Arizona Day 5: The Reality of the Desert

"You look a little shell shocked," The Chief Medical Examiner said to us as we thanked him for his time and headed back into the Arizona heat. It was an understatement. My heart officially broke today. We have spent the past few days hearing the stories of the living, those who make life in Arizona work, even in the face of racial profiling, discrimination, and for some, the threat of deportation. But today we learned the stories of the dead. The dry bones that litter the desert. The untold stories of those who hoped and fought for a better life....and met their end. Alone. Under the hot sun. I. can't. even....



And for many, their bodies remain unclaimed and unidentified. For the Office of the Medical Examiner, it is a detective puzzle to piece together enough clues about an Undocumented Border Crosser (UBC) death in hopes of identifying the individual. How much of the body recovered, what level of decomposition has happened, and what possessions or property can be found all play into the ability to trace a person's identity. Often only a few bones are found, scattered by animals, and identification found on a person more often than not will be a false ID.

The numbers are disheartening. In the 1990's, the average UBC deaths per year were in the 20's. Starting in 2001, the number jumped to 75, in 2002- 77, and since it is an average of 176 deaths per year. With border crossings in major urban areas made harder to access by the wall and heavier patrols, the desert seems a likely path for migrants. But with not enough water, or the ability to keep up with the "coyotes" or human traffickers, people can be left behind.... there is a map where each red dot represents a death from 1999-2013, a total of 2,471.... the state of Arizona is covered...and those are only the bodies that have been found.


And this. The locker that holds all the possessions found on the unidentified bodies for 2014. They are the last remnants of the individuals who filled their pockets or hidden seams in their clothing with money, a phone number, false IDs, and little mementos from home. 


Some people are identified either through missing persons reports, or fingerprint hits with immigration (if they were already in the system), and yet the process of DNA testing, missing persons databases, etc. between countries and here in the U.S. remains complicated.

When we made it back "home" tonight, we settled in to watch "Who Is Dayani Cristal?", a film exploring the possible journey of one man found in the desert with the tattoo Dayani Cristal on his chest. It was a profound and moving piece that speaks to the danger of the journey, and the poverty and dreams that propel people to seek work in the U.S.

We go into the desert tomorrow with Humane Borders to refill water stations. Water can mean life or death to a migrant walking... I am compelled to see more, to not shy away from the brokenness, to stand on the side of love. Lord, may our eyes be continually opened to the ways in which you would compel us to move.

Read More in the Arizona Series

Communion at the Border

Day 1: The Day We Probably Should Have Been Stopped By Border Patrol

Day 2: Settling in and Making Plans

Day 3: The Day of No Pictures

Day 4: Nogales, A Border Town

Day 5: The Reality of the Desert

Day 6: Water is Life

Day 7: Sanctuary at St Francis in the Foothills UMC