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A nonprofit in Tuscon, Arizona, is fighting a new enemy: climate change


Every summer, a Tucson nonprofit called the Colibri Center gets a certain type of call.

JASON DE LEON: We answer the phones when families call and say, someone has gone missing.

MARTÍNEZ: The missing are migrants. Their families are calling to figure out if their loved ones survived the dangerous journey from Mexico to Arizona. Jason De Leon leads the center.

DE LEON: Many of the human remains that we get - that we find are skeletonized. And so there's no - you know, there's no personal effects. It's just basically bones.

MARTÍNEZ: Because the desert is unforgiving, and climate change is making it worse. De Leon works with volunteers and families. He's also an anthropologist and the co-author of a study that estimates how much worse the heat will get and what that means for migrants.

DE LEON: Our area of focus was - is the Sonoran Desert of northern Sonora and southern Arizona. It's also referred to by the Border Patrol as the Tucson sector. And it's an incredibly remote area characterized by low vegetation, low shade cover. It's incredibly mountainous. And getting from one populated area to another can take days, if not weeks, walking across this very, very rugged landscape. It's an incredibly dry and hot place where a lot of people die from dehydration in the summer. It's also a place that gets very cold in the winter. So, you know, migrants can die in the winter months from freezing to death.

MARTÍNEZ: You said there's no cover. I mean, are we talking like nothing at all for anyone to get any shade?

DE LEON: You know, it's mostly a lot of cactuses, cholla, saguaro, those kinds of plants, things that don't - that really don't provide any shade at all; and also more species of rattlesnakes than any place else in the Western Hemisphere.

MARTÍNEZ: And you mentioned how rugged it is. I mean, when we're talking about trying to get through there, we're talking some pretty serious stress this puts on someone's body.

DE LEON: Oh, I mean, it's a place where you can get in trouble very, very quickly. I've been hiking in the Sonoran Desert for 15 years. And, you know, I go out there with $200 hiking boots, a GPS unit, nine liters of water, all the first aid equipment that I could possibly carry. And I've found myself getting in trouble easily over the years. You know, it's one of these places where no matter how much you prepare for it, there can be so many unexpected things that can happen that can then make the journey become incredibly deadly. And so if you're a migrant who's out there and you're walking in sneakers, you don't have a GPS unit or a map, you're basically carrying two to three gallons of water, it's incredibly easy to find yourself in danger really, really quickly.

MARTÍNEZ: So that's how this place is. But now I'm wondering, Jason, as climate change gets worse, do you think that will affect people's decision about how and even if they try to cross?

DE LEON: It's only going to get hotter and more deadly in the years to come. But unfortunately, I don't think that's going to be much of a deterrent to folks at all. I mean, in the beginning of these border policies that started this whole thing in the mid-1990s, a policy called Prevention Through Deterrence, the idea was that if border crossers were funneled towards the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, people would start dying and word of mouth would spread that it was so deadly that people would stop coming. Obviously, that's not happened. I mean, people have been dying in incredibly high numbers since this policy went into place. But death itself has really not been a deterrent.

Folks are fleeing poverty and violence and climate change in places like Honduras, where they're worried about being murdered on a street corner. And so people will say to me, I would prefer to take my chances in the desert because at least if I die in the Sonoran Desert, I've taken my own life into my own hands, and there's a chance that I'll make it through. Whereas, you know, this kind of random violence that people are experiencing at home, you know, they have no control over it.

MARTÍNEZ: How have people been funneled to these kinds of areas?

DE LEON: Well, really, it began in the mid-1990s. You know, it used to be that border crossers could hop the fence in a place like San Ysidro, you know, at dusk, and then they would overwhelm the Border Patrol. And so the Border Patrol decided to increase infrastructure in these urban zones - so San Diego, El Paso. And they made it impossible for people to hop the fence in these urban zones by just having some - you know, such a strong presence on the ground. The Border Patrol realized that what they were doing wasn't actually stopping migration. It was just redirecting it. But then they also realized that if people had to now walk five or six days across the Sonoran Desert, that itself would become a deterrent. Instead of this kind of vertical border wall, they have the horizontal border wall, which is the Sonoran Desert.

MARTÍNEZ: And it still doesn't matter, right? Because you mentioned people are still trying to get through these areas. They feel that they're going to be the lucky ones to be able to make it and survive. But when they're leaving, they're leaving the place they're coming from because of some of the same things that are affecting those border crossings. And that's climate change.

DE LEON: Yeah. I mean, increasingly the connections between climate change and migration are undeniable. Just look at Honduras in the last couple of years, you know, being slammed by back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes during COVID, you know, already in this precarious, you know, sort of economic situation, you know, a country that had been - is still rebuilding from Hurricane Mitch in 1998. And as soon as the floodwaters receded in those communities that were completely destroyed, people immediately started walking towards the U.S.-Mexico border. And I think this is going to be increasingly what we're going to see across the globe. I mean, we're seeing it happen in West Mexico with droughts. All of these places that are becoming unlivable, people are now migrating north.

MARTÍNEZ: Are there any U.S. lawmakers at all that see this, that know of this, that acknowledge this and say, look, you know, this is too much death? I mean, we got to figure something else out.

DE LEON: Yeah. I mean, unfortunately, you know, most politicians don't want to touch this with a stick. In some ways, I think there's just this denial to own it. Nobody wants to own it. I mean, the Border Patrol in the beginning sort of publicized that one of the metrics that they were using to measure the effectiveness of this policy was a rise in migrant death. And these were things that were published by the Government Accountability Office in the late '90s where people - where some pencil pusher was saying, you know, a way to measure the effectiveness of this policy is if deaths go up. And it's a human rights crisis.

I mean, thousands of people are dying, have died. And it's also, you know, the hypocrisy of the fact that we seemingly hate migrants at the border. We have these policies in place that put them in harm's way, that kill a lot of them. And we throw all this money at this. But then once you get through this gauntlet of death, then we sort of ignore those people.

MARTÍNEZ: What are you expecting to see this summer when it comes to migration, especially in that area?

DE LEON: The folks who are with our organization who answer the phone calls of missing migrants - for families of the missing and people who've been reported dead, the summer is always a busy time for us. And so I don't expect this to be slowing down at all. I potentially see it - you know, as we're coming out of, you know, hopefully coming out of COVID now and people are hoping that there's going to be more jobs in the United States, I think we're going to see a rise in migration in the summer.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Jason De Leon, an anthropologist at UCLA. Jason, thanks a lot.

DE LEON: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUKAI'S "ALTO PARAISO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.