We say we are a moral people, and we are. In response to all the desert deaths, we have placed call beacons, launched a Border Patrol rescue team, placed water stations, conducted humanitarian patrols, built first aid camps, and worked to reunite remains with loved ones.

All these efforts are after the fact, but it’s the last I find hardest to take.

The need for this gruesome and tragic work first became apparent in the late 1990s, when border wall-building and increased enforcement closed off traditional crossing points for migrant workers in Texas and California, as well as every other urban area on the border. This strategy, known as “effective deterrence,” resulted in people having to go much farther out into the desert to have even a chance at success.

Between 1990 and 1999, there were an average of 12 desert deaths per year in Southern Arizona. Since 2000, the average number has been 156 per year.

In the mid-2000s, the Pima County Medical Examiner put out a call for help. Bodies were stacking up, and there was no one to help identify them, much less match them with families looking for lost relatives. This was not the typical job of the medical examiner.

Seattle native Robin Reineke, then a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Arizona, took on the task. Collaborating with the medical examiner, the Mexican government, and other groups, she’s been able to identify about 20 a year of the 900 or so unidentified sets of remains (out of a total of more than 2,500) found in Arizona deserts between 2001 and 2016.

It’s hard to identify a body that’s been decaying in the desert for days or weeks, let alone longer. Some IDs can be made through clothing, tattoos, scars, dental fillings and other markers. But many of the remains are little more than scattered bones, making DNA identification the only way to find out who they are.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that these people died trying to enter “without inspection.” Relatives of missing migrants, afraid of being identified and deported themselves, often don’t report the disappearance to authorities.

In 2013, Reineke’s work grew into the establishment of the nonprofit Colibri Center for Human Rights, for which she serves as director. The Calibri Center has been recognized by international humanitarian organizations and received support from major foundations. It recently raised $1 million to create a DNA database to help match more relatives with remains, as well as bring these grieving families together as they attempt to learn the fate of lost loved ones.

I am glad dead migrants are being identified and sent home to their families. It’s important and honorable work, and must continue. I commend and am grateful to Robin Reineke and the Colibri Center. But the effort also strikes me as heartbreakingly too late.

After they’re dead, they have names. They have faces. They have families. Before they’re dead, they are illegal aliens, faceless hordes, brown masses. Why is that?

What if we cared as much when they were alive? What if we cared even a fraction as much? What if we treated them as individuals and human beings before they took that final march to their deaths in the desert?

Illegal Labor is Modern Slavery

A recent documentary about author James Baldwin showed a series of photographs of lynchings of black people in the South during the early 20th century. The photos portrayed bodies hanging, sometime two or three at a time, faces frozen in agony, while crowds of laughing, taunting, white people looked on, eyes blazing with fury and delight.

The eerie images reminded me of photos I’ve seen recently of other people who suffered agonizing deaths. Taken by the Pima County Medical Examiner, they are pictures of the dried, twisted faces and desiccated corpses of just a few of the nearly 7,000 migrants who’ve died trying to enter the United States over the last 20 years. The only thing missing is the jeering crowd.

What is it about people that we only allow ourselves to acknowledge atrocity long after it occurs? Why is it, as Orwell said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle?”

Now we can look at photos of lynchings and feel shame. But today, more than a few similarly innocent people will die horrible deaths trying to get back to their job or family in the United States, and we, as a nation, have decided that’s okay.

The latest sensational incident occurred on July 23, 2017, when 10 people died after being trapped with dozens of others inside a sweltering tractor trailer outside a Walmart in San Antonio, Texas. That same week, another five people drowned trying to cross the flooded Rio Grande, but migrant drownings are so frequent an occurrence nowadays they barely make the news.

How did we get to this point? Are Mexicans and other foreigners any less human, any less worthy of life, than black people in the South in the early 20th century?

Like black people, undocumented workers, particularly Mexicans, have been exploited and had their labor and wealth stolen for generations. Blaming them for social problems, keeping them fearful and living in the shadows, and preventing them from living a dignified life with their families, is all part of a system of near-slavery that is their plight in 21st century North America.

Regardless of their citizenship status, U.S. and international law, basic morality, and human decency demand that honest and honorable undocumented people who want and need to live and work in the United States must be given an opportunity to do so, instead of being driven into the desert, or into closed container trucks, to die.

The twisted and dried faces of the thousands who’ve perished cry out for us to stop this atrocity now, while it is happening, even though it is unseen and far away and we are not laughing anymore.

–August 10, 2017