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Protestors Demand Immigrant Rights and Condemn SB1070

An Unsolved Murder, A Wave of Hysteria, and Deaths in the Desert

Today's post is from Margaret Regan, author of The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands. Read more about Beacon's immigration titles at "Beyond SB1070" on

book cover for The Death of Josseline Robert Krentz was a modern cowboy. When he patrolled his ranch northeast of Douglas, he rode an ATV, not a horse. No matter. A rancher was a rancher and Krentz's family had run cattle on this 35,000-spread since 1907. Krentz had been trying to restore the parched land, and his innovative water system helped convert a portion of it into a wildlife habitat. In 2008, just after its 100th anniversary, the Krentz ranch was inducted into the Arizona Ranching Hall of Fame.

Krentz was a big man, tall and heavy, and, at fifty-eight, prematurely snowy-haired. He was known as a gentle giant, given to helping out needy border crossers in this heavily traveled migrant corridor. They walked his land regularly, and once his house had been broken into. "If they come in and ask for water, I'll still give them water," he told a PBS interviewer back in 1999. "That's just my nature."

Saturday, March 27, 2010, was a cool day for early spring, only 50 degrees or so. Krentz rumbled out on his ATV to check his water lines, his dog trotting along beside him. There'd been some trouble lately in these rural Cochise County grasslands. Residents blamed migrants for a rash of home robberies. And the day before, Krentz's brother Phil had spotted some drug mules on their ranch and called the Border Patrol; agents arrested eight undocumented immigrants and picked up nearly 300 pounds of marijuana.

At some point Saturday, Rob radioed into Phil; over the crackly airwaves Phil heard the words "illegal alien."

That was the last time Rob Krentz's family heard from him. Hours later, his body was found out on his ranch, still on his ATV. He'd been shot multiple times; his dog lay wounded beside him. The death of Robert Krentz changed the conversation about immigration in the United States. The killing made national and even international news. The county sheriff pleaded for calm, noting that the murder was unsolved (it remained unsolved as of July 2010), but that didn't stop anti-immigrant groups from asserting flatly that Krentz had been shot in cold blood by an undocumented immigrant, or felled by a Mexican drug dealer. Angry citizens around the country demanded that the federal government take action.

With immigration suddenly in the forefront in an election year, politicians rushed to Cochise County to get their pictures taken with local ranchers. The ranchers were distraught over the death of their neighbor, and they worried that the murder signaled an uptick in violence. In Phoenix, state senator Russell Pearce took advantage of the fears to push through the controversial SB 1070. Pearce had had a long career crafting anti-immigrant bills, including an English Only law. SB 1070 was his most far-reaching yet.

The law didn't begin to address the issues of smuggling and drug dealing that Pearce and company used to justify its passage. Instead, it took aim at the immigrant on the street. SB 1070 would require local police who had stopped a suspect for some other reason—say, a traffic violation—to inquire into a person’s legal status if the officer had a "reasonable suspicion" that the person was in the country illegally.

Civil libertarians saw the bill as an extraordinary expansion of police powers, and activists predicted racial profiling. The anti-immigration side contended that it allowed the state to do a job that the federal government was failing to do.

Governor Jan Brewer signed the bill into law at the end of April 2010; it was to go into effect at the end of July. Surveys reported that 70 percent of Arizonans supported SB 1070. So did a majority of Americans. A strong anti-immigrant stance turned out to be a good tactic politically. Brewer was in the middle of an election campaign, and her poll numbers shot up immediately. Senator John McCain, in his own battle for the Republican nomination, bolstered his sagging numbers with tough new talk about the border.

Still, the Obama administration filed suit against the law on constitutional grounds, saying it usurped federal authority to regulate immigration. Critics assailed the president, accusing him of failing to seal the border. Shortly after, trying to deflect the political fallout, Obama and Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano announced the deployment of National Guard troops to the Southwest border. About 524 of those soldiers were headed to Arizona, along with several hundred Border Patrol agents and new Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and a host of new military hardware.

Just before the troops arrived, a federal judge blocked key components of SB 1070 from going into effect as scheduled, and the case seems sure to wend its way ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The election-year hysteria over immigration was out of sync with the facts. By 2010, the numbers of border crossers had dropped precipitously from the highs that prevailed during the Clinton and Bush administrations. In 2000, the Border Patrol Tucson Sector reported some 616,000 apprehensions. By 2009, in the midst of the economic downturn, the arrests dropped to some 250,000. In 2010, the downward slide continued; at the end of the third quarter of the fiscal year, the Tucson Sector had tallied about 170,000.

And much of the border was sealed; a wall already stretched across 307 miles of the 376- mile line between Arizona and Sonora. FBI stats indicated that crime was down all across southern Arizona. These were inconvenient truths for the politicians, who largely ignored them. Governor Brewer, now in the national limelight, asserted that "the majority" of undocumented immigrants were working for the Mexican drug cartels. Her claim contradicted the Border Patrol's own data, which showed that about 10 percent of captured migrants have criminal records.

Playing on the grisly reports coming out of Mexico about drug cartel slaughters, Brewer went on to declare that illegal immigration had triggered a wave of "beheadings" in the Arizona desert. Again, the assertion was flat-out false: the state's medical examiners in the state said they had seen no such bodies.

Immigration hysteria has historically been linked to economic fears, and in America's worst recession since the Great Depression, the airwaves were full of venom toward "illegals." Arizona state senator Al Melvin told me on a Tucson radio talk show that it was the state's undocumented who had caused Arizona's economic woes. His argument crazily sidestepped not only the Wall Street collapse but also the inherent weakness of Arizona’s economy; the state relies heavily on the construction of new houses for new residents seeking sunshine. After the housing bubble burst, Arizona was hard hit. But these facts didn't stop Melvin and others from putting the blame on undocumented farm workers, hotel cleaning women, roofers, and gardeners.

During all the tumult, hardly anyone was talking about Arizona's humanitarian crisis—the wholesale deaths of migrants in the desert.

On February 26, a month before Rob Krentz died, Edwin Aroldo Estrada, thirty-two, perished from complications of pneumonia in Sierra Vista, some fifty miles west of the Krentz ranch. The day after Krentz's death, Ballardo Huerta Avila, twenty-seven, died on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, west of Sells.

On April 27, days after Brewer signed SB 1070, Elvira Brambila-Vallejo, forty-four, died of peritonitis in the desert northwest of Tucson. Her coyotes kicked her out of the van and left her to die by the side of the road, her young son at her side.

On May 26, Martín Olguin-Lozoya, a strapping six-foot-two native of Nogales, Sonora, died just minutes into his American journey. Unlike Lilian Escalante Abrego, who survived a train ride all the way from Honduras to Arizona, Olguin-Lozoya lasted just a few miles on the Union Pacific Railroad. Near the picturesque town of Tubac, he fell between two train cars and was crushed to death. June brought the death of a pregnant woman, Maria Reyes Ramirez, and her unborn child in a car crash near Benson.

With every mile of wall built, with every increase of manpower in the Border Patrol, the death toll has risen. The year Josseline died, 183 bodies were found in southern Arizona. The next year, fiscal 2009, the number shot up to 206. And midway through 2010, the deaths were on pace to surpass that number. At the end of June 2010, Kat Rodriguez had counted 153 bodies, twenty-eight more than the 125 she tallied at the same time the year before.

July 2010 turned hot and dry, with no sign of the cooling monsoon rains. Dozens died from dehydration and exposure, most of them perishing in the far reaches of Tohono O'odham land. By late in the month, fifty-eight migrant bodies had been brought to Dr. Bruce Parks's morgue in Pima County. It was one of the medical examiner's worst months ever. He had so many bodies that once again he ran out of room in his morgue. For the first time since 2006, he had to put the county's refrigerated truck back into service as a portable morgue, storing the bodies in the big rig on a lot out back. Inside his building, he had room for about 200 full-size bodies; the truck gave him space for about twenty-five more. But he had a lot more than 225 corpses on hand. Dead migrants' corpses dry up and shrivel out in the desert, or they're scattered by animals, and "a lot of the bodies are only partial remains," Dr. Parks said. They're small enough that he can squeeze more than one set into each slot. "I probably have about three hundred people right now," he said. "And most of those are border crossers."