Reporting an old story: Why covering the migrant crisis in the desert matters today

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Published on: December 1, 2022

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For over three decades, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Maria Hinojosa has been covering immigration policies in the U.S. In her first piece for Futuro Investigates, she reflects on why the crisis of migrants crossing the desert, a decades-old story, should matter to all of us right now.

Reporting an Old Story

More than one fellow journalist has asked me why I would want to investigate migrant and refugee deaths in the desert.

“Isn’t that a bit of an old story?” one told me. 

“There is nothing new happening there,” another said.

Those statements felt belittling and defeating.

When my team and I went down to report in Tucson, Arizona, I spoke with Reverend John Fife to see what he had to say about such matters. Fife is known as one of the people who created the modern sanctuary movement in the U.S. in the 1980s. And what he told me affirmed my journalistic instinct to go back and report on an “old story.”

Fife recounted that he got involved in human rights on the border after a conversation with a colleague about the killings of Jewish people in Europe. He pointed to almost the total failure of the church in Europe and the United States to protect Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. “And that cost millions of lives, that failure of faith by the church,” he said. Then he looked me right in the eye, and added, “I don’t think we can allow that to happen on our border in our time, can we?”

During that same trip, I interviewed John Hess, the most non-political medical examiner I’ve ever met. We spoke in his office, surrounded by the remains of people who had died attempting to cross the border. Hess works to help identify the dead through DNA matching. I asked him if these were preventable deaths. 

He said that Border Patrol is an “immigration enforcement agency” that has been getting involved with search and recovery efforts because agents work on the border and have resources to do it. However, Hess questioned the lack of transparency from the agency about the outcome of such efforts. 

“You would like some outcome measure?” I asked. 

“Sure, that would be great. I think a lot of people would like to see what any of that means,” he replied.

I used to say I was “obsessed” with the horror of people, migrants and refugees, dying in the desert. But when I spoke with Francisco Cantú, who worked as a Border Patrol agent for four years, he offered another perspective.

“I think we should be haunted by these people. It should make us emotional. It should be hard to talk about it, even if you’re not somebody who has seen the body or known the name of somebody lost out there,” he said.  

Haunted. Not obsessed.

And, dear reader, I need you to be haunted, too.

In 2021, Futuro Unidad Hinojosa launched its investigative unit, “Futuro Investigates.” For our inaugural project, we decided to investigate the increasing number of migrant and refugee deaths taking place along the U.S.-Mexico border and the policies that have created the conditions for them. What we uncovered turned out to be more horrible than we had imagined.

It’s not just the prevention-through-deterrence policies, which both Republicans and Democrats have supported, that have pushed people to cross through the most dangerous parts of the desert that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border. 

It’s that the Border Patrol has embraced an enforcement strategy that intentionally leads to more deaths. And the agents who enact these strategies do so while claiming that they are helping to “save” lives.   

I’ve been reporting about the border — and from the border — since the mid-1980s. The first time I went there, the Border Patrol was holding migrants and refugees in a camp the detainees called el corralón, the corral — as in the place where you would keep cattle.

Back then, Border Patrol agents would round people up in large groups to detain and deport them. When journalists came to document their work, the agents would boast about how many migrants and refugees were crossing into the U.S. in and how many they apprehended each day, sounding as if they were fishermen showing off their catch-of-the-day. It was disgusting and dehumanizing.

These days, they are using a tactic that’s often called “dispersion.” When Border Patrol agents spot a group crossing, they swoop down on them with helicopters and chase them with high-speed trucks to force them to scatter. People are separated and, in turn, forced to walk in the desert alone. Many times, they must walk after injuring themselves while running away in panic. 

A twisted ankle can slow down their journey by hours and even days — and that can be the difference between life and death.

Dispersion does not save lives.

During our time together, local human rights activists recalled that the border wall used to be 15 feet high. Now it stands at a whopping 30 feet. 

A higher wall does not save lives.

The Border Patrol’s narrative  —which, as journalists, we cannot take at face value— will frame agents as heroes who are focused on saving lives. Our investigation shows that this is not true.

As Cantú told us, it’s as if an arsonist sets a house on fire, and then comes in dressed as a firefighter, puts out the flames and asks to be called a hero.

The story of deaths in the desert has pushed me to my limits, emotional and physical. Having suffered from extreme heat exposure while reporting in 2012 from Guam, I had to minimize my time in the desert. As it turns out, once you’ve had heat exposure once, you’re much more likely to have it again. And in no way did I want to become the story.

Now, think about the people who embark in this journey and don’t have the knowledge or privilege of considering the consequences. Think about how much higher are their chances of walking into the desert and never getting out. 

After our year-long investigation, one thing is for sure: I am no longer obsessed with this story. I am haunted by it. Haunted by everything I’ve seen.

And until everyone is haunted by these avoidable deaths, I won’t stop reporting on them. 

This story is not old news. It’s news that is still happening. Right now. At this very moment.

So, what will you do about it?

Banner photo by Julieta Martinelli for Futuro Media.

The work of Futuro Investigates is made possible by the W.K.Kellogg Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Tow Foundation, the Geraldine H. Dodge Foundation, Michelle Mercer and Bruce Golden, and Hispanics in Philanthropy.

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