article

07.28.10

Arizona's Immigrant Death Spiral

The controversial immigration law may have been sidelined by a judge, but the state's epidemic of bodies piling up in the desert is just beginning. Bryan Curtis on a visit to the morgue.

Diego Gutierrez, a 25-year-old man Mexican man, illegally crossed the border into Arizona sometime around last Friday. Gutierrez was handsome and well built, with big eyes and a head of thick, black hair. In a photo taken by a Pima County medical examiner, he appeared to have a Roman nose. After trudging through the desert on days when temperatures at a nearby airfield reached 106 degrees, Gutierrez began to complain of stomach cramps. He vomited. Gutierrez’s father, who had crossed the border with him, left his son and flagged down a Border Patrol officer. The officer later reported that he and the father found Gutierrez’s body in the wee hours of Monday morning, July 26. Gutierrez was lying on his back under a tree; his head, fittingly enough, was pointed north.

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Until a federal judge intervened Wednesday, Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 was set to go into effect with much talk of death. Explaining why the state’s police officers should ask anyone they deem suspicious to produce proof of citizenship, Gov. Jan Brewer spoke vividly of immigrant crime, drug cartels, “bodies in the desert.” In fact, authorities are finding many dead bodies in the Arizona desert these days, but they are not the victims of immigrant murderers. They are the immigrants themselves. What 1070 misses is that it’s far more dangerous to sneak into Arizona than it is to live here.

This month, there have been 58 dead migrants, including Diego Gutierrez, delivered to the medical examiner of Pima County, the large southern Arizona county that stretches from Tucson south to the border. One hundred and fifty-two dead border crossers have turned up in the office since January. To compare that number to much-fussed about immigrant crime statistics, 152 is more than the total number of people murdered in Phoenix, by anyone, in all of 2009. And if July’s migrant death toll won't reach the record total of July 2005, when the remains of 68 dead border-crossers turned up, Dr. Bruce Parks, the county’s chief medical examiner, told me he was concerned enough that he ordered a refrigerated truck to be parked outside his office to store the overflowing bodies.

Parks is a trim, balding man, and when I met him in his office Tuesday he was listening to jazz standards. When he performed on autopsy on Gutierrez's body the day before, Parks found him sadly unremarkable. Gutierrez had on blue jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, and he was carrying a Mexican voter registration card. He had scratches on his wrist, maybe from a cholla cactus or from sleeping under a mesquite tree. Parks showed me two photographs of Gutierrez’s body. The first was taken out in the desert, a body bag unzipped to reveal Gutierrez’s still-vital face. The second photo was taken by Parks himself some hours later at his office. Gutierrez’s face had turned a greenish-red color, and his chest and shoulders were marbled with blue lines. When Parks touched Gutierrez’s skin, he recalled, it gave way easily, because his body had filled with gas. There were no signs of trauma, which means Gutierrez had almost certainly died of hyperthermia. He was too hot.

Gutierrez is far away from the debate over 1070, but maybe he shouldn’t be. It’s a longstanding gambit of politicians—especially Arizona politicians—to say it’s easy for an immigrant to cross into the United States. But it’s probably harder to cross into Arizona and stay here than ever. After border-security pushes in California and Texas redirected migrant traffic to Arizona, the feds beefed up defenses in border cities like Nogales, built parts of a border wall—and Barack Obama has ordered more than 500 National Guardsmen sent to the Arizona border on August 1. Those measures, in turn, have pushed the migrant traffic into remote desert, into the Altar Valley to the east or the sprawling Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation to the west. It's telling that while the number of border crossers into Arizona has decreased in recent years due to the recession, the number of migrant deaths has gone up.

For an Arizona politician, the border is everything. For an immigrant, it is merely a starting line. After crossing the border, an immigrant in Arizona enters a dangerous neutral zone full of Border Patrol agents, jittery locals, and dangerous plants and reptiles. According to Dan Millis, a volunteer with No More Deaths, a group that provides water and food for immigrants in the desert, this zone can stretch for 30 miles depending on which of the spider web of migrant trails the immigrant follows toward a city or a highway.

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Diego Gutierrez died in the neutral zone, and Millis and I drove out to the spot where his father flagged down the Border Patrol to get a sense of what he experienced. The Sonoran Desert has become such a reliable morgue that No More Deaths volunteers are always prepared to stumble upon bodies, Mills said, and “everybody thinks about it.” Millis is tall and bearded with twinkling eyes that disguise a thoughtful demeanor. He told me that he, too, discovered a body. In 2008, Millis and three friends were taking food to a migrant trail in the Altar Valley when they came upon the decomposing remains of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl. The girl was lying on her back and her feet were floating in a puddle.

The remains matched the description of a girl named Josseline Janiletha Hernandez Quinteros who had gone missing three weeks before. She was easily identified because her sweatpants had “Hollywood” written on the seat. It had pleased Mills to provide closure for Hernandez’s family, some of whom would later come to the site to mark it as a memorial. But the act of discovery also weighed heavily on him. “It’s sort of a curse to find somebody dead,” he said.

After a two-hour drive through the reservation, past border patrolmen peeking into cars and scanning the horizon with binoculars, we came to the appointed spot, the 15th milepost on Route 21. Despite the lingering pall of death, the place was quite beautiful. The sun was making its final approach in the west, turning that part of the sky chalk-white and the eastern sky a deep, marine blue. Millis and I could hear bullfrogs burbling in some distant pool. The desert was both more ordinary and more cartoonish than what you see in the movies—an ugly, dusty track would be interrupted by a towering Saguaro cactus. You only had to take a few steps away from the car to feel desperately alone.

To think about the dreadful final moments of migrants like Gutierrez was to remove Arizona's immigration debate from rhetorical abstraction. There is no wave of immigrant crime in Arizona. Phoenix, according to the FBI, has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the country. No Arizona county coroner has reported a beheaded crime victim in the desert, as Jan Brewer ominously charged. And yet when confronted with a bona fide epidemic in its southern desert, Arizona has chosen to punt.

As we looked around, I recalled something Bruce Parks, the medical examiner, had told me. When the truck bearing Gutierrez’s body came into his office, it was also carrying the bodies of three Guatemalan immigrants. Two of them had probably died like Diego, due to the hyperthermia. According to the field report, the third immigrant, adrift in a vast, hot desert, had hanged himself.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.