HOLTVILLE, CA – Dreams come to die and are forever buried in the dusty patch of scalding Imperial Valley desert behind the crumpled rusty fence.
At least 750 migrants lie in final rest in unmarked graves in the desiccated patch of ground behind the Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, a hardscrabble farming outpost too far from the I-8 for drivers to ever see and so far from the minds of Californians it might as well be in Arizona. It is North America’s largest mass grave and the most massive non-military burial ground of unidentified dead in the United States.
Most of humanity has long forgotten los descamisados of Holtville, but not everyone. Los Angeles de la Frontera – Border Angels – watch over la muerta. Members of the all-volunteer human rights organization defiantly refer to the acre of the unknown as El Pantheon de los No Olvidados, The Cemetery of the Remembered.
“None of these people expected to die when they crossed the border to find work,” said Border Angels founder Enrique Morones. “They thought they would make it.
There have been women in dresses who thought that in a few hours they would be safe and sound found dead in the mountains frozen to death or dead from thirst in the Imperial Valley.”
Morones said the number one cause of death along the U.S.-Mexican border is dehydration. One such victim was 5-year- old Marco Antonio Villaseñor who crossed with his father in the back of a windowless produce truck jammed with 18 people.
“Marco was with his dad and as he crosses he became very thirsty,” Morones said. “Marco Antonio asked his dad for some water and his father won’t give him any water. So he asked the next man, and the next man, and the next man. He asked 18 men for water and none of the 18 men would give the little boy water. Why not? Because they were already dead and the little boy also died.”
Some of the men were never identified and made that lonely final journey to Holtville.
El Pantheon can shock even hardened folks who think they have seen it all. Men and women from all walks of life routinely begin to sob or break into tears when they begin to soak in the enormity of what lies in the ground below their feet.
“A lot of people do not realize the impact of all of these people dying, so when they see this they are very moved and there’s something comforting about seeing flowers or crosses or stones on the graves,” Morones said. “There was a time when we had them on all of the graves, but the graves are so fragile that if you walk (over the older graves), they’ll collapse.”
Hundreds of more recent dead migrants would have been buried in Holtville were it not for the fact that the U.S. government decreed that migrant bodies be cremated rather than buried. Besides making it more difficult for human rights organizations to keep track of the dead, said Morones, cremation is disrespectful to the migrants, who are overwhelmingly Catholic, a religion that discourages the burning of the dead.
Cremation also prevents future DNA testing that could help to identify the victims, Morones said as he kicked at shotgun shells, rusted tin cans, ragged remains of clothes and the ebony embers in improvised fire pits adjacent to the cemetery.
“We really need to find who’s buried here,” he said. “This is like an underground morgue full of bodies that no one has claimed. If we could match even one person that would be the world to that one family because they will know my husband didn’t leave me, he didn’t remarry. Mi padre was lost looking for work because he loved us very much.”
America makes extraordinary efforts to identify soldiers, accident victims and murder victims, Morones said, and rightly so. Virtually no effort has been made, however, to identify the souls out back behind the Terrace Park Cemetery
“Even in death they are marginalized,” he said. “You don’t see grass or headstones or their names. You don’t see anyone trying to find out who they are and I’ve brought government officials here from different countries to see if they could do some DNA studies and they say, ‘well they might not be from our country,’ and I say yes, but they are all human beings.”
Morones called the border wall built after the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 “an unmitigated disaster.”
“It is the Berlin Wall of the Americas,” he said. “It does not really keep people out, it actually keeps people in. Before Gatekeeper there was a seasonal free ranging of migrants who came to the United States to work in agriculture during the summer and fall. Afterwards, they would return home to Mexico to be with their families.”
Operation Gatekeeper has militarized the border, Morones said, and made it tougher for people to leave the United States and return for the next year’s harvest.
“Rather than risk their lives in the deserts, mountains, rivers and oceans every year, the migrants did not leave,” he said. “Operation Gatekeeper had a lot of unintended
consequences, one of which is that it actually made a situation that was not a problem into a problem. More than 11,000 human beings have died crossing the border since Operation Gatekeeper – those are just the ones we can count.”
John Hernandez, a longtime resident of the Imperial Valley, agreed. He said the immigration situation started to go very bad in 1994, but was exacerbated by September 11, 2001. Race is also a factor, he said.
“We have two borders and more people have actually illegally crossed the northern one,” he said, “but this is the area the government has militarized. Since September 11, the satellites, sensors, cameras and drones have changed everything. Before that, there were a lot of people that could come back and forth with minimal problems.”
Militarization of the border has been a boon to one set of entrepreneurs, the much-despised coyotes, human traffickers who charge exorbitant fees to migrants to smuggle them into the United States.
Morones said American policy fuels coyotes because of its strict restrictions on legal work visas for Mexicans and Central Americans who are not considered economic or political refugees.
“There are 250 million undocumented people in the world,” he said. “The U.S. only has 11 million, so most aren’t coming here. Of that 11 million easily 35 percent did get a visa, they have work. But for today’s migrants there’s no legal way to come. So when they say they should get in line, I say they would love to, but there is no line. They don’t qualify for a visa and people don’t realize that.”
Morones recounted the tragic story of migrant Lucrecia Dominguez, who wanted to cross to reunite with her family. Her attempts to get a visa were rebuffed, so she spent her life savings to hire a coyote.
“She wanted to cross to be with her family,” he said. “She contacted a smuggler. The smuggler said I’m crossing a group tomorrow, but don’t bring those two little kids with you, Jesus, her 15-year- old son, and Nora, a 7-year- old girl. If you bring them they are going to slow us down and the Border Patrol might catch us. “But her whole purpose was family reunification, so of course she brought them. And as they’re crossing, the smuggler got mad and he abandoned them. So Lucrecia is by herself with her two children in the middle of the Arizona desert wilderness. Lucrecia Dominguez literally died in the arms of Jesus, her 15-year- old son Jesus. This is happening every day because of the border wall.”
Hugo Castro is a human rights activist who works with Deported Mothers in Action, Veterans without Borders and Border Angels. He helped start the Dreamer Moms shelter in Tijuana in 2014 and helps at the Deported Mothers in Action shelter. He said many mothers are deported because they encounter emotional and physical abuse from their highly-stressed husbands. Once they separated, it is difficult for them to acquire a visa. Most of the deported mothers, he said, do not even know they have the right to apply for a visa.
Deported Mothers in Action has started to implement job training modeled after Vietnamese refugees who became successful entrepreneurs.
“We are going to start a special course for women that want to study how to make acrylic nails so they can have a job,” he said. “Two months ago 20 women graduated
from a special course for hairstyling. They received not only a diploma from the government, but they received kits to cut hair, the machines and scissors. It costs around $3,000 in equipment we provide free of charge to each of the graduates so now they can have an income. The average price is 50 pesos which is like $3 to cut hair.”
Castro said the women also cut hair in the shelter for free. They mainly cut the hair of migrants and the homeless every Friday. Castro said the women and other migrants are the complete opposite of the lazy, welfare-seeking rapists described by president-elect Donald Trump and his supporters. Morones agreed.
“These are some of Mexico’s best people, not the worst,” she said. “These are hard-working, industrious people who want to support their families.”
Trump and his supporters have it all wrong about immigration, Morones said, and they are scapegoating innocent and honorable people.
“It’s just the wrong message. In the 1980’s President Reagan said in Berlin, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, and tear down this wall.’ In the 1990s the United States built its own wall and that wall has led to the deaths of 11,000.”
He sighed and waved his hand out across the dusty graveyard broiling on a 110 degree afternoon in late May.
“We are too good a nation for this.”