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Mourning death of migrants

Special to National Catholic Reporter
Holtville, Calif.

About 80 people, each carrying a cross marked no olvidado (not forgotten) participated in a Holy Week procession and blessing at a cemetery, a “potter’s field,” in this farming community. Participants honored 150 unidentified migrants who have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border into California in the past seven years. Along the way, those in the procession meditated on what they called the Stations of the Cross for Migrants.

One of the procession leaders was Fr. Luiz Kendzierski, who heads Casa de Migrante, a Tijuana, Mexico, shelter for migrants on their way to or from the border. Kendzierski said that the border has become a Way of the Cross for migrants since the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper, a stepped-up border enforcement policy put into place in 1995 to slow the flow of undocumented immigrants across the border.

Instead of apprehending immigrants after they enter the United States, the policy shifted to creating physical barriers intended to prevent entry. As a result, illegal border crossings in areas like San Diego have shifted to more hostile terrain -- the mountains and deserts in southeastern California, Arizona and Texas. And the border deaths have skyrocketed, up 500 percent in the past seven years.

About one out of four of the estimated 633 deaths that have occurred along the border since Operation Gatekeeper went into effect in 1995 are unidentified -- no identificado. When added to the border deaths in Arizona and Texas, the total deaths climb to 1,537.

Migrant advocates claim that Operation Gatekeeper and similar border enforcement programs in Texas and Arizona have placed the lives of thousands of undocumented immigrants in peril. In the mountains and deserts, they face death from drowning in rivers and canals, lack of access to water, hypothermia, or hyperthermia. Smugglers, known as coyotes, have extorted fees ranging into hundreds and even thousands of dollars from those eager to make the crossing.

The smugglers arrange for transport across the border and often abandon their unwary customers without adequate water, clothing or directions. Migrants may wander for days, running out of food and water, before collapsing in the heat or freezing weather or perishing in a desperate swim across the polluted and toxic All-American Canal. In the remote terrain, their bodies may not be discovered for weeks or months.

The lucky ones are apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol and deported to Mexico where a return trip to the United States is likely to originate. A few successfully elude death and deportation, but the stakes are high.

Nonetheless, the promise of employment and family reunification continues to drive them northward, despite the risks.

When an immigrant dies and identification of a victim’s body is made, the local Mexican consulate office arranges for transportation of the remains back to the victim’s next of kin. However, when no identification is possible, they are buried in the counties where their bodies are found. No identificado means that next of kin have never been notified of the death and are left to wonder what became of their loved one when he or she crossed the border illegally in search of a better future.

Fr. Cecilio Morago, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Holtville, a two-hour drive east of San Diego, and Kendzierski led a group of migrant advocates April 11 to the field, located behind Holtville’s Terrace Park Cemetery. Linda Arreola, assistant director of the Office of Social Ministry for the Roman Catholic diocese of San Diego, was among those who participated.

“These casualties may be unidentified, but it’s important that they are not forgotten. In the future, we are asking authorities to notify the church so that future victims can be buried with a proper graveside service,” she said.

During the service at the cemetery, where each grave is marked with a brick reading “John Doe” or “Jane Doe,” participants laid a cross and a flower at each grave site while the priests read from the account of the potter’s field in Matthew’s gospel and Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

“The federal government has washed its hands of the migrant deaths, forcing counties along to border to underwrite hospital, coroners and funeral costs that can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” reported Claudia Smith, border project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which assists and advocates on behalf of undocumented immigrants. “I was under the impression until recently that these bodies were cremated,” she told NCR.

Smith has since learned that an additional 30 bodies are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego where a Memorial Day weekend service is planned to bless those graves. Just five days before the Holy Week procession, more than 400 undocumented immigrants surrendered to the Border Patrol near the town of Sells, Ariz., 30 miles north of the border. They had been caught in the fury of a winter-like storm while crossing the Arizona desert. Last year, about this time, another 330 turned themselves in near Sells.

It is likely that there will be more no identificados buried in Holtville and a similar potter’s field in El Centro, Calif. But if migrant advocates in this area have anything to say about it, they will not be forgotten or unmourned.

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001