The office of Coalición de Derechos Humanos is quiet on this Thursday afternoon.
At a long table by the door, the knotted brows of volunteers are lit by MacBooks as they comb over papers and speak quietly on cell phones. A tapestry of La Virgen de Guadalupe hangs below a clock by the window, framed by silver tinsel and an oversized purple and white rosary.
The single room is dimly lit by privacy windows, afternoon sunlight bouncing off endless stacks of papers, colorful tissue flowers, posters and plastic bins overflowing with white wooden crosses, many of which are labeled “UNK” for unknown.
One cross for every body found in the desert.
There are hundreds strewn around the office.
“There are 2,771 crosses, so 2,771 human remains since 2000,” says Cristen VernonCoalición de Derechos Humanos, Missing Migrant Hotline coordinator for Derechos Humanos. That number, she says, only accounts for a fraction of those who have died along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. More than 6,330 people have died along the southwest border with Mexico since 1998, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Coalición de Derechos Humanos began fielding calls in the late ’90s, and has since developed a missing migrant hotline for families who seek help locating missing loved ones who have attempted to cross the desert.
In November 2013, they started monitoring the hotline 24 hours a day, mobilizing rapid responses to emergency calls or providing families with information.
Derechos Humanos’ reputation for advocacy and social justice made it a natural focal point for missing migrant inquiries. Anna Ochoa O’Leary, head of the Mexican-American Studies department at The University of Arizona, says Derechos paints a more complete picture of missing persons on the border, filling in gaps of knowledge surrounding the immigration crisis and how many people go missing annually.
“You can’t address a problem if you don’t even know what the problem is,” O’Leary says. “So basically it illuminates the problem.”
Volunteers at Derechos Humanos say a militarized border has “funneled” huge groups of migrants into more and more dangerous terrain, increasing the number of deaths and disappearances in recent years.
Derechos volunteer Genevieve Schroeder approaches the wall-sized map of the Arizona border.
“This is the only area in the entire state of Arizona where you can walk for 70 miles without hitting a single paved road,” she says as she points out a major migrant crossing path near Sonoita.
She indicates the spots where the highest frequency of death occurs. One such spot, shaded in baby pink on the map, is an active bombing range. This area, Schroeder says, doesn’t even allow access to search and rescue groups.
In its 1994 Strategic Plan, the Border Patrol introduced its Prevention through Deterrence strategy, which asserted that the influx of immigration and alien apprehensions would decrease if border enforcement were intensified. By the 2000s, the implementation of this policy pushed larger numbers of people into more perilous territory, increasing the dangers of crossing. Although reports from the Pew Research Center show a decline in unauthorized immigration from Mexico in recent years, crossers continue to attempt entry, and fatalities remain constant.
“All of these practices are essentially leading to more death,” says Vernon. A 2007 brief released by the Immigration Policy Center reveals a sharp increase of bodies from 1990 to 2005. According to the report, the annual number of recovered migrant bodies increased from 14 by the end of the ’90s to over 160 by the mid-2000s. Vernon says this spike in deaths is felt keenly in phone calls to Derechos Humanos.
“So just to put it in perspective, in June of 2014, we had 30 to 40 different phone calls from family members, and this June it’s over 100. So in one year, essentially, the phone calls have tripled.”
O’Leary, who has conducted much of her research on the impacts of enforcement on migration and female border crossers, says the militarization tactics push migrants far into remote desert territory, leaving them vulnerable to a host of harmful situations.
“They can trip and fall, they can have accidents, they can be abandoned, women especially. Especially if they’re taking children, they’re considered to be a drag on that fast, quick movement through the desert,” O’Leary says.
Trafficking, too, has found its place within the nexus of increased enforcement and precarious crossings.
“Once you make something hard enough that people can’t try to do it on their own, then you’ve created a market, you’ve created a commodity,” Schroeder says.
Cartels often establish their own checkpoints through crossing areas. They charge migrants for safe passage, threatening beatings, rape and death should crossers fail to pay the toll. But even with cartel guides, who push migrants through areas as quickly as possible, people still find themselves stranded or lost, according to Schroeder.
“This whole crossing is incredibly lucrative and incredibly controlled,” she says.
The stamp of criminalization, however, is often bestowed on the crossers themselves, stigmatizing assistance efforts. O’Leary says images of the undocumented crosser as the criminal justifies desires to look the other way concerning deaths and disappearances.
Derechos Humanos, she says, established a trust through their advocacy, assuring concerned families that their status would not determine the assistance they receive. The organization has been aiding families and individuals through multiple projects over the years, including employment and wage advocacy and “Know Your Rights” workshops.
O’Leary says the stigma of border crossing criminalization makes groups like Derechos a great comfort for people seeking help.
“They come into the office and they’re not immediately looked upon like they’re lawbreakers,” O’Leary says.
Devora Gonzalez speaks softly into the telephone, guiding a caller through a series of questions and answers in Spanish as she eats lunch from a plastic bowl.
A baby snores quietly in a stroller beside her. Another child speaks loudly from the other end of the receiver over the voice of Gonzalez’s caller, who inquires about her cousin. He has been missing for almost a month.
Gonzalez gives out the information for Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a Tucson-based advocacy nonprofit that matches information with remains recovered from the border.
The Missing Migrant Hotline at Derechos keeps the small team in constant response mode. When a call is received, it is treated as an emergency if there is any possibility that the person for whom the call is placed may still be lost in the desert. Due to spotty reception and low cell batteries out in the desert, calls are usually placed by family members, and rarely from lost migrants, themselves.
“Phone calls made from the desert are hoarded really, really preciously because cell phone battery life drops so quickly,” Schroeder says. “People will only make usually a few phone calls on a trip that can take one to two weeks.”
Often, people who may be in distress make direct calls to family members, who then contact Derechos’ hotline to seek help on what to do next. Between Internet searches and word of mouth, Derechos Humanos’ reputation for rapid and consistent response has resulted in a swell of calls.
“That was the point of the hotline, to be able to have a rapid response to people in distress,” Schroeder says.
In certain cases, with enough locational information and assurance that the person crossing has not already been arrested or died, Derechos is able to mobilize help by collaborating with other advocacy groups, like Águilas del Desierto or the South Texas Human Rights Center who can provide certain humanitarian aid like food and water.
Otherwise, Derechos does everything possible to inform the family members on steps they can take to mobilize a rapid response for themselves.
“And with the advice on, hopefully, how they can do that in a manner that is secure, such as knowing their rights, knowing what police and Border Patrol can ask them, and what they cannot,” says Schroeder.
From the onset, Derechos takes consent into careful consideration when providing counsel and response to families on the line. In addition to always providing a non-law enforcement number to call, operators for the hotline, like Vernon, make sure families know that even a lifesaving call to 911 means a transfer to Border Patrol.
“We are very consent based. We never ask for legal status of a person, but there are times when the situation is very dire medically for the person and they might ask to please call the Border Patrol,” Vernon says.
Aside from emergency calls, Derechos also conducts searches within detention centers and collaborates with Colibrí to solve older or less immediate disappearance cases.
Gonzalez, who has been helping with the Hotline since 2014, focuses on these older cases and follow-ups which may help offer closure for families who have been searching or calling for extended periods of time.
“They’re all emergency cases and all of them need attention immediately. I think even the 15-year-old cases need attention,” she said.
Gonzalez says Derechos is a community in which people can work with each other for help, education, healing and defense. For Schroeder, the calls from the hotline project reveal a crisis that will affect generations of children without mothers and fathers who’ve been lost crossing the border. With this kind of work, these body counts are not just statistics, they put a face on the numbers.
“When you work on a project like the hotline project you start to understand that every one of those numbers is a person. And it’s an experience and has a memory,” Schroeder says.
For the volunteers at Derechos Humanos and others across a variety of advocacy organizations, the situation at the border is an increasingly large and dire issue.
“It’s so complicated, no one can do everything. And that’s why we’re all trying to find our niches,” says Schroeder. “It’s such a strange reality.”