Lost in Detention

Saving lives on the border

Monday, October 17th, 2011 

Humanitarian organizations near the border assist migrants

A look at some of the organizations that provide food, shelter and sometimes medical care:


1. San Diego

Border Angels
ACLU of San Diego

2. California/Mexico Border

Casa del Migrante

Research by Investigative Reporting Workshop staff
Graphics by Melanie Taube, Investigative Reporting Workshop



Between 500,000 and 1 million people cross the border illegally every year. The journey is brutal and life-threatening. Hundreds die every year. Dozens of humanitarian organizations serve these migrants, and many of the groups depend on volunteers who often organize and develop around Border Patrol operations.

The people who make up these groups say they are filling a humanitarian need, creating awareness and, in some cases, following their hearts and saving lives. “People are literally dying in their attempt to ensure a better life for themselves and future generations. Humanitarian organizations who put out water in the desert and run migrant shelters are offering a lifeline,” Patricia Hohl says. She is a former volunteer at the Migrant Resource Center and Shelter, in Naco, Sonora, Mexico. Hohl moved to the Arizona border last year, she says “to witness exactly what immigration looked like.”

Hohl’s move couldn’t have come at a busier or more crucial time in the history of immigration in Arizona. The deadliest area of the border has become the Tucson sector in recent years.

There were a record number of border deaths in Arizona in 2010, the highest in more than a decade, according to the Border Deaths Database compiled by the Arizona Daily Star, which looks at data from the medical examiner’s office.

While the actual number of deaths in the border region may never be known, Border Patrol and coroner accounts show a huge increase since 1995. The number of border deaths doubled from 1995 to 2005, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The increasing number of border deaths can be traced back to the 1994 implementation of Operation Gatekeeper, which militarized the California border and closed off migration routes through urban areas, shifting migration patterns to the remote desert of Arizona.

Such Border Patrol operations and now new repatriation programs are affecting how humanitarian organizations operate. Last spring the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched The Mexican Interior Repatriation Program. “The program saves lives by removing participants from high-risk areas of the Sonora Desert during the peak summer months and repatriating them to the interior of Mexico,” says Steven Passement, with the Border Patrol’s public affairs office. Instead of repatriating migrants on the border, in such places as Naco or Agua Prieta, the program puts migrants on flights to the interior of Mexico.

Additionally, the Alien Transfer and Exit Program, which started in 2008, has rapidly expanded in the last two years. The program repatriates laterally, sending migrants back to Mexico at a different city along the border, sometimes even in a different state, than where they crossed and were picked up. In Arizona, for example, immigrants are sometimes flown to Texas or California and deported there.

Cecile Lumer, the founder of The Migrant Resource Center and Shelter in Naco, Sonora, Mexico, says the interior and lateral repatriation programs have forced the shutdown of her organization. "The shelter is closed and the center closed. The Border Patrol has not repatriated anyone since the end of May 2010; the same for Agua Prieta,” Lumer says. “We think it may be because of our abuse complaints sent to the department of civil rights-civil liberties of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)."

Hohl says the center reported abuses to DHS for accountability and because “undocumented migrants are often unable to raise their voices. They choose to share their stories with us (and to report abuses), and as U.S. citizens we can give them a voice.” A 72-page report, released in September 2011 by the nonprofit No More Deaths group, details abuse of those in Border Patrol custody. 

The Border Patrol confirmed it’s not repatriating in Naco or Agua Prieta. Migrants are being processed in central locations and being repatriated to the interior or through the Nogales port. “All aliens, with a few exceptions, are being processed at central facilities (TCC-Tucson Coordination Center) in Nogales and Tucson. Centralized processing speeds up the processing procedure and increases operational efficiency by allowing Border Patrol agents to remain in the field and continue to patrol the border,” Passement says.

This leaves humanitarian organizations in the area with an uncertain future. The Migrant Resource Center and Shelter, opened in 2008, was dedicated to helping migrants in Naco, Sonora, after they were repatriated by U.S. agents. “We offer basic humanitarian services. When a migrant arrives at the center, they receive a meal and a place to rest. We provide information on where they can receive medical assistance,” Hohl says. “Our shelter, which is now closed, was a free, safe place where people could spend the night as they waited for additional funds, to connect with family and to plan their next step.” Organizers and volunteers are now looking at other places where they can help.

Centers offer clothing, pastoral support

About 30 miles east of Naco is Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. The Migrant Resource Center there has been open for more than five years and has helped thousands of migrants. The center is reducing its hours of operation because of the shift in repatriation. Phillip Kennedy, the U.S. coordinator of the center, says they, too, haven’t seen regular numbers of deportations to Agua Prieta since May of 2010. “Sometimes folks who've crossed in Agua Prieta, or have some connection there, will come back before returning home. It's also pretty common that families will get separated and find their way back to where they crossed to find each other. These are the kinds of folks we're serving these days at the MRC,” Kennedy says.

Both migrant centers in Naco and Agua Prieta, like most in the border area, are funded by private donations, grants, religious organizations or other humanitarian groups, such as No More Deaths and Centro de Derechos Humanos del Migrante.

Following the Arizona border west of Naco is Nogales, the state’s largest Mexican border town. “Most Border Patrol repatriations are conducted through the Nogales ports,” Passement says. Humanitarian organizations in Nogales are much busier than in Naco or Agua Prieta. The Rev. Sean Carroll, the executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, runs a shelter, a meal service and a first-aid station, and offers education and ministry as part of a faith-based humanitarian organization committed to helping migrants on both sides of the border in Nogales.

“Our aid center for deported migrants provides an average of 200 meals a day to migrants. We also offer clothing, pastoral support and referrals to Mexican government services,” Carroll says. He says the Kino Border Initiative also collects data and testimonies for advocacy and research purposes.

“We hope that this information helps humanize the issue, especially for legislators and policymakers, and that it contributes toward the passage of just and humane immigration reform in the United States and Mexico,” he says.

Hohl says collecting migrant testimonies and reporting abuses that happen in short-term detention facilities is important for reform. “Our work exposes systematic problems and a lack of accountability within the Border Patrol. We expose information that often sheds an unfavorable light on DHS policies and actions. Releasing this information to the public is the first step in reforming these institutions. It also allows migrants to share their experiences and have those experiences make a difference,” Hohl says.