Border-crossing deaths, disappearances called alarming
Grecia, an 18-year-old from Acapulco, Mexico, who was seven months pregnant, was one of many thousands of undocumented migrants who have attempted to cross the U.S. border through the Arizona desert.
Grecia was seeking to reunite with her mother, who was living in North Carolina, when she made the border crossing in July of 2007.
At the time, Sarah Bollinger, now a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in south St. Louis and coordinator of the Global Health Scholars in Medicine Program at Washington University, was working with the nonprofit Humane Borders organization, which puts water in the desert as a life-saving measure for those crossing the border. Grecia's sister, Libia, came to Tucson and met with Bollinger and others to seek help in trying to locate Grecia, who had gone missing.
For three months Libia lived with Bollinger and they spent all of their time, energy and resources searching for Grecia. Years after the disappearance, Libia and her family still struggle with the uncertainty and emotional suffering.
Bollinger's interest in the disappearance led her to research the situation and write her thesis on "The New Desaparecidos: Effects of Missing Migrants on Families of Sending Communities in Southern Mexico" in 2009 for her graduate work at the University of Arizona. The work has been cited many times since then by others researching the impact of border and immigration policies.
A dramatic increase in deaths of undocumented migrants is related to passage of Operation Gatekeeper and similar U.S. border enforcement strategies, Bollinger learned, as well as the disappearance of hundreds of men, women and children who attempt to migrate into the United States.
Dehydration and heat-related illnesses are a major cause of the deaths, Bollinger said. Despite efforts to distribute posters and other warnings, "we have found that most migrants don't know what they're getting into. They have paid someone (to smuggle them across the border) who tells them they'll be in Phoenix in an hour, yet Phoenix is a 10-day walk from the border ... these are places where people are walking and dying."
Citing studies, she said "there's definitely a causational relationship between how we hyper enforce and secure the border in certain areas and how that pushed the migrants to cross in areas that resulted in greater deaths."
Of significance also is the number of migrants who have disappeared, Bollinger said. The Pima County, Ariz., medical examiner's office alone has identified the bodies of some 1,700 border crossers. Bollinger said "it is a huge responsiblity to identify who these people are and match them with their family. In 2005, the county medical examiner rented a refrigerated truck and in 2007 completed an expansion of the refrigerated storage unit that more than triple the capacity to store remains."
Bollinger said she has tried to understand the experiences of the families seeking the missing as well as the response of the government and the Catholic Church on both sides of the border. She wrote that it affected her personally and triggered a moral obligation to pursue the work of bringing the families' voices to the public and addressing the role of policy as a cause of and as a way to improve devastating situations.
"I have had an opportunity to be exposed to and walk in the shoes of people," which others in the U.S. won't ever have a chance to do, Bollinger said. "I'm grateful for that, and I'm fully confident that anyone who has those opportunities would come to the same conclusion."
As a Catholic, she said, she came to a clear understanding that "even if you disagree with undocumented immigration or the border policy or the nature of the governments of the two nations, there still is a bottom line — the respect that our faith calls us to hold for the dignity of all human life."
Bollinger is inspired by Catholic leaders who have said, "This is enough, and we have to do something different because it's not OK for people to be dying and for families and communities to be suffering both from the deaths and the uncertainties of the disappearances."
The Church, she said, is the first place families go to for help to look for those who are lost and for support in dealing with a death or disappearance.
"It really is an opportunity for the Church to open her doors and say, 'This is what our Gospel teaches, and this is how we live it.'"
Yet a disconnect exists between what the Church teaches and the voices of Catholics, she said. "The Church teaches that we need to welcome our neighbor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked — give water to the thirsty. How is it that millions of Catholics in the United States have not taken up that cause in speaking of immigration reform and changing the way things are happening?"
Bollinger wants people to know that "it's not OK for more than 8,000 people to have died in the last 20 years when they come to the U.S. in search of a better life. We have to say we value human life more than that."
Policy changes could range from a complete border shutdown with armed guards every few feet to more humane responses, she suggested. "There can be a more structured way that respects the nature of the government system and allows us to achieve our responsibilities as Catholics."
For more detail on Grecia's story, see http://stlouisreview.com/rl6. For information on Bollinger's research, email her at email@example.com.
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