Who cares? Death and life on the U.S.-Mexico border

By the Rev. Keith D. Ray II

The church knows the importance of ritual at the time of death.

Tending lovingly to the body of a beloved after she has passed, preparing for the service that marks death and resurrection hope, standing at the final resting place and, in community, sharing words of our liturgy: “Almighty God, into your hands we commend your daughter, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” are integral to the process of grief and healing in our lives when we lose a loved one.

That’s why we recoil at the news of a death where there is no body to tend. Recall the images of grieving families when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was lost in 2014. The pain of loss was multiplied by the absence of the bodies of the 239 on board as death became more certain.

The border between the United States and Mexico is a place where bodies are often lost. Each year hundreds of migrants fleeing violence, economic despair, gang activity and the like perish as they seek to find a better life in the United States.

It hasn’t always been so. Between 1990 and 2000, there were an average of 12 migrant deaths per year in southern Arizona. Between 2000 and 2014, however, the average number of desert deaths increased to 170 per year.

Why? The increased militarization of the border during the Clinton presidency and beyond sought to wall off the primary pathways of migration, assuming that persons would not seek to cross the border through the harshest places of the desertlands. Clearly the government expectations were wrong. The safer and more accessible pathways were shut down, but the root causes of migration, the push and pull of economics and violence, were not addressed. So the people continue to come, risking their lives for the hope and promise of security and economic stability.

The Border Patrol has recorded more than 6,330 assumed migrant deaths along the border between 1998 and 2014. But does anyone care? In all of the talk around immigration and the border in the current election cycle, have we once heard a candidate talk about the number of persons who perish each year on our border? Most persons simply do not know about the spike in deaths in the desert since the increased militarization of the border.

The Colibrí Center for Human Rights is a family advocacy nonprofit based in Tucson, Arizona. The staff of Colibrí works with families, forensic scientists and humanitarians to end migrant death and related suffering on the United States-Mexico border. Primarily, Colibrí works with families to create forensically detailed missing persons reports, specializing in often-overlooked details like tattoos, prayer cards, belt buckles or other unique belongings. This information is then used to compare reports from forensic scientists and medical examiners to identify the dead.

Colibrí has developed the first comprehensive system to track and compare missing and unidentified persons on the border. This data helps identify more of the remains found in the desert so families might be given the dignity of caring for their beloved dead in ways that honor their traditions and faith.

This year I have been engaged in a pastoral study project funded by The Louisville Institute and the Lilly Endowment studying materials related to what is known as “compassion fatigue” or “vicarious trauma.” My focus has been on the well-being of the team at Colibrí. Working with families whose loved ones are missing, comparing information on missing persons with reports describing recovered human remains from the desert, searching for matches, advocating for change in immigration law and practice and maintaining a heart of compassion takes a toll on those who give of themselves to this sacred work.

My project has given me the opportunity to come to know this staff team and, in some small way, provide a place to process how to survive emotionally and spiritually this hard work. I recently returned from a week with the team, sharing conversations, shadowing their work and leading a retreat on the perils and prevention strategies around compassion fatigue.

Does anyone care that so many persons die on our border each year? Yes, some do. And if we are honest, so should we. We are the people of Jesus, the one who migrated from heaven to earth. And when he died the women tenderly cared for his body, participating in sacred rituals as he was placed in the tomb.

The work of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights gives witness to the voices of the dead and their beloved. Thanks to their work, those who die at the border of the United States are not forgotten. We now hear their cries, even as God surely does. And we recognize the sacredness and scandal that is found in the desertlands.

How can we not care now that we know?

Check out the work of Colibrí by visiting their website at Support their work. Pray for them and for all the dead who have perished in the desert, our desert, that we will learn from them a better way.

Ray pastors Clemson United Methodist Church, Clemson.

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