Weaponizing the Desert at the U.S.–Mexico Border

Waist-high, metal bollards stretch across the desert toward chaparral hillsides in the background.

The Sonoran Desert spans 100,000 square miles of difficult beauty stretched across the United States and Mexico border. With blistering summers and mild winters, towering cactus and delicate lupines, big cats and monarch butterflies, the Sonoran Desert’s complexity is a marvel of environmental contrasts. Its rivers, mountains, and deserts veer season to season from bleak to abundant, epitomizing both the aesthetic austerity and fecundity of the desert southwest.

Such profuse and severe beauty is contrasted with deadliness, and the environmental hazards that the Sonoran Desert poses for human life have increasingly set the stage for the most deadly theater of U.S. immigration policy. Historical fortification of larger segments of the southwest border has channeled migrants into increasingly inhospitable parts of the U.S. border with Mexico, like the Sonoran Desert. Since 1999, over 3,000 undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America have died within the U.S. portion of this sprawling desert. Examining this funnel effect of the U.S.’s immigration policy illustrates how the U.S. government has tacitly weaponized and enlisted nature into its state-security infrastructure.

A dirt road cuts through the center of this photo, with lush desert cacti and brush growing at its edges.

A single road winds through Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Photo by gem66, 2005.

Deadly Deserts as Border Infrastructure

Despite verbose declarations of impenetrable walls and fences, the gaps within the fortified border have long served as a deadly deterrent and key component in the southern border strategy of decades of successive U.S. presidential administrations. The U.S.–Mexico border spans a complex collection of private lands, government holdings, and national parks, as well as Native American reservations. Political intervention has turned Arizona’s portion of the Sonoran Desert, a patchwork of parks and reservations, into potentially deadly natural infrastructure against immigration. Currently, a vast majority of existing border fencing in Arizona is anti-vehicle, composed of a forest of bollards or spindly ironwork designed to stop vehicles—not people on foot. For the most part, the Sonoran Desert is bracketed by anti-pedestrian fencing in California and Texas, while the bulk of Arizona and New Mexico’s border is either composed of anti-vehicle fences or open entirely. This layout, combined with immigrants’ conscious avoidance of Arizona’s larger cities and towns, funnels border-crossers into the teeth of the Sonoran Desert.

The effect of this border strategy on human life was acknowledged in a 2001 report on the former Immigration and Naturalization Service’s southwest border strategy. The authors of the report, composed by the General Accounting Office (GAO), wrote of the assumption that, by fortifying traditional immigrant crossing points, the U.S. government could reduce border crossings because “natural barriers such as rivers, mountains, and the harsh terrain of the desert would act as deterrents to illegal entry.” Instead, they found that a “sizable number” of immigrants still tried to cross natural border barriers and concluded that “the strategy has resulted in an increase in deaths from exposure to either heat or cold.”

The desert landscape creates a perception of emptiness and passivity where, in fact, there is an active leveraging of the environment as a deterrent to immigration.

According to the watchdog group Humane Borders, since 2001 (the same year the GAO’s report was released), over 3,000 migrant deaths have occurred within the Pima County Medical Examiner office’s jurisdiction, which covers most of Arizona’s border with Mexico. Additionally, while comprising just 62 miles of Arizona’s 370-mile border, the Tonoho O’odham Nation has been the site of 1,276 migrant deaths since official record-keeping started in 2000. These numbers not only show how the inhospitable lands at the U.S.–Mexico border claim the lives of hundreds of migrants annually, but also reveal the power of nature embedded within the U.S. government’s anti-immigration strategy. Viewed from this perspective, the Sonoran Desert landscape is itself a form of border infrastructure.

Ashley Carse, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University and author of Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal, writes of the tension between nature and infrastructure, where infrastructure is viewed as artificial or constructed, while nature is believed to be infrastructure’s opposite. Yet, Carse also rightly observes that “nearly every environment worldwide has been modified by human labor.” Human labor thoroughly marks the Sonoran Desert—from public and private roads and structures to manmade fences of every sort or purpose—even though this environmental repurposing might not be readily apparent to an observer. While Carse focuses on the Panama Canal, his understanding of the blurred lines between what is natural and artificial can be read as an invitation to shift the attention we pay to the U.S.’s border with Mexico—a shift that would focus not on walls and fences, but instead look to the desert environment composing the numerous gaps in the nearly two-thousand-mile-long border. These gaps, remotely or lightly managed by border officials, remain crucial to the overall border infrastructure. They create the perception of emptiness and passivity where, in fact, there is an active leveraging of the environment as a deterrent in service of political policy. Nature is made to work in tandem with infrastructure to fortify the border.

The blending of nature and infrastructure not only serves to fortify the actual border but also functions as a powerful symbol in U.S. culture. Carse would argue that this seemingly secondary function—the symbolic role that infrastructure takes on—is actually fundamental to the concept. Carse’s analysis of the Panama Canal watershed frames both the canal system and the water it directs as a form of infrastructure with the purpose to not only deliver “critical services for human communities,” but also achieve a “higher-order objective.” In the case of the Panama Canal, interocean commerce is the “higher-order objective,” while in the deserts of Sonora, “higher-order objectives” take form as anti-immigration, counterterrorism, or counter-narcotics efforts.

Signs warning of "smuggling and illegal immigration" line the side of a dirt road in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Signs warning of “smuggling and illegal immigration” line the side of a dirt road in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Photo by Anna Irene, 2015.

The border desert has also, for generations, been the testing ground for new manifestations of white nationalistic impulses. The desire to manage and control U.S. demographics, often along racial lines, facilitate the border desert’s conversion into natural/national security infrastructure through social expressions of disgust of the “other” crossing the border and, according to these views, bringing chaos. In Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood, Alexandra Minna Stern writes of attitudes regarding the border during the first decades of the 20th century that resonate with the ways that President Donald Trump now describes immigration to his supporters: “In the early decades of this century, the ‘boundary line’ became (as it remains) pivotal to demarcating the modern United States body politic. Fears over miscegenation and the centrifugal forces of barbarous Mexico threatened the United States with irrevocable decline.”

Fears of contagion or intrusion of the “other” were also harnessed by a more unexpected group: conservationists. Jessica Piekielek, in Creating a Park, Building a Border, describes the first decades of the Organ Pipe National Monument during which environmental conservationists used “national fears of contagion from Mexico” and “notions of citizenship” as a way to “delineate acceptable park visitors and residents.” Piekielek describes, in effect, National Park Service efforts at the Sonoran Desert border in terms of both conservation and national security. While seemingly dissimilar, the historical values of land preservation have coincided with national fears about drugs, crime, disease, and immigration, and created the conditions where security and conservation exist side-by-side, effortlessly shifting between nature’s preservation while at the same time creating a weaponized natural infrastructure.

The Weaponization of Environmental Infrastructure

Examining the pejorative language of border enforcement exposes how nature is weaponized in service of state security infrastructure. Federal law pertaining to immigration and nationality, outlined in Title 8 of the United States Code, refers to interdicted border crossers as “illegal aliens.” Compared to the non-malicious “undocumented border crosser,” of the Pima County Medical Examiner, labeling a human being “illegal” pushes the migrant out of the realm of the holder of human rights into the political domain of an “illegal” person.  The mechanism of illegal persons is particularly useful for national operations in border zones, which are turned into “zones of indistinction, where human rights can be suspended,” writes Ozgun Topak, human rights and border researcher at York University, Toronto. The migrant funneled into the harsh Sonoran Desert places the guilt of an “illegal” life on the border crosser and allows the U.S. government to physically punish transgressors without ever apprehending them by rendering migrant deaths as deaths by misadventure.

A large, orange rescue beacon that looks like a telephone pole stands in the middle of a remote desert.

A Customs and Border Patrol Rescue Beacon. Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 2007.

Though U.S. immigration policy has actively leveraged the Sonoran Desert to serve as border infrastructure, such an appropriation of the environment also provides the cover of plausible deniability. Attempts to displace blame or remove responsibility draw on Leanne Weber’s idea of “implicatory denial . . . where governments actively seek to justify harmful actions, or at least deny moral responsibility for them.” Signs dot the border region—from road signs to information placards about the local flora and fauna. In addition to signs directed to tourists, there are signs throughout the border desert warning of military training activity, dangerous animals, and signs atop purported “Rescue Beacons,” which declare: “You cannot walk to safety from this point. You are in danger of dying if you do not summon help.” For the entire length of the Arizona border with Mexico, there were 53 Rescue Beacons monitored by federal border officials as of 2015. Hazard warnings establish a moral distance between a government strategy and the migrant victim, placing any repercussions on the migrant. Doubly guilty of ignoring warnings of the harsh environment and being an “illegal” border crosser, the migrant receives little care or compassion from the government apparatus. As Topak observes, “sovereign border practices reign supreme over human rights and migrants are abandoned to death.” This hierarchy of rights on display at the U.S.–Mexico border transforms the desert from a topographical collection of flora and fauna, into a construct of border security infrastructure, and finally into a weapon.

The stated goal of the southwest border strategy has been to partially halt the inflow of immigrants by pushing them, as a deterrent, into known hazardous terrain.  Deterrence, at its heart, only works when it unambiguously demonstrates the potency of the threatened punishment. The weaponization of the Sonoran Desert is made starkly evident in the numbers of deceased border crossers. Purposefully bounded and surveyed by man-made security infrastructure, the Sonoran Desert becomes a passive weapon through human agency and a specific anti-immigration strategy.

The blending of nature and infrastructure not only serves to fortify the actual border, but also functions as a powerful symbol in U.S. culture.

The passive nature of these desert border gaps is conceptually similar to the minefield tactics of militaries. Where military units fortify particular areas with manpower and equipment, minefields leave avenues open to either disrupt or harm enemy forces. Like a minefield, which transforms “terrain to the defender’s advantage, rather than providing a definitive barrier,” the “nature” filled gaps of the U.S.’s border infrastructure deceive those who would cross into it, allowing movement but with the potential for deadly costs. The policy of deterrence, which funnels migrants through the desert, is couched in a warning of pain or possible death. If the object—the desert as a passive security system that can cause pain or death—is under de facto control of the person giving the warning, then the object becomes a weapon and not just an innocuous national park or desert. With the declaration of its role in security and forewarning of the potential harm, the Sonoran Desert is immediately weaponized, and like a forgotten landmine, can kill when a human interacts with it.

The Sonoran Desert occupies a dichotomous position in the environmental and security landscape of the United States, a place where those with the right paperwork are permitted for leisure or those without paperwork are punished for the transgression. For most, their only “crime” was being undocumented seekers of a better life. Paralleling increasingly ginned-up rhetoric against undocumented immigrants, federal policymakers and enforcers have crafted or carried out anti-immigration strategies to interdict or deport immigrants, but never with a mandate to harm. Yet, this is what the Sonoran Desert has become in an era of increased border scrutiny: an often-deadly infrastructural apparatus in the ostensible service of U.S. security.

Featured image: Anti-vehicle bollards run along the southern edge of the Tonoho O’odham Reservation. Photo by Meditations on the Collapse, 2008.

Kevin Cooney is an independent scholar of human ecology and ecocriticism with an environmental studies degree from Harvard. He is driven to communicate solutions and ideas that realize environmental equity. As a freelance writer with over 10 years’ experience in journalism and communications, Kevin explores environmental concepts as well as ideas of the uncanny and estrangement in science fiction and horror. Twitter. Contact.