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The Field: In the Land of Open Graves

by Claire Mullen
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

The Field: In the Land of Open Graves

Claire Mullen
4 Snaps

T

he border of southern Arizona and Mexico is more desolate than one might think. South of the highway between Tucson and Yuma lies the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, where pilots drop explosives over millions of acres of uninhabited land. There is also the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is now split by a border that is not its own. On either side of the Tohono O’odham lands are national parks, and the occasional town along a two-lane highway. At night, the main source of light is the stars.

Along these highways there are checkpoints, strategically placed so people cannot move between towns without encountering Border Patrol. Since I am a citizen of the United States, my presence on the border is regulated, but I am not at risk. I am not often questioned beyond the requisite “Are you a citizen of the United States?” I am allowed to move in this space more easily than nonwhite people, or people who aren’t citizens, which is one reason I felt I should come here. I first came to the border to volunteer with a humanitarian aid organization that leaves gallons of water, cans of food, and dry socks along well-traveled routes in the desert. The hope is that people crossing will find them.

The summer temperature in southern Arizona is regularly 100 to 115 degrees. Doctors recommend that a person who’s exerting themselves drink four glasses of water an hour in such temperatures. It is impossible for someone to carry enough water to stay hydrated for the three to four days it takes to walk from the US-Mexico border to a major town or highway in the US. Dehydration begins as thirst, and in this heat it quickly leads to headaches, fainting, nausea, organ damage, and death. Since 2001, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has recorded more than three thousand migrant remains recovered in southern Arizona. There are likely many more that will never be found. Finding a stash of water can save a life.

People walk through the desert when they have few other options. The number of people migrating in this manner increased in the late ’90s, after the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enacted a policy called Prevention through Deterrence, which increased security in cities like El Paso and San Diego to limit migrants’ ability to cross in urban areas. This forced people out of cities and into the desert. According to Jason De León, an anthropologist and author of the book The Land of Open Graves, this use of geography creates an intentional “killing machine.”

Using the desert as a deterrent has created economies that rely on people’s attempts to survive in its inhospitable landscape. On the Mexican side of the border are pit stops where people purchase the things they are told they will need. Volunteers know the routes people are using by the presence of these abandoned objects. The most visible are the black water jugs. They’re made of a tough plastic similar to the kind used for bottles of car oil. Migrants are told these will not reflect light as clear water jugs will, and that they are are harder to see at night, when most migrants travel. Carpet slippers are another item often left behind. They’re made of scraps of fabric with carpet covering the sole, which when slipped over shoes obscure footprints in the desert’s fine dirt and sand.

On the US side of the border is an economy rooted in weapons and surveillance. Border Patrol currently has one of the largest federal budgets, at $4.6 billion dollars a year. That money funds night-vision cameras, surveillance towers, drones, ground sensors, and other high-tech devices that are constantly gathering information and feeding it to intelligence centers in Laredo and Tucson.

Carpet slippers and black water jugs decay in the harsh climate. Clothing left in the sun bleaches and unravels; plastic becomes brittle and shatters. As De León documents in his studies, bodies left in the desert are consumed by animals and the elements, and become unrecognizable in a matter of weeks.

Surveillance, though, does not decay. Cameras are remounted, satellites are relaunched; their reach will only expand as more funding is funneled to the border in the name of national security. Some people will continue to cross, carrying plastic bottles, while others watch from control centers hundreds of miles away. The people in this scenario might change, but the role of surveillance is constant. Jeff Bezos, whose company, Amazon, is working with DHS to advance surveillance technology, has said that we shouldn’t worry about these advances, because “society develops an immune response eventually to the bad uses of new technology.” But in observing the landscape, it’s clear that a battle is already being waged between the human and the inhuman, between the humane and the inhumane. The eyes of the state are in place, and they will survive in this environment far longer than we will.

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