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Remembering the lost dead

Graves without names on the U.S. southern border

Remembering the lost dead

A student from Mount St. Mary’s University marks the grave of a migrant who perished on the journey. (Sophia Lee)

The drive to Holtville, Calif., a tiny desert city near the U.S.-Mexican border, runs on an asphalt ribbon winding through the forbidden Southwest wilderness: A white sun beats down on cactuses and sand. Granite rocks sit stacked on each other like blobs of baked dough. Shrubs sprout from dusty hills like an old man’s unbrushed hair. Blankets of snow and blustery winds hint at freezing nighttime temperatures. And all throughout that drive between mountains and deserts, I thought about the thousands of migrants who have died in these valleys.

After weeks of reporting on the migrant caravans from Central America, I realized that although I’m also an immigrant to the United States, I know next to nothing about the lives of the millions of immigrants who dwell among us without legal status. So I decided to continue asking and learning—and that brought me to last week’s visit to Holtville’s Terrace Park Cemetery, a private burial site for migrants who died crossing over the southwestern border.

That morning, I crawled out of bed at 3 a.m. and drove 250 miles from Los Angeles to the 3-acre cemetery, where all the way in the back, beyond the well-trimmed lawns filled with headstones and flowers, is a locked gate. Behind that gate lie 520 bodies, half of them unidentified. There, the final resting place of the poor has no headstones, no monuments, no flowers, no grass, no mourning family members. Instead, it’s basically a field of soil and wood chips, where neat rows of bricks mark the bodies as “Jane Doe” or “John Doe”—graves so shallow that visitors are not allowed to step on them in case their feet crush the decomposed remains. 

Usually the cemetery administrators don’t allow the public into that burial site, but I had special access that day thanks to Border Angels, a humanitarian nonprofit that has escorted people to the Terrace Park Cemetery since 2001. With me were Border Angels volunteer Hugo Castro and a group of students from Mount St. Mary’s University, a private Catholic women’s college. We were in Holtville for one simple reason: To remember the forgotten.  

Sophia Lee

A brick inscribed with the words ‘John Doe’ sits as a marker on a grave. (Sophia Lee)

Nobody spoke a word as we stood staring at the dirt and bricks. Compared with the loving memorials in the first section of the cemetery, the inscriptions on the bricks seemed so clinical and impersonal: Jane Doe … John Doe … John Doe … Jane Doe ... Row 13-37 … Row 17-37 … Row 11-28. Who knows how much these individuals suffered before death? Who knows what sort of desperate conditions drove them into the desert, knowing yet refusing to believe the dangers ahead? Why would they take such a risk? Do their family members know what happened to them? Do they miss them?

In death, when our bodies are disintegrating back into the earth, our possessions and documents shouldn’t matter, yet somehow they still do, at least in the way flesh and bones are buried and memorialized. Here in this dirt field rest the nameless sojourners—and in great irony, their bodies are now one with the land for which they lost their lives to reach. 

Today at Terrace Park, that’s no longer the case for newer migrants. Since 2009, county officials have stopped burying bodies, a practice that used to cost taxpayers up to $1,200 per person. Instead, they cremate the bodies and toss the ashes into the sea, a lot cheaper at $645 per cremation. But even that’s too much for some anti-illegal immigration folks, who protest that the county is diverting funds away from more important needs. Even in death, some people view these migrants as a nuisance. 

For years, particularly after the United States built a wall in 1994 and toughened its enforcement against illegal immigration in San Diego, more and more migrants have crossed the border using less traditional routes. Those routes cross areas where the U.S. Border Patrol didn’t bother to build walls, because they thought the deadly terrain—where temperatures can rise to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and then dip below 30—would be a natural barrier.

But the terrain didn’t stop people from coming. Americans who haven’t been in these migrants’ situations cannot imagine the depths to their desperation, and there is no greater courage—or foolishness—than desperation. People climbed mountains, hiked deserts, or swam the All-American Canal, a man-made river that runs along the border in southeastern California. Those who died got lost or drowned or came unprepared, without sufficient water, proper clothing, or enough food. That’s how Border Angels got started—its founder Enrique Morones heard about the corpses strewn across the desert and began carrying jugs of water out into those remote regions, hoping they would save a life. 

Lenny Ignelzi/AP

One of numerous signs posted along the All-American Canal. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, border agents found 294 dead bodies in the southwest border region in fiscal year 2017. The highest figure was 492 bodies in 2005, and the numbers have gone up and down over the years. Many of these bodies have no IDs, since their coyotes (smugglers) advise them to throw IDs away so they can lie about their identities to Border Patrol agents. That idea appeals to Central American migrants, who may lie to ICE that they’re from Mexico so that agents will deport them to Mexico, not farther out to Honduras or El Salvador (though with fingerprints, agents can figure out where they’re from anyway). As for those bodies with identification, often their family members back home are too poor to pay for a funeral, so the bodies end up in U.S. gravesites like the one I visited in Holtville. 

“The border has become a river of blood,” Hugo said as we crouched before one of the cemetery bricks. Yes, these people broke the law when they crossed the border. Yes, they chose to cross a hostile terrain, and paid for it. But we can still honor their dignity as human beings, Hugo said: “Dignity shouldn’t be based on a piece of paper.” 

So we planted wooden crosses in front of the bricks, kneeling and pausing before each one. Local schoolchildren in San Diego had decorated these crosses, some painted pink with white dotted flowers, some fiery orange and red, some plain white with the words “No Olvidado”—not forgotten—painted on them. Most crosses had Spanish words written on them—“Paz,” “Descansa en Paz,” “Amor sin Fronteras.”

Sophia Lee

Students from Mount St. Mary’s University pray over the graves of the unknown. (Sophia Lee)

Later we gathered in a circle to pray in unison, both in English and Spanish: “Lord Jesus, help us to recognize You in the face of the stranger and welcome Your presence among us. You have graced us with the gifts of many cultures and nations. Free us from the fear of those from other lands. Teach us to share our gifts with newcomers in return, so that You may say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed Me. Come now into My Kingdom.’ We ask this in Your name, from the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”


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  • AlanE
    Posted: Mon, 03/04/2019 04:00 pm

    I admit I'm torn a lot of different directions on the question of illegal immigration. But we, as Christians, should be a lot more careful about the usage of Matthew 25:31-46. It's a classic proof text of the open borders side (to the extent they care what Scripture might have to say on the question--some do, probably more do not), but the separating of the sheep and goats has already taken place when these words are spoken. The objects of compassion, in context, are clearly believers and not the world in general. Now, it may perhaps be the case that some of these people became believers as a consequence--at least in part--of the actions of believers. I can see that being something we need to ponder here. But, to make the text speak of people in general and not believers in particular seems to be to do violence to the clear meaning of the text. We don't come closer to the right way of acting by manipulating Scripture to make it mean what we want it to mean.

  • JennyBeth
    Posted: Wed, 03/13/2019 03:40 pm

    A) Who is to say these dead were not Christians? Most Latin Americans are professing Christians at least. B) Where does Jesus say to put people to a Christianity test before showing them compassion counts as obeying His commands? Did He not say to give food and drink even to our enemies and persecutors?
    I'm not saying the "open borders" crowd is right; there is certainly a lot of folly in the name of compassion, and honestly I haven't commented much on various discussions about the southern border since the migrant caravans began, because I haven't heard anybody propose a course of action that seems truly compassionate and sensible. (It reminds me of many years back World had an article, I believe by Joel Belz, expressing how he had hoped that lawmakers would pass immigration reform that was "creative, compassionate, constructive, and just," but ending on a very discouraged note.) But your interpretation of Matthew 25 is unworkable; the only way to obey it is in light of The Good Samaritan--that the person I am commanded to love with my deeds is whoever is in my reach and in need.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 03/08/2019 12:24 am

    This “Border Angels” reveal how radical they are in this video!

    They falsely accuse Trump and other politicians who don’t agree with open borders as being heartless and cruel, when in reality kindness is preventing people from making this trip.  It is not funding the trip and enticing vulnerable people to go by giving them clothes, diapers, tents and supplies for the trip! Just go to their website where they have a Target registry setup where you can buy supplies for the people coming in the caravan! This is an outrageous propaganda piece and Sofi wants to promote this? Certainly, you know what “Amor sin Fronteras” means? Love without borders! Are conservatives seriously asking for illegals to be rounded up by SWAT teams with a percentage killed as collateral damage? Again this is extreme!

    Their myth of the month says “The border is being invaded!”  

    At the web page they say the following:

    This administration would have you believe that further militarization of the southern border is necessary, in part because a large number of people are supposedly "infiltrating the U.S." via our southern border. THIS IS FALSE.

    A large portion of the undocumented population enter lawfully — with visas — by air or boat, and stay in the US longer than permitted under their visa. Once the visa expires, they are left without legal status in the U.S., just like those who crossed the border through the U.S.-Mexico desert, which is by no means the “preferred” or most common way to come to the U.S. (We then know, how easy it is to stay in limbo given this country's complete lack of reasonable immigration policy and process.

    We are hearing about the crisis on the border and this organization seeks to lie about it. Millions coming in through our southern border is unsustainable.

    Not only this but they are providing illegals legal advice so they can maneuver around our laws and get into the United States. Christians are supposed follow laws, not evade them! 

    On another video one of their volunteers says the typical anti-Trump race baiting comment that we don’t want to say to the undocumented that “people who don’t look like me are not welcome!” It has nothing to do with their looks or skin color but everything to do with the fact that we cannot sustain this many people coming into our nation. 

    They appose the companies doing contracts work detaining the illegal immigrants because then they can have more illegals allowed into our country as we have no means to detain them! This organization is radical and a tool of the Democrats, socialists and communists! 

    The Democrats fundamentally want to change this nation by bringing in hoards of people. They want to dominate politically so they will give them the right to vote once they are in power. When this happens you will see our religious liberties stripped from us as they implement radical “hate speech” laws. You will see radical abortion laws passed that allow unrestricted abortion all the way to the delivery table.  You will see American values fundamentally changed where the saying, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” will reign.

    The devil always comes appearing as light where he pushes a false or distorted love that only brings about spiritual death!