TUCSON – Bruce Anderson rubbed his eyes, which were as red as his maroon scrubs, as he talked recently about the illegal immigrants whose bodies roll through his office with astonishing regularity.
There had been 88 already this year, an increase of more than a third over what it was a month ago and well above the norm for this time of year.
He said if it’s July and “we’re sitting around 150 – God, I hope not – then this is going to be the worst year in the last 10.”
Slouched in a chair, arms folded and his blond hair pulled back, Anderson looks like a surfer – but he’s not. He is Pima County’s forensic anthropologist.
Every year for the past decade, more than 200 suspected illegal immigrants have died crossing the U.S.-Mexican border into Arizona. That’s roughly half of all such immigrants who die in the U.S., according to the U.S. Border Patrol and a 2009 American Civil Liberties Union study.
Anderson’s job is to get their bodies – or what is left of them – back to their families.
Shifting immigration patterns
It wasn’t always like this. Years ago, the office averaged 19 undocumented-immigrant bodies a year. The death tide in Arizona started in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper and rose in 2002 when President George W. Bush signed a bill that led to the largest restructuring of border enforcement since World War II, according to a 2009 study by the Migration Policy Institute.
Border Patrol officers doubled to more than 18,000, and the squeeze was put on El Paso and San Diego – key crossing areas – prompting immigrants to flock over the Arizona border in ever larger numbers. And they did it through harsher terrain.
“We’re the portal of entry now – the easiest place to get across the border,” Anderson said. “Hard to survive it, but easy to get across.”
Some areas, like the Tohono O’odham Reservation, are protected by little more than barbed-wire fences, 20 feet of no man’s land and the occasional hum of Border Patrol trucks. Anyone with a keen sense of north can cross it.
While 45 percent of undocumented immigrants are apprehended at least once while trying to cross the border, 97 percent eventually gain entry into the U.S. on any given trip, says the MPI study.
But crossing is one thing. Making it through the hellish maze of jagged rocks, with temperatures regularly reaching 115 degrees in the summer, is another.
“The smugglers have gone to more isolated areas,” Rob Daniels, a Border Patrol spokesman, said, “because we have more of a presence and a deterrence then ever before.”
It means smugglers, and the immigrants they guide, must weave across plains of gray thorny bushes and baked desert and navigate crumbled mountain passes with little or no shade.
The Border Patrol has set up beacons where undocumented immigrants can call for help, which will dispatch a Border Patrol rescue group, but this forces immigrants to give themselves up to the officers, or “la migra.”
“There is a perception that’s taught from the time of their infancy: to be afraid of la migra,” Daniels said.
Anderson recently sat in a chair behind a long desk, just down the hall from his office, staring into a void. He blinked slowly, keeping his eyes closed for a second. Slowly, he wiped his hand across his face and through his hair. Then he took a deep breath.
“The longer a body is out there, the more likely it has been scavenged by critters,” Anderson said. “If you’ve been out there long enough to skeletonize, then you’ve been out there long enough for a coyote, dog, javelina or vulture to either consume part of you or take part of you back to their den.”
Laura Fulginiti, Anderson’s Maricopa County counterpart, empathizes with him.
“It’s overwhelming to be confronted by that day after day after day,” she said. “It jades you.”
Most undocumented immigrants don’t carry identification. Those who do often have false or multiple IDs.
The bodies take weeks, months and sometimes years to be identified. Most have been out in the desert for a while. Sometimes, all Anderson receives is a jaw bone.
A bad day for Anderson and Fulginiti means they spent the day up to their elbows in a corpse that has been roasting in the desert and is filled with maggots.
“Do you remember when Toto runs over and pulls the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz?” Fulginiti asks. “Well, Bruce and I have pulled the curtain back, and we can’t go back to being a regular person.”
Lack of storage room
The walls in Anderson’s office are covered with pictures and diagrams: pictures of skulls in drawers, like knickknacks on a shelf; wooden plaques and accolades; newspaper clippings of rotted corpses; drawings of the human body. During a recent interview, Anderson sat rubbing his stubbly beard and spoke in the same exhausted tone about a lack of storage.
Around 2005, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office ran out of room to store the bodies.
But the cadavers kept coming in, and not enough were being identified or claimed by family members. The office was forced to buy a $60,000 refrigerator truck, “the kind they haul produce in,” Anderson said.
Not long after, the trailer ran out of space and the office added a large freezer/storage unit onto its building.
“It was supposed to be good for 20 years,” Anderson said with a chuckle, noting that the unit is filling up fast. “Nobody foresaw.”
Anderson still has 90 suspected undocumented-immigrant bodies from last year that haven’t been identified. Of the 88 bodies that have already come in this year, at least 25 are piles of bones with no leads as to who they are.
Anderson sometimes asks himself, “What the hell am I doing?” He knows that unless there is a major change in immigration policy, he’ll trudge in every day and be greeted with another body or partial remains that have been rotting in the desert.
“I still look forward to the day – I think everybody in this office does – when something happens where the migrants aren’t dying,” he said. “Where, if they need to come here to work, they’re doing it in a safer way. But they’re just not dying.”
For every undocumented immigrant who dies in Arizona, Anderson puts clues to their identity on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a website that lets relatives from any country find missing kin.
Each time Anderson clears a body from the queue, a family gets a little closure. And that, maybe, makes the job worth it, he said.
“The alternative, not knowing, has got to be worse” for the family, he said.
The Pima County cemetery where the immigrants go after they can’t be identified or sent back to families is also reaching maximum capacity.
Far in the back of the graveyard, past green manicured lawns with men on mowers constantly pruning and edging, is a dirt-and-rock field where there are no fresh flowers.
In one corner are two tan blocks, each the size of two refrigerators laid on their sides and stacked. Numbered boxes the size of motorcycle batteries cover both of them.
Now that Pima County is running out of space for the dead, the immigrants are cremated and kept in the boxes.
Eventually, Anderson will identify 75 percent of the undocumented-immigrant bodies. But it’s likely some of this year’s bodies will end up as ashes in one of these battery-sized boxes.