As an Ob/Gyn in New York, I have spent the last 18 years examining and writing affidavits for women escaping violence and persecution in their home countries to seek asylum in the United States. The stories of what they have survived have always deeply moved me, but due to increasingly harsh U.S. immigration policies, their attempts to flee that violence have themselves become a dramatic and terrifying ordeal.
The stories of these women inspired me to travel as a representative of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to the Sonoran Desert with the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths, a group that leaves life-saving water, canned food, and other supplies for migrants making the perilous journey across the border.
As we embarked upon our day-long journey into the desert, it became immediately apparent why many consider this area to be the deadliest border crossing between Mexico and the United States. There are no marked trails here, just a vast, steep terrain densely covered by thorny bushes.
During the summer months, the temperature frequently reaches 110 degrees; in the winter, temperatures can plummet to as low as 32 degrees at night. Migrants succumb to death from dehydration, hypothermia, heat stroke, accidents, and other dangers. They are often left behind by human smugglers when they cannot keep up or are injured. Many do not survive: since the year 2000, close to 3,000 individual human remains have been recovered in this area.
Migrants succumb to death from dehydration, hypothermia, heat stroke, accidents, and other dangers. They are often left behind by human smugglers when they cannot keep up or are injured. Many do not survive: since the year 2000, close to 3,000 individual human remains have been recovered in this area.
As I came face-to-face with the extreme conditions in the desert, I began to think about my asylum clients who had made the same or similar journeys, fleeing brutal violence and persecution to reach safety in the United States.
Alejandra* was the first woman I evaluated from Central America. When I visited her in U.S. immigration detention, she told me she had fled El Salvador to escape gang members after she could not come up with the escalating extortion money they demanded for her to continue running her small store. One day, gang members entered her store, shot her husband, and raped her daughter. When the police eventually arrived, they sexually assaulted her. It wasn’t the first time she had survived such attacks: as a black woman in El Salvador, Alejandra had always been a target for abuse and persecution. When she was younger, she was kidnapped off the street twice by Salvadoran soldiers, tortured, and raped. The soldiers told her that she must be “against the government” because she was black.
Thousands of people like Alejandra are ready to risk their lives to come to the United States, because remaining in their home countries is a death sentence.
Luckily, Alejandra’s case for asylum in the United States was supported by the forensic medical evaluation that I provided, which assessed the consistency of her physical symptoms and the persecution she recounted. I was thrilled that, ultimately, her case was successful, and she was able to gain asylum. But thousands of other asylum seekers remain in unsafe conditions along the border, caught in limbo by draconian U.S. immigration policies as they await their chance to cross.
After leaving water at several drop points in the Sonoran Desert, we headed back to our truck and pulled on to the paved road to head back to Tucson. We were soon stopped by armed U.S. Border Patrol agents, who questioned us in detail. We were released once they were satisfied that we were American citizens, but the experience was nonetheless unsettling.
As a physician, the delivery of humanitarian aid by No More Deaths and others volunteering at our southern border is not just a kind gesture – it saves human lives. Of grave concern, however, is the increased harassment and targeting of humanitarian aid workers, attorneys, and journalists working with migrants. The criminal prosecution of these individuals makes the desert an even more deadly place for people who desperately need our help.
The provision of medical care and humanitarian aid to asylum seekers fleeing persecution to find safe haven in the United States should never be a crime. As a PHR Asylum Network member, I will continue to help migrants seek asylum, as is their right under the law.
*Name is a pseudonym