TUCSON – Over 3,000 people have died, most of dehydration and heat exhaustion, since the implementation of tighter immigration policies in the 1990s by the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican border.

“In shocking contrast to the reporting of deaths in Palestine, deaths in Iraq, and deaths all over the world,” said Isabel Garcia, a human rights activist and public defender, “we have an enormous human rights crisis right on our border, only a few miles from Tucson, and people do not seem to care.”

Every new Border Patrol operation to further seal off the border has only increased the number of deaths, as migrants from Mexico have been funneled into ever harsher terrain. Over 400 migrants died in the Tucson sector alone in 2003. This year’s figure is breaking previous records, with 55 deaths recorded thus far, and the season of searing heat in the desert has only just begun.

“How many more must die?” Garcia asked.

Profits have soared for those trafficking in human beings. Migrants are now viewed as valuable human cargo to be fought over by rival smugglers, who sometimes sell them into a state of virtual slavery or press them into the sex trade. Kidnappings, beatings, torture, abuse, rapes, fatal shootings, and car crashes from high-speed chases of drivers trying to elude the Border Patrol – as well as exposure to the elements in the desert – make this a virtual war zone.

Only last week a Tucson citizen, Lisa Marie Laguna, 27, tried to flee U.S. Border Patrol agents in her car. She died in a crash after she ran over spikes on the road set out by Border Patrol agents.

Since 9/11, the Bush administration has cited the nation’s security to justify the militarization of the border. Yet even Tucson Border Patrol Sector Chief David Aguilar admits, “99 percent of all migrants are only coming here to reunite with family members already here or to find jobs.”

A “Guantanamo style” holding area, roughly 3,000 square feet, was set up by the Border Patrol in a remote part of the Tohono O’odham Nation this spring. It is surrounded by a temporary fence, and has portable bathrooms and military-style tarps for shade. The only food offered to the detainees is crackers, say officials, because detentions are supposed to be short.

In the past month, 300-500 people have been waiting for buses to ferry them 55 at a time (a minimum three-hour round trip) to detention centers in Casa Grande, Tucson, or Nogales for processing.

“Do the math,” said Sarah Roberts, a nurse with Samaritan Patrol, a human rights group. “Detainees are being held with no food for hours and possibly days in an already stressed physical condition.”

The good news, however, is that volunteers opposed to the “deaths in the desert” are at an all-time high.

• About 150 religious leaders from throughout Arizona met and denounced the current border enforcement strategy as a failure, and urged making family reunification a cornerstone of policy instead. They called for an employment-focused immigration program that allows workers and their families to enter the U.S. to live and work safely, legally, and humanely through recognized ports of entry. They said the root causes of migration lie in environmental, economic, and trade inequities.

• “Arks of the Covenant” – planned volunteer desert camps providing water, food and medical help – will be set up Memorial Day weekend and remain open at least through July. Reminiscent of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when religious groups aided refugees from war-torn Central America, this movement has spread nationwide. “All our efforts are within the federal provisions of humanitarian assistance,” said the Rev. John Fife, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church.

• The “No More Deaths” group is supplying goods, education, and support to migrants along the border. Volunteers from throughout the U.S. participate in search and rescue patrols and work in migrant shelters. To volunteer, call (520) 909-0636 or visit www.nomoredeaths.org.

• Thirty-five members of Border Action Network conducted a vigil April 18 on the lawn of Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard’s home, urging him to take action against vigilantes who prey on immigrants. BAN has also filed two lawsuits against such vigilantes.

The author can be reached at susan@susanthorpe.com.