Día de los Muertos and Our Deadly US Immigration Policy

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This one is worth thousands of lives. At the US-Mexico border in the past 10 years thousands of immigrants, many of whom are climate migrants, have lost their lives.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in English, is a Mexican holiday where family members and friends gather to remember those who have passed. While many gather today donning their altars with calaveras (sugar skulls) and the favorite food and drinks of their loves ones, this artist /activist calls on us to remember those who may be outside of our family and have lost their lives.

The Huffington Post and New York Times reported this summer that while the total number of immigrants crossing into the United States through the Mexican border have decreased, the number of deaths annually has not. Despite the U.S. Border and Customs Patrol officials intentions of increasing security in part to prevent these deaths, many human rights groups explain that this is part of the root cause of the crisis. As quoted in HuffPo: “We never thought that we’d be in the business of helping to identify remains like in a war zone, and here we are,” said Isabel Garcia, co-chair and founder of the Tucson-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos.

Since the economic collapse in 2005, the number of immigrants crossing over to the United States has dropped significantly. In the five year span between 2007 and 2011 there was a drop of about 62%. But the number of migrants losing their lives remains about the same, 398 people reported dead in 2007 compared to 368 in 2011. In the past decade, thousands of men, women and children migrating for better lives have died at the US border.

“The more we have militarized the border,” Garcia explains, “the more walls we put, [the] more technology, [the] more agents we put, people who find that they’ve got to cross — whether because they’re starving and, more and more right now, because they’ve got to come back and reunite with their families — they’re going further and further out into the more dangerous areas. That’s why we continue to see, at least ratio wise, an increase in the deaths.” As Garcia explains, there are intersecting factors that account for the increase in percentage of deaths, including a more militarized presence at the border, a President deporting record number of undocumented immigrants from the US, and the ever increasing devastation of climate change on local environments and economies across Latin America.

But it is important that we understand not only the statistics, but also the stories of these brave and desperate individuals. The NYT shared some of the stories of those who have lost their lives in the dangerous trip to the United States:

“Consider the all-too-typical story of Josue Ernesto Oliva-Serrano. A Honduran illegal [undocumented] immigrant living in Oklahoma with his American wife and their two children, Mr. Serrano was deported last year following his involvement in a minor traffic accident. (An illegal [undocumented] immigrant does not automatically become a United States citizen when he marries an American.) In September, he perished in Arizona in a desperate attempt to be reunited with his family. He had paid a coyote, or smuggler, to take him from Honduras to the United States-Mexico border, where he joined up with a group of roughly 20 other migrants to enter the United States through the desolate and searing terrain of the Tohono O’odham American Indian reservation in southern Arizona.

According to accounts from the other migrants, the coyote told Mr. Serrano that Phoenix was only a day’s walk away (when in fact it was four days under the best of conditions) and that the two gallons of water he was carrying would suffice. The temperatures soared to triple digits the day the group set out. They ran out of water within hours and resorted to drinking water from cattle ponds. Mr. Serrano soon fell ill. He succumbed to the heat, a victim of hyperthermia and dehydration, the most common causes of migrant death. His mummified remains were found many days later by Tohono O’odham tribal members whom Mr. Serrano’s wife had contacted to help locate her husband.”

So this Día de los Muertos please remember not only the 100+ people who have lost their lives because of Hurricane Sandy, but also the hundreds that die every year leaving their dried up farmland and devastated communities for a better future. One more clear reason why we need comprehensive immigration reform and climate change legislation here in the United States.