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People are dying to come to America.

Good fences make good neighboers. That's apparently the opinion of the Clinton administration, which has over the past several years broadened efforts to seal off the U.S.-Mexico border behind sturdier fencing and a border patrol that has more than doubled. When Pat Buchanan called for longer stretches of the border to be fenced or otherwise closed off with trenches or walls, he was dismissed as a right-wing zealot. Somehow President Clinton has escaped similar criticism even as he seems to have adopted a lot of Buchanan's border vision, overseeing the largest military and paramilitary buildup along the 2,500-mile border in decades while expanding the length of actual fencing throughout border urban zones.

The fencing has not met with universal approval. The main criticism centers around its frank ugliness. Vietnam-era helicopter landing mats--not noted for their aesthetic appeal--have been used to create most of the fencing that has been erected in urban areas where illegal crossings had been rampant.

Planners from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have apparently taken some of the criticism to heart and in Nogales, Mexico have replaced a small section of the drab army-green fencing with a pink pastel, user-friendly wall they believe more simpatico to Latin temperaments. The prettier fence allows folks on either side of the border to look out over the other side and even to communicate through, but it's tall enough to prevent any clambering over the top. Unlike the fence it replaces, however, climbers are less likely to have fingers sheared off by unprotected edges or to break their legs landing on the other side.

The pink pastel may be more soothing to the eye, but it does little to prettify the reality of the hard-scramble life along the border. If the fencing of urban areas in border towns like Nogales and San Diego has made crossing more difficult for the Mexican and Central American migrants who manage to reach the border, it hasn't succeeded in discouraging the migration into the fabled el norte. While many will still find a way to get across--or under--the fences, others are seeking easier but ultimately more dangerous crossings at spots where the fences run out--in the vast stretches of the borderlands' deserts.

Needless to say, some migrants are not finding their yearned-for escape into the land of milk and honey but a dreadful end in the desert from exposure, exhaustion, or dehydration. A study from the Center for Immigration Research reports that since 1993 nearly 1,200 people have died trying to cross the border. That number is likely to represent a gross undercount. It's easy to die alone and undetected in the desert.

Migrants have been asphyxiated by pesticides after stowing away on produce cars; some are hit by cars trying to cross border highways. Most of the deaths have been caused by drowning as migrants become trapped by flash floods in drainage ditches as they try to find less-obvious routes into the United States.

Critics of U.S. border policy charge that more deaths are resulting because of routes taken around the new fences and that many more such fence-evasion fatalities are likely to occur. The INS has acknowledged the problem with a TV ad campaign. Featuring lurid footage of migrants who didn't quite finish their journeys, the campaign's straightforward message is: "No Pase! No muera!" ("Don't cross; don't die"). Unfortunately a lot of folks don't watch as much television as the INS thought or are too desperate to pay any attention because desert crossings continue despite the danger.

However deadly they may be proving to migrants, the new fences have so far proved at least statistical successes in reducing the number of illegal crossings in border urban zones. But even some border patrol officials wonder what the point of the new fencing is if migrants simply go around it. After years of public pressure to do something about controlling illegal border-crossings, the fences have their appeal. Some might argue that if migrants choose to skirt them at more dangerous spots, they're assuming the risk and the culpability for any unpleasant results in the desert.

I'm not so sure. If I place high-voltage wiring around my home, I'll likely discourage burglary, but if someone were killed trying to break into my house, wouldn't I be held liable for that death? Wouldn't someone say that even legitimate security needs do not justify lethal measures? The U.S. has every moral and legal right to control its border as it sees fit, but 1,200 or so deaths should mean something--do mean something--and have to be part of the policy-making equation.

American capital flows south in pursuit of lower wages. Southern laborers begin a more perilous journey north to escape the crushing poverty those lower wages offer them. But while capital makes its way around the planet unmolested, the counterflight of labor in pursuit of higher wages is technically illegal if practically unstoppable. At the same time that Americans angrily call for some level of control of the border, America's service and agricultural industries, and to a great extent what remains of its manufacturing industry, cry out for cheap labor. Along our desert borderlands, migrants pay for this national schizophrenia with their lives. People will continue to come to the U.S. looking for work; American business will be happy to have them--whatever their documentation.

There are a couple of ways to be a good neighbor. One is to fence off your property and allow as little contact as possible between you and your neighbors. The other way is to tear down the fence and speak with your neighbors, find out what makes them tick, hear what their hopes and dreams are, learn about their problems, maybe even find ways to resolve them together.

Good fences may make good neighbors, but I gotta tell you that second option strikes me as just a little more neighborly.
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Title Annotation:Margin Notes
Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:985
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