Tomb of the Unknown Migrant


Written by José Luis Sierra, New America Media

Holtville, Calif. — They could have been anybody — a talented musician, a farm worker, an unemployed teacher, a desperate parent, a son or daughter looking to feed their mother, brothers and sisters. Whoever they are, their identities are now shrouded beneath the saline terrain that surrounds the town of Holtville, just west of Arizona and less than an hour from the Mexican border.

Most of the John and Jane Does buried here were found dead, their bodies strewn across the desert hills of Imperial Valley, or along the All American Canal that feeds a sprawling agricultural expanse extending from El Centro, Calif., to Mexicali, Mexico. No one knows who they are and few seem to really care.

Day of the Dead

Nov. 2 marks the Mexican holiday known as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, when families traditionally gather to honor those who have gone before. This year a handful of immigrant rights activists and community members gathered at Holtville’s Terrace Park Cemetery, near the site of dozens of unmarked graves, to celebrate and to mourn.

Partially obscured by a six-foot wall are rows and rows – 49 to be exact – of crosses with simple, mud-colored bricks delineating the final resting place for these would-be migrants.

“None of the people buried here expected to end up like this,” says Enrique Morones, head of the non-profit organization Border Angels.

Founded in 1986, the organization provides humanitarian assistance to migrants living in the canyons of North San Diego County. For several years it has also helped recruit volunteers as part of a campaign to leave bottles of water in areas identified as crossing points for undocumented immigrants.

“Most undocumented migrants are not aware of the perils of the desert. They are also easy prey for unscrupulous smugglers that rob them and then leave them lost on their own in a place where north and south are indistinguishable,” adds Morones, as he leaves a few gallons of water at a strategic point marked by a blanket hanging from a small shrubby tree, known as a huizache.

“No one can survive more than two hours under 115-degree heat during the summer,” explains Border Patrol Officer Adrian Corona. “Winter is equally dangerous,” he says, adding that the mountainous terrain is especially treacherous at night and brutally hot in the day. Most don’t make the trip, he says.

Under high heat and with no water, the body enters into a state of shock, the vital organs gradually shutting down. People in this state will experience hallucinations – also described as the “oasis effect” – before collapsing in a delirium.

The “coyotes,” meanwhile, who are essentially paid guides for migrants looking to head north, often warn fellow travelers not to stop for those showing signs of dehydration. Since most border trips are made at night, it’s common practice for coyotes to abandon stragglers.

BOARSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue Unit) agents operating in the Imperial Valley say they have performed 30 emergency rescues this fiscal year, down from the 50 performed the previous year. Corona and his fellow border agents attribute the decline to improved technology, which is making it easier to track movements across the desert.

“Not only can we better chart their point of entry, but it is becoming more common for migrants to dial 911 [in an emergency] and through the GPS signals we get from their phones, we can get to them before it becomes critical,” explains Corona.

Still, a majority of undocumented immigrants are unlikely to carry cell phones. And even if they did, the fear of getting caught and facing potential sentences of between three and five years would deter them from making that call. It also means that many don’t carry identification.

In the Valley of the Dead

“The problem is that most of the time their bodies are found days, weeks, or years after they die. Sometimes authorities only find a femur or just a few bones,” said Jesus Gutierrez, head of the Legal Protection department for the Mexican Consulate in Calexico.

In such cases, legal protocol requires authorities to contact the Mexican consulate in a specific jurisdiction and work in tandem with them to try to ID the deceased. In cases where identification is not possible, the coroner’s office saves samples of the remains with a view toward future DNA identification, which is costly and done sparingly at best.

“No matter how many fences the U.S. government builds, as long as the economic disparities between this country and the countries of Latin America persist, people will try to come, legally or not,” said Morones, adding that any given day along the U.S.-Mexico border could be a “day of the dead.”

Immigrant rights advocates like Morones warn in fact that with the growing trend of mass deportations, carried out with particular zeal under the current administration, migrants are becoming more desperate to return, with greater numbers likely to perish under the desert sun.

According to official figures, between January and June 2011, the U.S. government has carried out more than 46,000 deportations of parents whose children are U.S. citizens. While there is no solid government data regarding the number of children left behind, the New York-based think tank Applied Research Center, which works to foster racial justice, estimates that at least 5,100 children have ended up in foster homes.

In the next five years, says ARC, that figure could reach 15,000.

“Do you think those parents who have been deported will remain in their countries knowing that their children are here?” asks Anita Nicklem, who lives in the Imperial Valley and attended the ceremony at Terrace Park Cemetery. “Of course not. They will do whatever they can to come back and of course they will risk their lives in doing so,” she says.

Pointing to one of the nearby graves, she adds, “I could be one of them.”

This post was originally published by New America Media.


Related Stories:

Cain Proposes Electric Fence To Kill Illegal Immigrants

Failed Quick Deportation Program Quietly Shelved

Abused and Trafficked Women Losing Children Under Immigration Regime


Photo by Andres Rafael Luevano, New America Media


Richard Zane Smith

So...once land or resources are stolen...its unfortunately the legal property of the thief
if the thief writes it up and files it as legal ownership with other thieves?
interesting way of seeing things, but you're at least consistent with US conquest policy.
(Hope no one "discovers" and claims your car)

So if the Chinese eventually decide America really is a missing part of Asia and because it can DO it came by force and claimed'd shrugg and be ok with that too?

Christopher M.
Christopher M.6 years ago

Sorry again Richard, but ethnic cleansing true aside, what's done is done. America owns the land now. It is too late to give it back to the Indians or the Mexicans by centuries. Where would all the Americans go?

You have to deal with the present, you can't get the past back.

Stephan B.
Stephan B6 years ago

Guns are non-denominational with not political affiliations. Their intent is that of whom ever picks them up; guns are innocent, ironically.

Jane Barton
Jane Barton6 years ago

Bottom line on this subject, BIG BIZ AGRICULTURE lured Mexicans here to exploit them for cheap labor and then won't support them. They don't make enough money to live like humans, so the government gives them free food, free housing, free medical and free educations. I am a taxpayer and I am an American and I have to pay for all that stuff myself. I'm a poor person too like a lot of Americans. This isn't about compassion, this is about BIG BIZ screwing both Mexicans and poor Americans. Poor Americans are stuck with the bill for illegal aliens, that's all I'm saying, and all I want is a little "compassion" for me. I'm tired of being called names by Mexicans. They should be thanking me for all the help I have given them instead of calling me a racist and a white bitch. That's fair, isn't it?

Jane Barton
Jane Barton6 years ago

Immigrant, they are not getting guns FROM ME!! I keep telling you, I DIDN'T DO IT! Mexican drug cartels made up of MEXICANS, not AMERICANS, have killed 40,000 of their own people.
I am not a Mexican so I didn't do any of that. I didn't sell any Mexicans guns either. I'm innocent. I'm an American taxpayer and I can't help that either. What do you want from me?

Miranda Lyon
Miranda Lyon6 years ago

I note how many comments here...and in other articles on the subject of illegal entry into the US...include the question "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" to shut down a discussion of differences of opinion. I'd like to counter with "What part of 'common sense policy' and 'compassion' don't you understand?"

Stephan B.
Stephan B6 years ago

Heaven, Hell and golf course developments are all gated communities. I believe in closing the borders, and to have reciprocal policies regarding illegal residence with other countries. You do not want to be an American in Mexico with out a visa of passport; you will be a long way from ever reaching home. Corruption and their Constitution will keep you there.

Our own US consulate told me it is not safe in Mexico from the just and the unjust. How many American are j;umping fences to get into Mexico??

All that said, we have to recognize the corruption of Mexico's old families and cartels. There is one estimate that 1/2% of Mexico's elite have 40% of the Nations wealth off shore.

Mexico may is a major threat to America; not its people, but its corruption and policies.

Stephan B.
Stephan B6 years ago

Sorry to intervene but here are some actual government statistics.

Households With a Gun Adults Owning a Gun Adults Owning a Handgun
Percentage 40-45% 30-34% 17-19%
Number 47-53 million 70-80 million 40-45 million

For a point of reference, there are only 300,000,000 people in the US. And the statistics are for mostly registered guns, not unregistered or those, still lethal, collectable or antique.

The Unites State supplies about 70% of the Worlds weapons. There are few restrictions on the off shore resale of them to our enemies.and in many cases, such as Taliban, we armed them in the 80s as they were freedom fighters in Afghanistan and we were, superstitiously, fighting the USSR.

Out troops are being shot at by American weapons, among others from United Nations member countries.

Kelly W.
Kelly W6 years ago

Um, immigrant, we are allowed to own guns in America. And that number is actually closer to 7,000. That is not where Mexico gets the majority of it's guns.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.