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.