Mapping Migrants’ Deaths along National Divides

The attempts of art students schooled in techniques of facial reconstruction at the New York Academy of Art to use artistic abilities in the service of forensic reconstruction to preserve the faces of migrants, in a new project that seeks to restore dignity to these victims of the border, if not to hope to bring them back to life, offers a broader context than the poetic detritus that have been encountered along the border, preserved in terrifyingly mute photographs of isolated commodities migrants left in their wake, at least to respect their tragic loss and the tragedy of their bodies’ fate.

Richard Misrach

The terrifying distribution of migrants’ deaths near to the US-Mexico border over the past decade are difficult to confront.  While he border is a line, the deaths are not able to be tied to one place, or vector of location, but congregate along the border, from which they bleed into the edge of the nation in ways that strikes one in the gut, following the paths of those who have risked passage across the desert, alone or in groups.  Their striking distribution in a set of overlapping red dots suggest the accumulation of a terrifying loss of life that have been the costs of globalization and of closing borders to immigration.  The attempt to invest these terrifying deaths with some sense of a proper funeral and form of remembrance are suggested in the project of the identification of the dead that appear only as point data to which the decomposed remains of migrants are so often reduced.  And in some sense, the attempts at facial reconstruction of those who have been killed during the experience of transborder flight is attempted in the exercise of facial reconstruction, which as if in an improvised transformation of the art studio to a morgue confers some sense of dignity to the dead, whose faces look out at us, if stripped of names.


New York Academy of Art Classes/Vincent Tullo/New York Times

The restoration of identity to these remains, as migrant deaths continue to escalate, are an attempt to call attention to the actual enormities of the scale of migrant deaths of those attempting to cross into the nation since 2001, and online posting of these clay images in NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System of the National Institute of Justice, but barely skim the surface of the almost 3,000 remains of migrants that have been discovered and geolocated in the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative.  But how such a growth of deaths can be embodied–and the ethics of doing so–remains a pressing and compelling question as the numbers of deaths of migrants continues to grow, even as we are told that attempted border crossings decline.

The deaths of these deceased migrants–not only “undocumented” but stripped of identity save the story of the terrifying circumstances of their deaths, often able to be reconstructed,  raise compelling questions about how we have allowed or tolerated the multiplication of the deaths of migrants who undertake cross-border transit to grow.  For there is a clear inhumanity of compelling migrants to undertake arduous voyages across long, uninhabited stretches of land and undue difficulties that demands to be confronted, and we are forced to come to terms with their loss, if only to ask about the absence of any assistance that was offered to them, and the extreme isolation of such attempts at concealed travel that is something of the analogy to the underground railroad in which African American slaves followed the course of stars to navigate northward on food.

The maps invite us to with the scale of the loss of life and a universal problem of processing the undocumented, and compel us to try to arrive at a better process for managing the nation’s borders, based less on strategies of exclusion:   one is left silent trying to process the 2,000 corpses of migrants who died attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States–many found in different states of decomposition in the Sonora desert near Arizona‘s borderline with Mexico.  For the pathways of many migrants trying to circumvent increased border patrols has transformed the lands of many state counties into killing fields.  The recent plans to augment the place of stationed surveillance agents along the border by Donald Trump will not only compel more cross-border transits to be planned and accomplished, but place undue duress on the even greater difficulties to evade surveillance in the expanded borderlands through the interruptions of built boundary walls, and those who attempt to avoid apprehension or detection by travels through the desert.

1:3 border is fenced  NPR

Already Built Barriers and Walls (2013)

Misrach, Border Signs

Richard Misrach

Mapping these deaths over the past decade reveals less of a single cause than something of a social pathology of heightened strategies of law enforcement:  despite increased border patrols, motion sensors, and new border fences, the Department of Homeland Security has been forced to create temporary morgues in refrigerated semi-trailers to accommodate remains, mobilizing forensic experts, and posing problems of mitigating migrant deaths.  Despite recent attempts to help migrants who travel through the high desert in an attempt to reach a highway where they can be met by setting up conspicuous water towers, mounting body counts have come to task the resources of many Texas and Arizona counties like Brooks County in southeastern Texas or Pima county in Arizona.  Even after autopsies and DNA sampling and identification, most of the one to two hundred corpses found so far in 2013 are unidentified.  The corpses suggest the crisis of the border as it exists is a crisis of management, as much as of policing, and of adequate supervision and attention to migration problems.

The remains of those attempting to cross the border make only the point of testing one’s sense of humanity against the recurrent tragedies and human casualties of the failure to deal with our borders.  The below map locates tragic deaths of migrants attempting to cross of the border, noted in red dots, against water stations placed in the region.  While there can be less of a single cause of these , poses problems of responding to their spike over the thirteen years.

Migrant Deaths and Water Stations, 1999-2012

The semantics of this map of migrant deaths across the Sonoran desert, a poster for Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas, bears contemplation:  whereas a map registers an abstraction of space removed from particularities, and a border line demarcates imaginary lines between states, often drawn by surveyors with adequate surveying tools, bounding regional entities of abstract names, the abundant red dots are markers of individual migrants’ deaths, and register actual effects of a erecting an insurmountable fence along the border-line.

A border patrol vehicle observes six miles of border fencing in Douglas, Arizona

Leaving aside the many documented instances of mistreatment by border patrols, the recent rise of deaths by starvation or dehydration raise questions about the defense of borders.  Despite diminishing net migration across the border in recent years, the discovery of remains of some two hundred bodies of migrants each year in the Sonora desert, as measured by the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project, roughly a third of which remain unidentified, indicate divergences between the law’s intent and its effects.

The mapping of border deaths of migrants, many clustered against the border that they had crossed, make a case against our failure to formulate a comprehensive border policy as obstinately as individual migrants’ remains.


Remains in Pima County Medical Examiner (Joshua Lott/NY Times)

It’s morally difficult to absorb the evidence of individual deaths, which densely overlap with one another near the border in a red field, let alone the skeletal remains of individuals who never made the cross-border travel successfully:  it’s perhaps impossible to sum up the loss of lives in maps charting the record numbers of migrant deaths around the Mexican-US border, dramatically risen to record highs since 2003, during the year after they were strengthened and reinforced at considerable expense.

What has such attention to the border with Mexico accomplished?  In the past year alone, US Border Patrols apprehended some  356,000 immigrants as they attempted to cross the boundary line illegally, considered to be roughly half of all attempts–at least 43% are likely to try to cross again; immigration reform has lent new urgency to migrants’ repeated attempts to try to cross the border after repeated detentions, moreover, since a “path to citizenship” would require prior residence.   (Roughly over 60% of such attempted migrants are construction or agricultural workers, largely male, half of whom claimed to have waiting jobs.)

This raises interesting questions of the ethics of mapping migrant deaths.  The number of deaths due to drowning, dehydration, or other accident occur as migrants try to secure a path across the border the United States shares with Mexico, and are pressed to seek routes of relocation across the desert or Rio Grande that evade American authorities who have come to police the zone–a region that is now policed as if in imaginary defense of the boundaries of the Old West or mythical frontier of the “fatal environment” that leads ranchers to ride horses beside Homeland Security officers, largely for symbolism or show.

John More:Getty Images-Cowboys on Borders

(John Moore/Getty Images)

There is something oddly compelling in repeated attempts to redraw this most fluid and open of borders, over which so many pass and where traffic was barely policed thirty years ago, in the face of the unyielding refusal of immigration to cease.  What have been its effects?   Even as the number of border crossings dramatically declined, as migrant deaths increased: border crossings occur in more remote areas removed from surveillance and patrols, which since 2005 have reached an all-time high of over 18,500, the average agent of which makes under twenty arrests each year.  Indeed, the difficulty of crossing at Tecate or near San Diego have pushed most to the Arizona desert east of Nogales.

The possibility of placing deaths along a much-policed national border starts from a wish to draw attention to the intervention and prevention of crossing-related deaths, and indeed map a network of help around the remote areas migrants have so often failed to cross.  Since the addition of some 6,000 guards introduced along the US-Mexico border in 2006 in response to “intense emotions,” introducing physical barriers along the border to transform a surveyor’s imaginary line to a barrier from Tijuana to the Rio Grande, inserting a 700-mile fence to bridge existing barriers in what was already the world’s busiest border crossing–stationing troops “to strengthen our borders and protect our families,” as then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert cheerleaded.


The redrawing of this border by obstructions and surveillance amplified by the presence of a National Guard attempted to show the US to be “in full control of its borders,” as if the country was leaky or plagued by vulnerability.  Yet the sort of “control” brought by hi-tech fences, motion sensors, and border patrol roads was oblivious to the still-faceless figure of the migrant worker who long crossed it of economic necessity, sealing the border as if by a medical quarantine–or fencing out of animals–that stoked fear of the migrant as the interloper in an otherwise solid national economy, appealing to militaristic values even while assuring the neighbor of the frontier that the President was “not going to militarize the southern border”–although the increased deployment of troops recalled the deployment of Patrols in the 1919-21 Border War which established the current border line, and echoed the manned surveillance flights that ran from Nogales and Marfa through 1921, in a similar unilateral declaration of the defense of borderlands.


If the current beefing up of the US-Mexican border echoes the unilateral declaration of policing the border with military in the Border War, the creation of physical barriers exceeds it in trumpeting selective rights of state sovereignty above their consequences to individual lives.  The imposition of the wall, moreover, has led to fewer apprehensions of border-crossers despite considerable increases in technology, manpower, and expense.  (A  recent survey conducted by the University of Arizona’s National Center for Border Security and Immigration unsurprisingly found that “Regardless of the consequences and dangers of crossing, however, many detainees remarked that the need to come to the United States is greater than any deterrent.”)


Yet the consequences of unilateral imposition of a militarized border are only beginning to be mapped.  The volunteer-based group Humane Borders, organized with the aim of mitigating or reducing migrant deaths in the desert–a danger that long predates border patrols.

The dangers of migrant death were iconically represented highway signs of fleeing nuclear families placed by the lanes of cars hurtling down I-5 near the border in the mid-1980s, ostensibly to dissuade border-crossing but even more to prevent “illegals” who tried to run cross its lanes–one traffic sign that has by now found its way into the “History of California” section of the Oakland Museum of California.

Sign Warning of Illegal Immigrants Crossing Road

Such an icon of Mexican families on the run, first posted along Interstate 5 and other roads on the border, terrifyingly naturalized images as normalized highway signage–the faceless black silhouettes of the nameless fugitive family standing in for the unidentified bodies of those killed from the late 1980s. The faceless-ness of this image of the migrant family has only begun to change–and the scope of deaths of migrants crossing the US-Mexican border realized–with the attempt to map, by self-reported GIS data, in a new initiative,  the locations, sex, and number of deaths.  If earlier highway signs oddly echo deer warnings or falling rocks, more than warnings of pedestrians, a family on the run as fugitives naturalized an image of migrants’ perils, the mapping of migrant deaths process the loss of ramping up both border-security and patrols.

Although deaths in the desert account for only a number of migrant deaths for much of the 2000-2004, migrants seeking to evade border police certainly dramatically grew at the same time.  The number of those detained at the border has certainly rapidly diminished since the time in 1999 when border guards detained 1.5 million immigrants–compared to 356,000 in 2012–numbers of individual casualties are considerable, and have grown:  which brings us to the question of mapping border deaths, even if the maps cannot reveal the faces on the migrants who died in their journey.


Attempts to navigate routes through regions of the Sonoran desert to evade border police–as much as the dangers of highway or interstate crossing en famille–have led to a loss of life rarely measured and not easily processed.  Rather than due to fatalities inflicted by guards or the military–or surveillance planes–these deaths are often due to the extremes to which migrants will go in their search for a path across the desert, often bringing dehydration:  migrant deaths doubled from 2001 to 2002, in large part due to the constraints faced by trying to escape the heightened policing of border lands in Texas and Arizona, and particularly in the Sonora desert. Border-crossing deaths occurred from multiple reasons, less from failed highway crossings, today, than from starvation, or dehydration among families who have paid to be smuggled, or undertaken journeys on their own out of desperation, are both difficult to tabulate or record–how many bodies are ever discovered?–and even raise challenging questions of recognition of bodies of missing persons by forensic experts.  Each year, some 500,000 attempt to enter cross the US border, and perceived vulnerability of the southern border led to an improvised patchwork of steel and concrete fences that cross often pristine desert, as well as networks of infrared cameras, sensors, drones, and some nearly 20,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents that migrants seek to evade.  The consequences of policing the border-line creates an even more challenging barrier than the onrush of cars on freeways as it has encouraged attempts to cross the desert, with little guideposts or signs.


(David McNew/Getty Images)

Given the increase in border control or border patrols, the greatest costs occur as a result of the re-channeling of migration through deserts, where migrants face perils of dehydration in the Sonoran desert as they try to reach destinations abroad.  Humane Borders, working with landowners of individual plots near or in the desert, has worked to by self-reporting of migrant deaths on a GIS network to try to re-understand the barrier of the borderlands.  The possibility of creating a self-reported collation of recent deaths about the conditions in which attempted migrants die along the shared border of Arizona and Mexico, collaborating with land owners, after receiving a 2005 donation of GIS software to assemble maps based on self-reported deaths over time in trying to raise awareness of the deaths’ geographic distribution, and to plan the placement of water-stations at sites of need, in hopes to prevent the known–we can’t count the many unknown–migrant deaths in the west desert of Arizona.  The map, compiled and drawn by Dr. John F. Chamblee, who devotes volunteer time to compile individually reported statistics on GIS, provides a compelling poster calling attention to the possibility of responding to needless deaths:  the data visualization of reported cases where migrants crossing the border died attempts to mitigate rising deaths:  the map placing deaths beside the water stations situated to diminish danger to those in the desert–and not only migrants–organizes a compelling visual argument about the lack of attention to migrant deaths.

Migrant Deaths and Water Stations, 1999-2012

If the dense overlap among red dots signifying loss of life overwhelms, magnification on an individual section can leaves one pondering the questions of this loss of life in awe:  the vast majority of these deaths are due to dehydration, a similar proportion to the thousand deaths of hopeful migrants that occurred in the California and Arizona desert between 2000 and 2004.  To respond to the rise in migrant deaths that first rose in that year to 71, and in attempt to “take death out of the immigration equation,” situated both beacons and water stations in the Sonoran desert at strategic sites to respond to the tragic spike of migrant deaths:

2000-2007 deaths:beacons:stations

The number of migrant deaths mapped above locates 1138 migrants at various stages of the trajectories of their paths past the border.  The impact of the density of deaths is even greater when one maps a portion of the 2,269 deaths on the Arizona border, focussing at enlarged scale on the area between Tuscon and Nogales, over the period 1999-2011, noting water-stations at blue icons in the Sonoran desert, to better illustrate the number of individual lives lost over twelve years:

GIS Mapping of Individual Deaths on Arizona Border

Among the some 2,000 deaths of Mexican migrants between the months of October, 1999 to mid-August, 2005, there was a disproportionate amount of deaths due to dehydration occurring within a range of cell phone coverage in the Desert, and the installation of a set of cell phone towers to restore cel phone signals in the sweltering desert promises to end the relative inaccessibility of victims of heat-related deaths.  Humane Borders submitted a proposal to install fifteen cell phone towers in 2005 to ensure greater coverage in an area mapping onto the region of densest number of unnecessary migrant deaths, with hopes of making a critical difference, and allowing migrants to make emergency calls on the cells that are often found on their bodies:  the Border Patrol Search, Rescue, and Trauma team (BORSTAR) dramatically its  migrant rescues in Arizona’s western desert as a result.

Cumulative Migrant Deaths, 2000-2004

A map even more striking when one examines the area within the ring of a lack of coverage, where the absence of cell phone coverage seem to map  true no-man’s land, which most seem to have attempted to cross without maps:

cell Phone Ring of Migrant deaths

Can one imagine how many deaths that occurred outside of cel phone range might have been able to register their loss of directional bearings (or water) as they navigated the empty spaces of the Sonoran desert without clear bearings in sight? The clusters of migrant deaths that lie just outside of a fairly fragmented cell-phone range raises unanswered questions that will never be resolved, but each red dot, each loss of life, and especially the dense cluster south of Sells, hints at the possibility that they could have easily been saved.

Out of Cel Range?

Most of these “bodies on the border” cannot be recognized from the remains discovered after an individual had gone missing: yet as we map the range of missing ‘illegal’ migrants, and the recent spike of border deaths in the Sonoran Desert from those counted in 2000 (71) to those counted in 2001 (74), 2002 (143), and 2005 (200), based on data compiled by Pima County’s Medical Examiner, reveal the inadequacy of immigration reform in the huge rise of deaths along the borderlands from September 11, 2001–when increased fences, border guards, and security towers first encouraged many to undertake border crossing without maps to avoid surveillance around this curving line in the sand.

Line in the Sand

John Moore/Getty Images

The environmental impact of these border fences on species that live across lands that the fence divides has recently come up for review, noting that animals such as the Ocelot or Jaguarundi in the Rio Grande would be adversely affected by the 21 fences that obstruct drinking from the Rio Grande waters or may negatively impact wildlife management–notwithstanding some environmental successes.


The impact or cost of deaths during attempted border crossings  among those who pay for being smuggled across the Southwestern deserts can never be adequately mapped.  What map can express the losses of life that the definition and maintaining of a border for the right to protect one nation from the imagined dangers of illegal immigration or illicit drugs has created?  What losses are incurred by invoking the “illegality” of a previously fluid border, or, more to the point, the militarization of the patrol and surveillance along that border–changes that have perpetuated an image of the walls that define the border more akin to a wall of mourning than a frontier or territorial demarcation?


Beyond the rhetoric of protecting the rights of a nation’s inhabitants, is it ethical insist on protection at the cost of discounting the value of the lives of citizens of other states?  We run into logical and legal problems in presuming a sovereign right to protect borders whose tightening comes at the cost of such dramatic an increase in migrant lives–a cost that we cannot ever hope to map or commemorate in fully adequate ways.


Nogales border at night


Filed under boundaries, data visualization, GIS, mortality maps, US Border Patrol, US-Mexico Border

2 responses to “Mapping Migrants’ Deaths along National Divides

  1. Just what kind of post-modern gibberish is this? I saw at least five sentences in the first bit where you clearly got confused and didn’t finish it, since you start out in a way that implies you are trying to make a point. Or maybe that’s just the way post modernist duckspeak is written? Who knows. In any case, the topics you cover are actually quite interesting but, why do you have to use all your big school words? Just use normal people words and more people will be able to tell what the fuck you’re talking about!

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