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Borderline schizophrenia.

America's national ambiguity about immigration leads to death in the desert.

THE REV. ROBIN HOOVER LEADS AN UNUSUAL gang of off-roaders in Arizona who devote a good chunk of their free time to long, bumpy rides into the Sonoran desert out to a pair of rudimentary water stations they've thrown together among the sand, the cactus, and the blazing desert heat. Each station--really nothing more than a circle of metal drums filled with water, equipped with emergency provisions, and topped by a large flag to improve its locatability--has to be restocked weekly.

Hoover's group is called Humane Borders (HB), and its aim is pretty simple: to make water available to Central American and Mexican migrants trying to find their way to the American dream across the treacherous southern desert. Hoover regularly stumbles upon thirsty migrants out near his stations--mostly teenagers, mostly people with no idea of the kind of danger they are getting into when they set out into the desert for their long, dazed journey to a restaurant, manicured lawn, or construction site near you.

In March, HB petitioned to establish similar water stations in the Cebeza Prieta National Park, but it was turned away by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency worried that HB's activities might disturb the endangered prong-horned antelope. That decision turned out to be especially unfortunate for a group of would-be American laborers in May when they found themselves abandoned and without water in Prieta. Fourteen died under the desert sun before survivors were rescued by the border patrol.

A crackdown at urban border crossings has meant that people who wish to enter or leave the United States without the benefit of paperwork must conduct their crossings along increasingly remote stretches of the border where they have less chance of being caught but more chance of dying. But it could be that what is really killing so many would-be immigrants to America is not that forced march across the desert. It's America's structural ambiguity about illegal immigration, an ambiguity that has only deepened under George W. Bush, a conservative who extends temporary residence status to "illegal" immigrants, supports a general amnesty for others, and plans to expand the U.S. "guest worker" program.

The AFL-CIO, a onetime foe of illegal immigrants, also supports a general amnesty that may help beef up its flagging union numbers. Utah, North Carolina, and Tennessee issue driver's licenses to "illegal" residents, and other states are considering similarly formalizing their informal U.S. existence. While law enforcement strives mightily to keep migrants from crossing the border, once they've run that inhuman gauntlet there is virtually no effort to remove them, and that's because nobody wants them to go--not the factory and restaurant owners who hire them, not the families whose children they watch or homes they clean or lawns they maintain, not even the politicians in Washington if they could own up to it.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service commits only 300 full-time agents to workplace enforcement, and that's probably a good idea. If they somehow rounded up the 6 to 9 million illegal workers in our economy, it's hard to imagine how the nation's restaurants, hospitals, garment factories, food processing plants--fill in the blank--could stay in business. There are few U.S. citizens who can honestly say they do not know or have not encountered "illegal" immigrants in their daily lives. It appears finally that the only thing "illegal" about undocumented aliens is the physical act of crossing the border without permission. And if nobody seems to care that "illegals" among us are taking jobs, driving cars, joining unions, and otherwise contributing to U.S. society, why exactly are those people dying in Cabeza Prieta?

While the rest of us try to answer that question, volunteers from Humane Borders will continue to drive out into the desert. We could save them the trip by devising an immigration policy that takes both humanity and reality into account and begins to dispel some of our deadly institutionalized ambiguity--maybe a policy that would legitimize the status of those migrants already here, that would be more generous to people who want to be here, and that would acknowledge and protect those who want to work for shorter spells in jobs other folks in the U.S. apparently have little interest in taking. In short, a policy that will mean no one will have to make that long, desperate walk across the desert ever again.

KEVIN CLARKE, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.
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Title Annotation:illegal immigrants from Mexico
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Previous Article:Can I get a witness?
Next Article:Lost and found.

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