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Guest opinion

Hoover: Season of death returns for migrants in Arizona's remote deserts

May 23-24 was the 20th anniversary of the deaths of 14 migrants in Southern Arizona's western desert. Twelve other migrants in the group were rescued, but they looked like zombies. Parts of their bodies were literally mummified. Twenty-six lives nearly destroyed. Administrative relief could have averted this disaster and could avert future disasters as well.

The humanitarian group Humane Borders applied for a permit to place water stations on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in March 2001 right after acquiring a permit to operate water stations on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. That April, the application to Cabeza was denied. In May, disaster struck. According to Border Patrol agents, all of the migrants walked within sight of one of the proposed water stations. When they found themselves in trouble, they could have simply doubled back for life-saving water.

Last year, migrant deaths in America's deserts approached a 20-year high, and Arizona is on track for setting a new record. Federal, tribal, state, county, municipal, and private property managers and owners should extend pervasive permission to place water stations or mark existing locations of water now.

Following the deaths, the Bush administration called CPNWR and told them to get some water out there for the migrants. Stations exist there to this day. The Biden administration is responding reflexively to some of the current situations, but it has no proactive plans to save lives or provide for more migrant safety.

The Feds are not the only players. The efforts of all elected officials and jurisdictions in Arizona and the U.S. government are required to provide significant relief to the abused and evaporating migrants. Federal land managers have a 20-year history of providing some help, but much more can be done.

Beyond water, what else? Most importantly, more cellphone coverage is needed. Half of the so-called rescues by Border Patrol are self-initiated by migrants using cellphones. The problem is, most of the desert has no cellphone coverage. NGOs and Pima County government proposed work with Customs and Border Protection to integrate systems to handle 911 calls from the desert, but CBP refused in 2010. More cellphone coverage would help all people who are in the desert, not just migrants.

Volunteers with non-governmental organizations regularly perform search and rescue operations in some areas of Southern Arizona. However, many jurisdictions severely limit or refuse permission to groups to perform these life-saving functions. Humanitarian groups have worked for decades in the desert, but the Border Patrol and even elected officials have lied to, surveilled, arrested, and even prosecuted them. That must stop.

Some 86 percent of the land in Arizona is "public" in one way or another. But volunteers cannot walk across it to find deceased migrants and help reunited their remains with families. For example, as military operations in Afghanistan wind down, the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range could begin regularly scheduling groups to search for human remains.

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Most years, 40 percent or more of all the migrant deaths in Arizona occur on Tohono O'odham Nation lands. That government has refused to deploy water to save lives and even destroyed water placed on nation lands by tribal members. The nation's enforcement-only policy is deadly and demeans their neighbors, many of whom are indigenous.

More Border Patrol rescue beacons should immediately be deployed. The Border Patrol has deployed very few beacons along the nearly 2,000-mile border in recent years. They work.

Systematic human rights abuses of migrants require changes in the corporate culture of CBP. Families are still being separated every day. Migrants with lawful claims for asylum are deported out of health concerns while citizens are starting to take off their masks. Title 42 needs to be immediately revoked and vaccines need to be administered to migrants. Asylum claims should be immediately addressed to keep kids with parents.

Arizona Gov. Ducey deployed the National Guard to the border to help humanitarian concerns. His efforts would be better spent on providing access to humanitarian groups for life-saving operations on Arizona state trust lands.

Enforcement-only policies used by federal, tribal, state, and sometimes county officials have not and never will solve the tragedies associated with migration. The truth is that there is an inexorable flow of humanity from the dependent, desperate, and denigrated south to the arrogant co-dependent north. A moral sea change is required. A new politics is needed. Absent that, good Samaritans will be abused and their efforts thwarted, migrants will be abused, and many more will die. Counties will be burdened further with expenses.

The annual season of death is upon us, and it is off to a roaring start. Compassion, empathy, and sympathy need to be the order of the day across all jurisdictions. Not only is it the moral resolution to a persistent problem, it is both a utilitarian and rational self-interest option in front of all who purport to be leaders.

Migrants matter.

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A makeshift memorial in 2011 at the site where a migrant teen’s body was found in Arizona.

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