patrol planners recognized that only a decisive level of resources would increase the ‘cost’ to illegal entrants sufficiently to deter entry,” and recognized that the natural landscape would place migrants in “mortal danger.”

The rerouting of migrant crossing routes, from urban centers to remote deserts and mountains, was systemic and premeditated. Death was calculated as an essential “cost” to deter unregulated human migration.

Longtime community organizer Alma Maquitico of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights told me that migrant deaths are the clearest indication of the racial injustice embedded in U.S. immigration policies. Those who have died in the deserts historically tended to be Indigenous people from Latin American countries. 

“The most tragic thing about this is that thousands of people have died, and no one seems to care, except for their families who don’t have the resources to look for them,” Maquitico said.

In California there are no systems in place, either in San Diego or Imperial counties, that record how many migrants die each year from prolonged exposure to the elements. It’s not an impossible task: Arizona’s Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has been doing this since at least 2000, in collaboration with local community organizations.

Climate change, anti-asylum measures that the Biden administration has continued from the Trump administration, and Border Patrol’s increased dependence on surveillance technologies all will exacerbate conditions leading to increased migrant deaths in California as they have elsewhere.

The only way to change this is for officials from all government levels to prioritize humanitarian responses to migration, while removing the disastrous deterrence measures that have caused so much human suffering.

Leaving the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we ended our run with Water Station volunteers shortly after 2 p.m. on the last Saturday in August. 

“It must be around 108 degrees,” John Hunter mentioned, as our caravan headed back to Ocotillo to the Red Feather Cafe, the local restaurant that serves as a base for the volunteers.

I checked my phone. Indeed, it was 108 degrees. No one should be lost in the remote desert under such sweltering heat.

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Pedro Rios is the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border program and a longtime human rights advocate. His columns have appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune and Washington...