Pragmatic Sanctuary: Preventing Deaths in the Desert

Jack Kiryk | December 2020

Death has been a menace immigrants face and a specter immigration agents have consorted with for decades. Today, however, its intentional employment along the border by American immigration enforcement is more prominent and less deniable than ever. This contemporary shift of death to center stage has forced the age-old act of sanctuary to alter its mission and reorient its focus. Rather than solely maintaining places of refuge, many sanctuary actors today partake in radical, life-saving actions and often contend with immigration forces.

Auxiliary sanctuary work today has taken on the dual task of offering life-saving actions in the desert and political lobbying aimed at altering policy. Groups such Samaritans and No More Deaths have expanded their work into the desert to offer sanctuary from death imposed by contemporary immigration policy. While saving lives in the inhospitable desert must continue, a pragmatic shift to influence policy has become as important. There must be combined action, but the opportunity to influence policy must take a leading role. As Americans stand in the position to radically alter immigration policy, sanctuary work must grab this chance to redefine immigration and save lives.

The United States countenanced the possibility of death by introducing Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD). Prior to this, border crossings transpired in far more populated cities and crossers avoided the perilous, empty desert terrain. Anthropologist Jason de León likens the trek through Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, a common contemporary crossing route, to “walking between great fires…it feels more like walking directly through flames” (23, 30). Knowing that the desert presented these mortal dangers, PTD flooded highly-trafficked entry points with immigration agents, surveillance technology, and resources so as to make safer crossing points virtually impossible. These changes effectively pushed immigrants to the desolate corners of the border where the natural elements and the border patrol forged an alliance.

PTD directly led to a sharp increase in border deaths. Since 2001, over 3,000 immigrants have died in a single county in southern Arizona. The inhospitable border sections in neighboring states likely claim just as many lives. A 1994 Immigration and Naturalization Services (the forerunner to today’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE) strategic report spelled out the agency’s aspirations in no uncertain terms: “the Border Patrol will improve control of the border by implementing a strategy of ‘prevention through deterrence.’ … many will consider it futile to continue to attempt illegal entry.”

Similar to policies that keep the deportation of nearly all asylees out of sight, the deaths caused by DPT were pushed out of the view of much of America. After all, who would witness these deaths occurring in an uncompromising no-man’s-land? De León summarizes that “the isolation of the desert combined with the public perception of the border as a zone ruled by chaos allows the state to justify using extraordinary measures to control and exclude” (28). This shaping of the public perception facilitates the gross ease with which these deaths are pushed aside in the mainstream American psyche.

Lawmakers and federal agencies are aware of the deadly effects of PTD. While border deaths may be out of sight for the general American populace, the federal government has known about this effect of PTD since 2010 (at the latest). The most explicit offering yet is a congressional report delivered in 2010 that stated that “the policy has had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of fatalities along the border.” If sanctuary work is able to bring the horrors of current policy to the attention of incoming legislators, many lives can be saved. 

With Biden entering the White House, an opportunity to restructure the brutal existent system is emerging. The bipartisan rapprochement to Trump’s immigration policies provides the first piece of energy necessary to recognize and remove the legislation that facilitated the deaths of so many. While former Democratic leadership has failed on this front, the deportations and stringent immigration policies of the Obama administration are something today’s Democratic Party appears eager to move away from, with many Democratic leaders supporting border crossing decriminalization and other broad reforms. Biden has announced a one hundred day stay of all deportations under his administration and has called the Obama-era deportation policies “a big mistake.” Sanctuary workers currently engaged in life-saving work in the desert are presented with a pragmatic opportunity to influence the national discussion and federal policy by offering testimonies bearing witness to PTD’s human cost.

If sanctuary organizations focus their efforts on federal policy change in addition to desert aid, they have the potential to bring the evils of current immigration policy to an end. Organizations like Samaritans have already taken a pragmatic approach with the goal of saving the most lives, working to gain permits to leave water in the desert from landowners and the federal government. This reduces the likelihood of border agents destroying these rations, arresting sanctuary workers, or raiding operations. Applying a similarly pragmatic approach to influence policy and public opinion is the best way to dramatically reduce the number of deaths at the border. And yes, there is still a need for immediate action. Where people are dying from exposure, aid must be offered. Where such aid is impossible to provide without government partnership, that partnership must be sought. But this is not enough. Sanctuary work must now challenge the policies that introduced and enabled PTD. We have the opportunity to bring the evils of PTD into the public view and challenge its legal foundation. We must take it.

The time is arriving for immigration change and border control restructuring, and sanctuary work would be most effective by testifying. Combining on the groundwork with a robust effort to influence political change is the next step sanctuary work should take to eliminate the system that produces death and deportations. The time to challenge the political structure behind Prevention Through Deterrence is upon us.