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The Overton Window: A Migrant’s Tragedy

Migrants risking their lives to cross the US border is a huge political issue but also a quiet, devastating human tragedy

Rossana’s picture looks down on mourners at her funeral service. Photo: Iain Overton

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The service had not been planned. So, they had to ask to use a small space behind a coffee shop, and the place was soon filled. Some were dressed in the huipils (blouses), fajas (belts), and cortes (skirts) of the Guatemalan highlands. Others were in denim shirts and cowboy boots. They took their hats off and when they sang, their voices merged with the passing traffic and raised up into the thin, blue air and grief was marked on their faces.

But this was a wake without a body.

Rossana Azucena Coché Navichoc was just 25 years old when she died crossing the Rio Brava into the United States – some 3,300 km to the north. 

At 11am she, her boyfriend and three others had attempted to enter the Estados Unidos.

By 11.15am, she and her partner, Whitman Alexander Tax Chinic, had drowned in the Rio Brava.  

The last time her mother, Francisca Navichoc Mendoza de Coché, had spoken to her was the day before at 4pm. Rossana was fine; nervous, but excited at the life that awaited her. The promise of a well-paid job in Miami beckoned, and she planned to be there for five years, saving each dollar she could working in a kitchen. Saving up for a future here in San Juan La Laguna in Lake Atitlán, tucked away in the blue-washed mountains of the Sierra Madre. 

It had been nine days since her mother had hugged her a final time, and now the mother stood, gaunt and blinking under a harsh light, lamenting the daughter. Her other children, three daughters, three boys, joined the congregation in reciting the litany of the faith, and paid testimony to a life taken too soon.

Rossana’s funeral service Photo: Iain Overton

This quiet tragedy, unreported by the American press and unrecorded by the Guatemalan government, is just one of unnumbered tragedies that stalk the dangerous crossings into the United States.  Last year, the numbers heading north from Central and South America were so great that a town near where Rossana died – Eagle Pass, Texas – declared a state of emergency

The US Departments of Homeland Security and Justice reported last year that in 2022, more than 890 migrants died attempting to enter the United States across the southwest border, this was up 22% from the year before. And this is just those known – of course, there are the migrants who die who are never found or identified.

Their deaths are hard, and their loss even harder to grasp. In June 2021, 53 people suffocated, cooked inside an overheated trailer on the side of a Texas highway. It was the most deadly smuggling incident in recent US history. Severe injuries caused by people falling from the new border walls – built under President Trump – are on the rise. 

According to the El Paso Times, the number of women in those border-lands more than doubled from last year and more than tripled from 2021. As the paper reported: “If the migrant death toll in El Paso was viewed as a national emergency — an unnatural disaster — it would be larger than that of the Lahaina, Hawaii, and Paradise, California, fires, more deadly than 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. It would draw federal attention and emergency resources.”

But such resources are not forthcoming and the dangers of the crossing did not dissuade Rossanna, nor did the mural in nearby Panajachel that showed a Guatemalan woman reaching towards the Statue of Liberty but instead of seeing the familiar green copper face, all she could see was the hollows of a skull.

Instead, Rossanna had paid 150,000 quetzales (just over £15,000) to the coyotes (smugglers) who had taken her across the border and now the family were left with a debt and no-one to earn it off. Later, a truck would drive through the streets of San Juan and women would follow with small baskets, asking for donations to help pay off the debt.

Rossana’s mother. Photo: Iain Overton

What leads Rossana, and so many like her, to risk their lives to cross the border has become a huge political issue in the United States. In 2023, its border policy underwent significant changes, including the cessation of rapid expulsions under the Title 42 pandemic-era directive and the potential for legal action against unauthorised entry. There was a rise in deportations alongside the establishment of new “legal pathways” for migrants from countries like Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Additionally, asylum seekers are now required to attempt to find refuge in another country first. 

The Biden administration has also declared it would proceed with the construction of the border fence, a u-turn from a previous campaign pledge. It’s a raft of attempts that seem to mimic the UK’s own complicated responses to the far lesser numbers crossing the Channel.

And, far from Washington, families like Rossana’s are just left with the weight of loss and not even a body to bury. 

“She loved singing, cooking.  She was so kind, so sympathetic,” her sister says, wiping away her tears. “The family was so close and this grief just rises.”

Later, the mother meets mourners in a simple shop-front. The local printer has been employed to produce a banner of Rossana. She used to be a teacher here and her college friends come to pay their respects. They stand under her image that hangs on the wall. “Si vivimos, para el Senōr vivimos,” the poster reads. “Y si morimos, par el Senōr morimos”.

“If we live, we live for the Lord. And if we die, we die for the Lord.”

The words are strangely hollow; Rossana’s youthful, smiling face seems so separated from this quiet, devastating tragedy. And so very far from what her crossing promised.

Photo of mural: Iain Overton

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