Posts Tagged ‘immigrant deaths’

Breathing in Our Dead and the Spirit of Immigration Reform

August 13, 2013


Of all our senses, the one that can most alter U.S. immigration history — and U.S. history itself — is our sense of smell. If we could, for example, magically bring the smell in the freezers of the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office to politicians, advocates and voters on either side of the immigration debate, the current bipartisan push for a “border surge” would die faster than a cricket stung by a scorpion in the extremely arid stretch of desert known as the “Devil’s Highway.”

I visited the Medical Examiner’s office and the Devil’s Highway, where most of the bodies of the migrants tagged “John Doe” were recovered, as part of the film project produced by with the help of filmmaker Jason Michael Aragon of Pan Left Productions. Our goal: to document the impact of border security policies on communities living and working — and traveling — in and around border towns like Tucson.

“Don’t stay in [the freezer] too long,” Dr. Gregory Hess, the very gregarious and straight-laced Chief Medical Examiner, told us as if he were Virgil warning Dante against being too curious about the Inferno. “We try to get in and out as quickly as possible. After a few minutes in there, the smell will stick to your clothes — and it’s hard to wash out.” Forty-five minutes of filming later, we more than understood the cold wisdom Dr. Hess was dropping on us.

What we didn’t yet understand was what the smell of 100 decomposing bodies does to your spirit long after you get the smell out of your clothes. Almost two weeks later, my time in the freezer inspires thoughts of how spiritus, the Latin word for “spirit” and “soul,” is directly related to spirare, the Latin word for “breath”, “vigor” and what in spanish we call “animo.”

Breathing in the spirits of the dead causes an intense conflict in the stomach, a conflict between profound sadness and the amino to live and fight on. Hess’ matter-of-fact statements add even more tightness in the belly.

“Previous attempts to increase border security have not decreased the number of bodies we see here in the freezer,” Hess told us. “In June, we registered more than 30 deaths, a very significant increase.”

In the fight to end border militarization and what activists in Tucson and other border states call the “border overkill” at the heart of comprehensive immigration reform, nothing in Tucson or anywhere else matches the persuasive power of the smells emanating from the stiff, dehydrated and decomposing dreams stored in white body bags; Not Hess’ map with the red dots signifying locations of the more than 6,000 immigrants who have died from heat and dehydration in the desert since “increased border security” began in earnest in 1994; Not the scholarly reports on Hess’ bookshelf with titles like “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border”; Not the colorful crosses used in protests against “border militarization” and “racial profiling” of entire border communities; Not even the tears and pain-packed words of mothers like Guadalupe Guerrero who told us about how her unarmed U.S. citizen son, Carlos, was shot and killed by Border Patrol agents. None of these facts and stories match the gut-wrenching smell I first came to know in the 1980s and ’90s, when the war in El Salvador filled “fosas comunes” (mass graves) with the skeletons and dirt-filled clothes of with victims of war.

Two weeks after I visited Tucson, the smell in the freezer inspires the will to peace, the necessary will to end the war — in this case, the war on immigrants. In the same way that smells and steam of desert plants like the ceresote, sage or the hediondilla (literally “little smelly one”) plant have long been used by local native and Mexican people as curative plants that relieve gut-wrenching pain and discomfort and other ailments, the smell of the freezer can and should cure us of the disease of “border security.” And in doing so, we will have made the bodies of the desert dead in the bags a little less anonymous — and a little more like the long line of peacemakers in the desert.

This post appeared originally on See hard-hitting new video by & Jason Michael Aragon of Panleft Productions:

66 Deaths in Immigrant Prisons Signal Need to Shut Down ICE

May 6, 2008

The New York Times

This hugely important story by the New York Time’s Nina Bernstein, hands-down best immigration reporter in the U.S., is a must read. It tells the story of Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea who overstayed his tourist visa. According to Bernstein, who secured documents about Bah and 65 other imimgrants who died under questionable circumstances in immigrant prisons run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and its subcontractors, Bah’s family did not know what was happening to until his

“… frantic relatives located him at University Hospital in Newark on Feb. 5, 2007, he was in a coma after emergency surgery for a skull fracture and multiple brain hemorrhages. He died there four months later without ever waking up, leaving family members on two continents trying to find out why.

Bah’s is but one of the 66 stories of individuals who died in immigration custody between January 2004 to November 2007.

66, more than the number of those who died while in custody at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo -combined.

In addition to the tragedy gripping the families of these victims, this report sends an unmistakable signal to the immigrant rights community: the dehumanization of immigrants has reached deadly institutional levels. Such high levels of death among detained migrants prove that the “Stop the raids!” slogans and calls for reform are of limited value.

Some of us need to raise the ante beyond the important but ultimately reformist calls to improve conditions in the jails; Some of us need to call for Congress to shut down the factory of death and dehumanization: the ICE. This latest proof of the damage wrought by the exponential growth of official and extra-official dehumanization of migrants joins the destruction already wrought by the most militarized branch of the federal government besides the Pentagon, ICE: thousands of raids, militarization of immigration policy, hyper-profits wrought by its military-prison industrial subcontractors, thousands of DEAD in the desert (many more than the 1000 conservative estimate reported in the article)

Thousands of dead.

Thousands of dead.

Yes, I said thousands of dead.

Rather than simply allow ICE to continue its big money PR campaigns to “humanize” its image, some might also consider the tactic of starting the ball rolling by temporarily closing ICE offices themselves. As I’ve suggested here and here, you don’t need 400,000 to 1 million marchers to close down an ICE office; As Salvadorans and their supporters proved when they used to close federal buildings and other facilities with a few hundred people in the 1980’s, all you need are enough citizens (no need to put the undocumented at risk and, those are, after all, our tax dollars paying for ICE and its subcontractor’s death factory running.) concerned about death and (tax) dollars. As the campaign to shut down the nefarious Hutto prison shows, taking the political offensive against ICE does have an effect.

The main point is to take the onus off of immigrants and put it where it belongs-on ICE, the agency that divides families, terrorizes entire communities and kills immigrants. Such an dangerous agency doesn’t need reform; It needs to be closed down. In the face of such catastrophic results wrought since the birth of ICE, closing them down marks the beginning of any “immigration reform” agenda.