We stand in the wet sand, at the exact edge of the country. The water washing over our feet comes from the same waves crashing over the Tijuana beach a few yards away. This is Friendship Park, at the US-Mexico border, and through a slated metal fence we see a crowd of women and men gathering on the other side. Volunteers in both countries stick wooden crosses into the sand, part of a ceremony to memorialize migrants lost while crossing at sea. The colorful crosses feature hand-painted flowers or simple messages: no olvidados (not forgotten), esperanza (hope), en memoria (in memory), fe (faith), and peace. Small waves wash away the crosses, and the volunteers scramble to retrieve and replant them.
Enrique Morones, founder of the San Diego nonprofit Border Angels, leads today’s memorial. “For me,” Morones says, “what it means is that putting these crosses, we create a lot of awareness.” What is taking place, Enrique explains, is the routine and systematic loss of life in borders marked by waterways and passages. In the United States, that means oceans and rivers that line the nation; in Europe, the Mediterranean Sea that divides Europe and North Africa; and in Asia, the Andaman and Java Seas.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a division of the United Nations, estimates that the number of migrants who have died while crossing the US-Mexico border remains high relative to the number of border arrests. In 2016, the year we attended the memorial at Friendship Park near San Diego, the IOM recorded 132 deaths along the border, up from 77 the year earlier. By 2020, the IOM recorded 201 deaths, and the leading cause of death was drowning. According to the IOM, “As the likelihood of arrest grows, migrants tend to seek out more remote routes to avoid apprehension.”
This was, in fact, the point for the US government when it created a policy in 1994 with the principle of “prevention through deterrence.” The more treacherous the path, the fewer the number of people who would cross—or so the policy’s architects suggested. In reality, the selective sealing of urban border areas funneled migrants into inhospitable desert lands or far out into the sea, turning the natural ecology and geography of the border into lethal weapons. Within one year, the deaths of migrants attempting to cross into California doubled. By the year 2000, the death rate had gone up fivefold in California and tenfold in Arizona, while apprehensions declined.
US migration policies are not only intentionally deadly but also are designed to produce ambiguous loss across migrant sending communities. Many bodies are never found, swallowed up by the desert or sea, with families left longing for information. And even if bodies are found, it is a challenge for authorities and families to identify them because the remains have decomposed past the point of visual identification. People therefore disappear, in both the desert and forensic offices. The irony, according to anthropologist Robin Reineke, whom we interviewed in 2018, is that this disappearance occurs in what is one of the most heavily surveilled landscapes in the world—where multiple government agencies use advanced and expensive technologies, including helicopters, drones, and facial recognition programs, in addition to costly manpower, to monitor all human traffic. Where the government fails to allocate adequate resources is in its efforts to find and identify bodies, and to notify relatives of their loved one’s passing. In this way, migration policies and their bureaucratic implementation create a hierarchy of death, with many who die along the border denied what Reineke calls the “privilege of being identified.” That is where volunteer organizations and motivated academics may step in to fix governmental neglect and aid the processes of notification, repatriation, and commemoration.
José Genis González was an EMT and father of three who spent his weekends volunteering with the nonprofit Aguilas del Desierto, or Eagles of the Desert, when we met him. The Aguilas assist families who have lost contact with someone who was trying to cross by sending search and rescue teams. When they are too late and find remains instead, the volunteer organization alerts Border Patrol so retrieval can begin. José said he felt compelled to do something because the anguish of parents who long for their lost children haunted him. In one case, a body was picked up near the El Centro area. The coroner took DNA samples and fingerprints, plus pictures and a general description of the body, which he posted to a national database called NamUs. Four years later, a family member searched the NamUs website, found the description, and thought it resembled their lost nephew. She told the father, and the father contacted the Aguilas. José acted as a liaison between the father and officials. “And the guy [in the coroner’s office] said, ‘Yeah, it matches him. It’s him. We took fingerprints.’” The coroner shared pictures with José, who then sent them to the father. “The family was like, ‘Well, it does look like him. It should be him. How do we claim his body?’ I’m like, ‘Well at this point there probably isn’t a body, you know?’”
José knew that after four years the man had most likely been cremated. Still, José went back to the coroner in El Centro to see if the family could have the cremains. The coroner, however, contracted at the time with a boat charter service more than 110 miles away in San Diego who scattered the ashes at sea. José could not believe it. “And we were like, ‘You guys just bury them at sea? You guys don’t keep them for a certain amount of time?’” He said the family was left again in uncertainty, wondering if the person found in the Californian desert was their lost child. “They’re just left with a void.”
José captured the discrepancy between the family’s need for something physical and identifiable and the county’s calculation that this is an efficient way of disposing of unknown bodies, noting, “To the coroners, it’s just ashes that just went into the sea.” But expecting a family in Mexico to trust the word of a US bureaucrat seemed unreasonable and unfair. “The dad kept asking, ‘What if he’s out there?” It was a deeply unsettling and unsatisfying conclusion.
Contrast this with the extensive governmental efforts to identify and notify bestowed on John Doe #80, which we learned about while conducting fieldwork in the Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner’s (MEC) office. The man died in a fire inside a Pep Boys store during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. All that remained of him for identification was a print from one middle finger and some teeth. The MEC knew the man had brown hair, a mustache and a goatee, and investigators guessed his age at 35. An autopsy revealed a possible skull fracture, perhaps an indication he was knocked unconscious. A .38 caliber spent shell casing appeared to be inside his jeans, but the body was too burned for detectives to know if the man had been shot. Still, it was classified a homicide because the fire was intentionally set. No witnesses came forward. No suspects were identified.
Cold case LAPD detective Luis Rivera refused to give up, as did the MEC. Every year, employees for two agencies ran the fingerprint in local and national databases. And every time they received zero hits. Until April 6, 2017. Almost twenty-five years after John Doe #80 died, there was a match in an FBI database. The print fitted an eighteen-year-old Mexican national named Miguel Armando Quiroz Ortiz. Even with a match, investigators needed more information to make a positive identification. Joyce Kato, of the MEC, used the name to find an arrest in Anaheim and contacted the police department for a booking photo. She used that to compare with a photo from a missing person’s report filed by the family in 1993 through the Mexican Consulate. The resemblance was clear. Five weeks after the fingerprint match, US authorities felt confident with the ID. They located Miguel’s family in Oaxaca and notified his sister. The family was crushed. They had been hoping Miguel was still alive. Still, they took solace in finally knowing what happened.
The starkly disparate efforts to identify and notify bodies reveals a political hierarchy of which deaths matter and who is “privileged” enough to be identified. While Miguel’s death showed the family’s relief of official closure after decades of intense research by forensic authorities even when the odds of identification were slim, the families of many other migrants remain burdened by the uncertainty of not knowing whether their relative is alive. As the colorful, homemade crosses on the San Diego beach signify, deaths along the US-Mexico border are the collateral damage of US migration deterrence policies. Physical violence ends up compounded by symbolic violence when the deep wound of ambiguous loss haunts families in both countries. The multiple entanglements of dying and migration policy have become political tools to debase those Latinx migrants aspiring to make a better life elsewhere.