Containment and Care in the Sonoran Desert

In this series commissioned by Catherine Ramirez and A. Naomi Paik, contributors examine the legacy of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the simultaneous launching of the Border Patrol, which, together, inaugurated the most restrictive era of US immigration history until our own.
Prevention through deterrence did not prevent or deter migration. Instead, it corralled migration, hid it from view, and made it deadly.

 This was never the intent of the desert.

—Ofelia Zepeda1


In 1994—70 years after the founding of the US Border Patrol—the agency introduced its new strategy: “prevention through deterrence” to control the southern border. That same year saw the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Mexico, and Canada, which pitted large multinational corporations (with heavily subsidized products) in direct competition with small-scale producers in Mexico. As a result, NAFTA led directly to the loss of at least 1.3 million jobs in Mexico’s agricultural sector.2 As these new migrants joined those from regions that had historically supplied cheap labor to the US agricultural sector, they confronted a dramatically changed border security apparatus.

Following the 1994 strategy, the US government had increased Border Patrol surveillance in urban crossing points. In so doing, they effectively redirected migration away from cities and into places like the Sonoran Desert. One of the almost immediate impacts of this change was the dramatic increase in migrant deaths along the border.

This rise in deaths occurred first in California and then in Arizona.3 In southern Arizona, there was a more than tenfold increase in migrant deaths between 1999 and 2001.4 Immigrant rights organizations, journalists, and academics swiftly called attention to the increased deaths, and local humanitarian groups emerged to save lives. In the decades that followed, however, the deaths have continued in places like Arizona and Texas, with hundreds of people dying each year.

“Prevention through deterrence” policies have killed thousands of migrants along the border. This is according to a growing body of popular and academic literature, most of which makes it clear that it is not the desert that has been responsible for this loss of life, but rather US federal border policy.

Still, there is a tendency to assume that the desert is a dangerous place. I draw on medical examiner records, histories of habitation and care in the desert borderlands, and theories of containment to show how the Sonoran Desert is not inherently dangerous. Instead, the region has been manipulated and managed in order to become dangerous.

The Sonoran Desert is an approximately 100,000-square-mile region, covering terrain in southern Arizona, the Mexican state of Sonora, Southern California, and the Mexican state of Baja California. It is a lush desert, which supports thousands of species of plants and animals.

For centuries, the Tohono O’odham—literally, “desert people”—have called the Sonoran Desert home. O’odham people know how to live within this desert. An aspect of this knowledge, as described by O’odham poet Ofelia Zepeda, is “to know where the ‘wild’ desert ends and the ‘other space’ begins.”5 This “other space,” according to Zepeda, is where people live: the place within the desert that has been cleared, tended, and cared for. In contrast, the “wild desert” is a space beyond human-made boundaries. While mostly harmless, the wild desert is a powerful place that exists outside of human relationships.

With prevention through deterrence, the US federal government began attempting to use the Sonoran Desert as part of its strategy to control migration across the US-Mexico border. In its 1994 Strategic Plan, the US Border Patrol described the Sonoran Desert along with other southern border regions as “hostile terrain,” “natural barriers to passage,” and “uninhabited expanses of land” characterized by “searing heat.”6 Prevention through deterrence meant that Border Patrol would manage the movement of migrants crossing the border so that they would be forced to travel through this more remote terrain.

“We did believe that geography would be an ally to us …” explained Doris Meissner, then head of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), “it was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle, once people realized what it’s like.”7

Instead, thousands of migrants died or disappeared. The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, which provides medicolegal death investigation for most of the southern Arizona portion of the Sonoran Desert, has documented 3,881 migrant deaths between the year 2000 and the time of writing.8 An unknown number remain missing, and search and rescue groups respond to calls from families every day.

Death in the Sonoran Desert has become so common that it is routine for bones to be found by anyone spending time in the desert: hikers, ranchers, fellow migrants, humanitarians, Tohono O’odham tribal members, or Border Patrol agents. Medical examiner records detail how human remains have been found when a family dog brought bones to a back door, when a city worker stepped behind some bushes to urinate, when a couple went to a park near Tucson for a picnic, when a humanitarian group searching for a missing person found three others, when Department of Corrections workers were clearing brush, when a birdwatching group found a skull, when a man looking for meteorites found bones instead. The Sonoran Desert is now dotted with bones. It is likely that the remains that have been found represent a minority of those who have died.

The Sonoran Desert is not inherently dangerous. Instead, the region has been manipulated and managed in order to become dangerous.

In addition to cases of human remains discovered alone in the desert, medical examiner records also include cases where deaths were reported after Border Patrol agents or other law enforcement personnel chased migrants: into canals where they drowned; into highways where they were hit by vehicles; and over bridges, cliffs, or simply rocky terrain where they fell to their deaths. Other fatalities have been reported after Border Patrol agents engaged high-speed pursuit of vehicles, causing deadly collisions or rollovers.

Indeed, most missing person reports shared with the medical examiner’s office describe incidents where people went missing after Border Patrol agents disrupted their group, especially using helicopters. These reports, shared by family or fellow migrants, describe how Border Patrol uses the blades of a helicopter to intimidate groups and propel dust into the air. Migrants run in different directions, and the group is dispersed. People fall and get injured, drop their backpacks or water bottles, or simply don’t show up again after the helicopter departs.

Prevention through deterrence did not prevent or deter migration. Instead, it corralled migration, hid it from view, and made it deadly.

Viewing the strategy of prevention through deterrence as a logic of containment is helpful for understanding what it accomplished and how. Containment, according to Patrisia Macías-Rojas and Martina Tazzioli, “refers to a variety of spatial strategies that operate to disrupt and hinder migrants’ autonomous movements.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that migrants are immobilized but rather that they are “forced to constantly move—as they are dispersed, chased away and hampered from staying in a place” and prevented from “staying and building spaces of life.”9

Returning to Ofelia Zepeda’s description of how Tohono O’odham people live in the Sonoran Desert, a lens of containment helps us see how migrants are pushed away from the places in the desert where people live and forced into the “wild desert.” It is important to note that Zepeda’s conceptualization of the difference between these spaces hinges less on their specific nature—ecology or terrain—and more on the ways in which they are used. The “wild desert” is not used as space for life, community, or safety. By pushing migrants into these parts of the Sonoran Desert, prevention through deterrence did not stop migration, but rather slowed it and contained it in places separate from human habitation.

The Sonoran Desert is not inherently dangerous, deadly, or hostile. Barbara Sostaita has argued against the idea that the desert has been successfully “deployed” as a weapon against migrants: “The settler state is not allying itself with the desert. It is actively working to destroy the desert.”10 Similarly, Geoff Boyce has demonstrated how “the climate, topography, and inhabitants of the border region have never fully cooperated” with Border Patrol’s attempt to enlist the desert in border enforcement.11 Rather, the ecology of the Sonoran Desert facilitates migration: mesquite groves provide shade and cover, arroyos (washes) are used as paths, cactus pads provide moisture, and clear skies make the moon and stars visible for navigation.

Long histories of human habitation and care within the desert are also not erased by Border Patrol. Instead, footpaths used for centuries by the Tohono O’odham are repurposed, diverse traditions of sharing water with strangers are honored, creative economic strategies are created as locals facilitate the movement of migrants. All together, the efforts of Border Patrol are resisted in visible and invisible ways.

Rather than understanding prevention through deterrence as a strategy that has successfully used an existing landscape, it is more accurate to understand such strategies as constant attempts to manage the land, its inhabitants, and migrants themselves.

Mesquite groves are bulldozed, ponds are drained, and habitats are destroyed. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on surveillance infrastructure.12 Border Patrol harasses inhabitants, especially Tohono O’odham people, who are constantly detained and deported for traveling through their own lands and practicing essential traditions.13 Humanitarian aid workers are harassed and criminalized, and the water and food they leave for migrants is destroyed.14 Migrants are chased, terrorized, and separated from one another.

Despite all of this, spaces of life in the Sonoran Desert are maintained and preserved. Seasonal floods destroy sections of the wall,15 erase footprints, and create new arroyos. Migrants find new routes; they care for one another and do not leave one another behind unless they are forced.16 Tohono O’odham people find ways of practicing traditions and protecting their land outside the view of the US state.17 Humanitarian groups provide lifesaving aid and care for the dead. All of this, too, is part of the Sonoran Desert. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik on the border crisis 100 years after the Immigration Act of 1924.

  1. Ofelia Zepeda, Keynote lecture. (Desert Futures Conference, University of Notre Dame, December 2–3, 2021).
  2. Sandra Polaski, “Jobs, Wages, and Household Income,” in NAFTA’s Promise and Reality: Lessons from Mexico for the Hemisphere (Carnegie Foundation, 2003), p. 11–38.
  3. Karl Eschbach, Jacqueline Hagan, Nestor Rodriguez, Ruben Hernandez-Leon, and Stanley Bailey, “Death at the Border,” International Migration Review, vol. 33, no. 2 (1999), pp. 430–54; Wayne A. Cornelius, “Death at the Border: Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Control Policy,” Population and Development Review, vol. 27, no. 4 (2001), pp. 661–85.
  4. Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Melissa McCormick, Daniel Martinez, and Inez Duarte, “The ‘Funnel Effect’ & Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Migrants Processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990–2005” (2006).
  5. Ofelia Zepeda, “Where the Wilderness Begins,” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 4 no. 1 (1997), pp. 85–90.
  6. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond: National Strategy, US Border Patrol.
  7. Tessie Borden, “INS: Border Policy Failed,” The Arizona Republic, August 10, 2000.
  8. Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, “Data Dashboards and Reports,” accessed March 1, 2024.
  9. Patrisia Macias Rojas and Martina Tazzioli, “Detention/Confinement/Containment,” in Minor Keywords of Political Theory: Migration as a Critical Standpoint, edited by Nicholas P. De Genova and Martina Tazzioli, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 781–875. EPC: Politics and Space, p. 850.
  10. Barbara Sostaita, “More Than a Land of Open Graves: How the Sonoran Desert Refuses Capture,” Contending Modernities, July 20, 2023.
  11. Geoffrey A. Boyce, “The Rugged Border: Surveillance, Policing and the Dynamic Materiality of the US/Mexico Frontier,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol 34, no. 2 (2016), p. 257.
  12. Logan Williams, “The Disappearance of Quitobaquito Springs: Tracking Hydrologic Change with Google Earth Engine,” Bellingcat Investigative Tech Team, October 1, 2020; Noah Greenwald, Brian Segee, Tierra Curry, and Curt Bradley, “A Wall in the Wild: The Disastrous Impacts of Trump’s Border Wall on Wildlife,” Center for Biological Diversity Research Report (2017); Todd Miller, 2019. “More Than A Wall: Corporate Profiteering and the Militarization of US Borders,” Transnational Institute, September 16, 2019.
  13. Tohono O’odham Nation 2024, Caitlin Blanchfield, and Nina Valerie Kolowratnik, “‘Persistent Surveillance’: Militarized Infrastructure on the Tohono O’odham Nation,” The Avery Review, no.40 (2019); Zícari 2019; Felicity Amaya Schaeffer, Unsettled Borders: The Militarized Science of Surveillance on Sacred Indigenous Land (Duke University Press, 2022); Kenneth D. Madsen, “Indigenous Sovereignty and Tohono O’odham Efforts to Impact U.S.-Mexico Border Security,” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, vol 19, no. 1 (2023), pp. 1–25; Martin Zícari, “Clouds at the Border: Threatened by the Wall.” NACLA Report on the Americas 24 (2019), pp. 1–9.
  14. Marta Caminero-Santangelo, 2009. “Responding to the Human Costs of US Immigration Policy: No More Deaths and the New Sanctuary Movement,” Latino Studies , vol. 7 no. 1 (2009), pp. 112–22; Geoffrey Alan Boyce, “The Neoliberal Underpinnings of Prevention Through Deterrence and the United States Government’s Case Against Geographer Scott Warren,” Journal of Latin American Geography, vol. 18, no. 3 (2019), pp. 192–201; Barbara Andrea Sostaita, 2020. “‘Water, Not Walls:’ Toward a Religious Study of Life That Defies Borders: AGUA, NO MUROS: EN DIRECCIÓN A UN ESTUDIO RELIGIOSO DE VIDAS QUE DESAFÍAN FRONTERAS,” American Religion, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 74–97; No More Deaths and La Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, “Interference with Humanitarian Aid: Death and Disappearance on the US-Mexico Border” (2018) 2. Disappeared Report Series. No More Deaths.
  15. Paul Ingram, 2021. “Monsoon Floods Damage Border Wall near Douglas,” Tucson Sentinel, August 21, 2021.
  16. Jeremy Slack, Daniel E. Martínez, and Scott Whiteford, The Shadow of the Wall: Violence and Migration on the US-Mexico Border (University of Arizona Press, 2018); Wendy Vogt, “Stuck in the Middle With You: The Intimate Labours of Mobility and Smuggling along Mexico’s Migrant Route,” Geopolitics, vol. 21, no. 2 (2016), pp. 366–86; Vogt, Lives in Transit: Violence and Intimacy on the Migrant Journey (University of California Press, 2018).
  17. Caitlin Blanchfield and Nina Valerie Kolowratnik, “‘Persistent Surveillance.’”
Featured image photograph: “Border Patrol drag” (a method used to smooth roads in order to measure new traffic) by Michael Lusk / Flickr (CC by Creative Commons 2.0).