The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the immigration debate rages, she quietly counts the dead along the border — and memorializes them with quilts

Migrant Quilt Project from 2001-02, when 163 migrants entering the country died along the U.S. border (Wilson Graham)

The enormous migrant caravan of people currently walking day and night toward the U.S.-Mexico border, some with baby strollers, has added fuel to the country’s raging immigration debate as President Trump called it an “invasion” of Central Americans and announced he is sending U.S. troops and razor wire to the border.

But for Jody Ipsen, an American woman who lives near the border, the immigration issue is much more quiet and somber. For more than a decade, Ipsen has been keeping track of how many people die on their journey into the United States, and she memorializes them in quilts, then tours the quilts around the country.

“It’s an emotionally charged project — I feel like I’ve been living in grief for the past 11 years,” said Ipsen. “Still, it’s so important to humanize these people.”

Ipsen learns the names of the dead from the Pima County medical examiner. When their names are not known, she and other volunteer quilters stitch “desconocido,” Spanish for unknown — or in the most heartbreaking patchwork, “baby” for an unknown infant who has died.

The quilts are filled with the names of the 3,200 bodies that have been found since 2000 along the 262-mile stretch of Arizona desert on the U.S.-Mexico border called the Tucson Sector.

Ipsen has dedicated countless hours to recognizing and remembering those people who died seeking a better life. She’s the founder of the Migrant Quilt Project, an organization that makes a quilt each year with volunteers who stitch the names of the deceased.

The 17 quilts that have so far been stitched have incorporated scraps of clothing found in desert migrant camps.

Currently, a sewing group is designing and stitching together a quilt in honor of 122 migrants who died in the Tucson Sector between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30.

Ipsen discovered her first migrant camp in 2005 during a backpacking trip in the Huachuca Mountains on the U.S.-Mexico border. She stumbled across an abandoned campsite littered with clothing, canned beans, diapers and empty water bottles.

At first glance, Ipsen, who lives in Tucson, thought that somebody had “trashed the desert.”

"I was appalled, wondering how anyone could do such a thing,” she said.

But a closer look at the belongings scattered around a large section of conifers and mesquite revealed a different story. The items had been left behind by migrant families on their way from Central America to the United States, fleeing economic distress.

“They had no way to make a living,” she said.

During her mountain trek, Ipsen learned that the dirty encampment she’d found was a “layup” site where families abandoned almost everything before being picked up by a paid driver, known as a coyote, who would help get them across the border.

“I was stunned by the number of items left behind, but was even more stunned to learn when I got home how many people didn’t make it and died in the desert,” she said.

After her vacation, Ipsen volunteered to help a few local humanitarian groups place water supplies along migrant trails in the desert, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the people who had died.

“Who will remember these people?” she said. “How can we give them a voice when they die?”

In 2007, Ipsen, now 48, came up with The Migrant Quilt Project and the idea to use scraps of clothing found in the migrant camps to memorialize those who had died. She and other volunteers decided to make a quilt each year, and also for each year going back to 2000, when the medical examiner first began recording the number of migrant deaths.

Currently, the collection of 17 quilts is traveling to museums and libraries nationwide, with the latest display set for Nov. 13 to Dec. 7 at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The quilts often travel across Arizona but have visited places like Michigan and Massachusetts. And in 2012, they were in the Washington area at the United Church of Christ Church in Bethesda for an immigration conference.

Data show that the flow of immigrants is increasing, despite new immigration crackdowns. The number of migrant parents entering the county with children has surged to record levels in the three months since President Trump ended family separations at the border, while unaccompanied children and single adults apprehended at the border remained essentially unchanged.

The number of deaths along the border in recent years has remained mostly steady in the range of about 125 to 282 per year.

“That number hasn’t changed much because crossing the desert is a dangerous proposition, especially during summer months,” Ipsen said.

It was after Ipsen learned that a record 282 migrants had perished in the Tucson Sector between 2004 and 2005 that she reached out to artists and quilters in Tucson to create memory quilts from the discarded clothing that she’d found in the Sonoran Desert. Most of the pants and shirts were black or navy, helping the wearers to avoid detection at night. Ipsen also brought back children’s clothing, bandanas and dozens of bordados — embroidered cloths that were once filled with tortillas, given by loved ones to migrants at the beginning of their journeys.

Although quilters never use clothing that came directly from deceased migrants, “we do our best to find out as many names as we can,” Ipsen said.

The personal stories about the deceased migrants aren’t always known, but volunteers are sometimes able to piece together snippets of their lives.

It isn’t uncommon for quilters to cry while they work on the project, said Linda Laird, 76, of Green Valley, Ariz., who meets other quilters at a local library every two weeks to add names to squares of denim and camouflage fabric. She’s devoted more than 100 hours to the endeavor.

“It’s heartbreaking to cut the embroidered word ‘baby’ from a piece of clothing and insert it into a quilt block,” Laird said. “The dead were so hopeful of a better existence, fleeing from impossible circumstances. I am honored to embroider their names.”

Laird said she wants people to look at the country’s border problem from a humanitarian’s point of view and said she hopes the quilt will “cause them to think more deeply about migrants.”

Reading the names of those who have died crossing the desert brings the crisis home, added Peggy Hazard, 64, a retired art exhibit curator from Tucson who now helps manage the Migrant Quilt Project.

“Many viewers have told us that they didn’t realize the deaths on the border were happening,” she said. “Or, if they were aware, they had no idea there had been so many deaths.”

While most migrant deaths in the desert are attributed to dehydration or hypothermia, Hazard said, others die in car accidents, sometimes when their coyote guides attempt to flee border police.

Then there are others, like Josseline Hernandez, who are simply left behind.

In 2007, Josseline, 14, was traveling in a group from El Salvador with her younger brother to be reunited with their mother in California, said Hazard, when the girl became sick. The group’s coyote decided that she should not continue the journey and left her to die in the desert.

Ipsen said she often thinks about former Illinois park service employee Jamie Pasillas, who was sent back to Mexico when his visa expired in 2012. After his renewal application was turned down, she said, he decided to walk across the U.S. border with a group led by a coyote, but he became injured and fell behind. He ultimately died just a few miles from the country he had adopted as his own years before.

When the Migrant Quilt Project display came to Waukegan, Ill., this year, one of the viewers in attendance was Pasillas’s cousin, who was surprised and grateful to find his relative’s name artfully stitched on a blue denim quilt covered with small skulls.

“He thanked us for humanizing his loved one,” said Ipsen. “That’s why we’re doing this — to express the lives of those who would otherwise be nameless.”

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