The Kino Border Initiative affirms dignity of those marginalized by the harsh reality of the “border.”

Family separation is one of the human tragedies of a complex and broken immigration system.

Since the 1990S, the U.S.-Mexican border has figured increasingly in the national imagination as a site of enforcement and deterrence. After 9-11, the border became an even more sensitive area, with the number of border patrol officers doubling from 10,000 in 2005 to 20,500 in 2011. In general, this has forced migrants to take more dangerous pathways to the U.S.

Statistics published by the U.S. Border Patrol trace the impacts of these shifts in policy. Of 12 U.S. sectors along its southwest border, the Tucson sector has had the most apprehensions since 1998, when it overtook the prominent role that San Diego had played as the main crossing point. The total number of apprehensions in the Southwest Border sectors peaked in 2000 at 1,643,679, but dropped steadily to 356,873 by 2012, of which 120,000 came through the Tucson sector. According to the records on border deaths from 1998 to 2012, a total of 5,570 bodies have been found in the Southwest border sectors. Starting in 2000, Tucson recorded the most deaths of all these sectors by substantial margins, hitting a peak of 251 deaths in 2010.

Of course, there are countless numbers of other deaths in the desert region that have not been recorded, in part because of the rapid decomposition of bodies, and also because of the lack of concerted effort on the part of the U.S. authorities to recover corpses of non-U.S. citizens.

Another consequence of funneling border crossings into the Tuscon sector is the emergence of a smuggling economy along the Mexican border. An entire industry has developed, devoted to providing migrants with housing, food, and supplies for the journey, including dark clothing and black water bottles that, unlike clear plastic bottles, will not shine and give away a migrant’s location in the brilliant desert sun.

Poverty is what drives the flow of migrant persons from Mexico and Central America — salaries below subsistence levels, violence from drug wars and gangs and, for women and girls, domestic violence. The migratory routes are particularly risky for women and minors. There are signs of increasing sexual violence against migrant women and girls from drug cartels controlling the migratory routes, sometimes in collusion with public authorities on the Mexican side. There are also soaring numbers of unaccompanied minors, with recorded numbers spiking from 8,041 in 2008 to 24,481 in 2012.

There are rumors of “rape trees” that purportedly mark the territory and conquests of various smugglers, apparently identifiable by the women’s undergarments the rapist leaves hanging on the branches. (Although sexual assaults occur, the existence of rape trees has not been confirmed).

The desert in this remote region is also extremely inhospitable. To avoid detection, the guias, or guides, take migrants along higher, more remote, and more dangerous routes, sometimes as long as 70 miles. Migrants face many risks along the journey. They may be deceived by the guias, robbed, or kidnapped. They may be forced to carry drugs.

Many migrants crossing the border may have already traveled from southern Mexico (some starting from Central America) on freight trains — a dangerous journey in itself — and may have had their money, cell phones, identification, and other resources stolen. They are often unprepared and do not have adequate clothing, footwear, or basic survival gear, including sufficient water. The soaring desert heat, reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more from May to August, presents grave risks. It is practically impossible to carry enough food and water for a journey that could last for days, a week, or longer.

Apprehension by U.S. border authorities also exposes migrants to further danger. Human Rights Watch and others have documented a wide array of abuses of migrants while in U.S. detention, including sensory deprivations, the withholding of medical attention, verbal abuse, withholding of water and food, and sexual abuse.

While the Tucson sector has been one of the heaviest points of border crossing, it also is home to a vibrant community of humanitarian organizations and civil society coalitions, many of which have deep roots in the 1980s and 1990s Sanctuary Movement that organized safe havens for Central American refugees fleeing war.

In these humanitarian spaces, migrants can find sustenance, shelter, medical care, solidarity, and opportunities to recover human dignity.

The Kino Border Initiative, established in 2009, figures prominently among these organizations, working on both sides of the border. KBI’s mission is to support humane and just migration between the United States and Mexico. Working with partner organizations, KBI seeks to promote Mexican border and immigration policies that “affirm the dignity of the human person and a spirit of bi-national solidarity.”

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