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The fight to save lives in the treacherous California desert: ‘A broken ankle is a death sentence’

In World
February 04, 2024

At the southernmost edge of California, just a mile or two from the sprawling US-Mexico border wall, the terrain is perpetually hostile.

Sheer desert mountains give way to narrow canyons of rock and sand. With few trails or paths in some areas, each step means navigating loose boulders and thorny vegetation; rattlesnakes and tarantulas can lurk just out of sight. In the summer months, temperatures can exceed 120F (49C), some of the hottest on Earth. This time of year, temperatures can plunge below freezing, with searing winds and the occasional snowfall.

The inhospitable region is also an illegal escape route to the United States, one traveled by thousands of migrants every year: often by night, sometimes with children in their arms. For a growing number of people, the remote, perilous journey is fatal.

On a recent cold January morning, 30-year-old Osvaldo Ruiz scanned this bleak landscape near Ocotillo, a tiny outpost along the border. He was flanked by a team of nearly a dozen volunteer hikers with the San Diego-based non-profit Border Angels. The group carried heavy backpacks brimming with gallons of drinking water, hand warmers, silver emergency blankets, thick socks, knit beanies and canned tuna – critical supplies that, they hoped, would mean one less migrant might succumb to dehydration, starvation or hypothermia.

Because in the California wilderness, anything could go wrong.

“You’re talking about a sprained or broken ankle being a death sentence for somebody out here,” said Ruiz, who works as the nonprofit’s volunteer coordinator.

Last year, southern border crossings surged; US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported roughly 2.5m “encounters” with migrants along the border between October 2022 and September 2023. The vast majority of those encounters – about 2m, or 83% – involved the apprehension of migrants between official ports of entry, like the California desert.

And while piecing together exactly how many migrants die or simply go missing along the border each year has long been a challenge, government data shows that the number of migrant fatalities jumped between 2017 and 2021, with experts pointing to the climate crisis and certain border enforcement strategies as contributing factors.

Amid this humanitarian crisis, the work to keep people alive in the desert often falls to volunteers, like Ruiz and his team.

Their recent mission was simple, but strenuous: hike several miles into the mountains near the border, and leave supplies in well-traveled areas where a migrant in need would easily be able to spot them. Plastic bags of food and clothing were positioned in little piles along the informal route, dated and adorned with short messages from the volunteers: “Con mucho amor” and “Buena suerte”.

The border wall, which in California is sometimes made up of towering steel slats, and then tapers out entirely when the rugged landscape becomes a natural barrier, was a felt but unseen presence in the distance.

As the volunteers climbed higher into the mountains and closer to the border, hoisting themselves up rock faces and scrambling down scrubby hills, they spotted many signs of life, including weathered shirts and hats, empty water bottles and wrappers from Mexican-brand candy.

On past trips, volunteers have found baby and children’s clothes.

“These are people who have stories, who are somebody to someone, who have a family,” said Ana Miguel, the educational programs coordinator for Border Angels, as she hiked. “Really, our goal here is to humanize these people.”

‘Nothing is going to deter people’

Humanitarian groups like Border Angels have reason to be concerned.

Hundreds of migrants are dying each year along isolated, unsanctioned routes like this one in southern California. A total of 568 migrants died along the border with Mexico in fiscal year 2021, compared with 254 deaths in 2020, according to CBP. Although the agency hasn’t released complete migrant death data since 2021, CBS News reported that at least 853 migrants died in fiscal year 2022, according to internal data it had obtained – a record high.

Many of those fatalities are due to environmental exposure; in 2021, exposure to the heat or cold was the cause of about 42% of all migrant deaths.

In the San Diego region, encounters between border patrol agents and migrants increased by nearly 85% between November 2022 and November 2023. In the small border community of Jacumba Hot Springs alone, scores of migrants have gathered in what immigrant advocates are calling open-air detention centers over the past few months, awaiting processing and grappling with freezing weather and limited resources.

Despite the risks, there are many reasons people attempt dangerous border crossings, said Jason De León, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and executive director of the Undocumented Migration Project, which studies clandestine border crossings.

Migrants today could be fleeing “drug wars, political instability or grinding poverty”, De León said, and, increasingly, the far-reaching impacts of the climate crisis.

“There is nothing that is going to deter people, even death,” he said. “Migrants know that there is a likelihood of dying during a crossing attempt, and yet people will still do it, because they are that desperate to get away from whatever it is they’re running from.”

Before the January hike, Border Angels volunteers convened in a gas station parking lot near Jacumba Hot Springs, their breath clouding in the early morning air. About an hour east of San Diego, the parking lot is a popular staging area for local migrant aid groups; volunteers with another organization met just a few cars down. Besides the highway and the border wall, there’s not much else on the horizon.

Many of the volunteers have familial immigration stories, Ruiz included. Almost 50 years ago, before there was a wall in this area, his dad crossed the desert between Mexico and the US on foot not far from this spot. He then “started from scratch” in Los Angeles, learned English within three years, got a job as a busboy at Wolfgang Puck’s illustrious restaurant Spago, and went on to become an executive chef elsewhere in southern California. Ruiz’s parents – his mom also emigrated from Mexico as a teenager with a visa – eventually made their way down to San Diego, where Ruiz was born.

Related: Roaches, rats and rotten food reported at Chicago shelter for asylum seekers

He grew up as a true “border town kid”, Ruiz said, going to school on the California side but making weekend trips to Tijuana to visit family. In 2015, he began volunteering with Border Angels as a college student.

But just a few weeks ago, Ruiz’s father died, imbuing this month’s volunteer hike with even more emotion and meaning.

“It’s full-circle for me,” Ruiz told the gathered volunteers. “But it makes me feel good, being around people like you and having a good understanding that the work is not done. It’s a marathon.”

And even when volunteers are well-equipped for the trip, the terrain remains difficult to cross in both summer and winter.

“We come out here with everything – the best shoes, the best Gatorade – and it’s still a tough day,” said Lia Belardo, an ultramarathon runner who works in finance and has been volunteering with Border Angels for a year. “So the struggle and the journey for people who aren’t prepared is just unfathomable to me.”

‘Weaponizing’ nature along the border

As they hiked deeper into the backcountry, the volunteers made sure to take each step carefully. A few people stumbled over loose rocks, scratching their arms and legs, their bulky backpacks adding to their unsteadiness. On past hikes during the summer, the triple-digit temperatures have made at least one volunteer vomit from dehydration.

“The conditions can be brutal,” Belardo, the runner, said.

The group didn’t encounter anyone crossing the border on this particular hike, which they say is typical. In this area, many migrants travel at night, which only adds to the difficulty of the journey.

Migrant deaths along the southern border could be increasing for several reasons. The climate crisis is making summers hotter, and extreme weather events are becoming more common, leading to more risks when crossing the desert, experts say.

De León also pointed to border enforcement strategies like “prevention through deterrence”, a policy introduced by border patrol in the 1990s that aimed to strengthen security at major ports of entry, and therefore funnel migrants towards more remote, dangerous routes. The agency hoped that “illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain”.

That general strategy, which De León called “the primary security paradigm now being used globally”, is the “easiest and cheapest way to weaponize nature, which is free and doesn’t cost the federal government anything to use”, he said.

In response to questions about “prevention through deterrence” and the lack of recent data on migrant deaths, CBP said in a statement that it “dedicates significant resources toward robust border-safety programs and prioritizes the preservation of human life”. The agency’s missing migrant program works to reduce migrant deaths by placing rescue beacons and signs along the border, its website says. This past fiscal year, Border Patrol performed more than 37,000 non-citizen rescues, according to a press release; in 2022, the number of rescues was roughly 22,000.

“Crossing the border illegally is inherently dangerous,” the statement provided to the Guardian said. “CBP urges migrants to seek lawful pathways to the United States and not to place their lives in the hands of human smugglers, whose priority is profit.”

Historically, the relationship between border patrol and some migrant aid groups has been thorny. Non-profits like Border Angels have said that gallons of water they leave for migrants have sometimes been slashed by border patrol agents. In 2018, volunteers with a similar organization called No More Deaths even faced criminal charges, ranging from driving in a wilderness area to “abandoning property”.

But for many Border Angels volunteers, immigration suddenly becomes a black-and-white issue in the California wilderness. There are people dying in the desert, they say, and there are ways to help.

After five hours of arduous hiking and climbing on the January trip, the volunteers had only covered about four miles. But they had also dropped roughly a dozen water gallons, and the same number of plastic bags full of emergency supplies. The hostile terrain near the border would, they hoped, become less so.

“I always feel this every time – it’s the feeling of ‘we could do more’,” Ruiz told the group, as they circled around him at the end of the day. “But our reality is to support them in any way that we can.”

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