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Politicking the border: the deaths of 17 migrants in an overheated semi trailer brought on a bout of political hand-wringing. But what will escalating atrocities at the border mean for long-term change to enforcement policies?

The second time I tried crossing, we got lucky. We left that night at 6 p.m. It took 45 minutes of straight running to get across. I wore tennis shoes. Since it was flat, it was easier. There were three coyotes running with us. They tell you to wear dark clothes when you cross. I ran all right--I used to play soccer--but there was one woman, she was young but fat. She had two kids. They didn't make it. Some other women couldn't take the running, so the coyotes went back for them. And then we waited on the side of the highway for a van to come get us.

It was dark. We were all lying on the pavement close together until the van came at 9 p.m. We had to pile in on top of each other We couldn't move. There were 16 or 17 of us in there and two coyotes. Everyone was twisting around; some were pinned down by others. The driver was flooring it. After a while, the driver pulled in somewhere and left the van. We all stayed inside. Ten minutes passed before he came back. He was trying to throw the migra off our tail.

--Jorge, 16, a migrant from Santa Rosa, Oaxaca, who entered the U.S. in May 2003

I've only actually gotten into a full-blown foot pursuit once in my career. We'd drive by these places where the day laborers would gather. They can be a real nuisance because they end up peeing all over the place. And sometimes there's dope dealing. The neighbors are always complaining. The majority of them are illegal

We'd try to grab a couple of guys. Occasionally they'd be like, "Hey, here's my green card." And we're" like, "Ok, bye-bye." This one time we jumped out of the van and they started running. Unfortunately, I was wearing construction boots--back when I didn't know better. After that I wore my running shoes.

--Special Agent, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Los Angeles County

Ever since the U.S. border migrated south in 1848, migrants have been heading north in search of work and sustenance. As more Mexicans and Central Americans trekked northward over the years, the U.S. began to set visa caps and seal off major corridors for vehicle and foot traffic. With each preventative measure, the journey to slip past the Border Patrol became more treacherous. Many border scholars say, when the news broke May 14, 2003, that law enforcement officers found the bodies of 17 would-be migrants in the back of an overheated semi in Victoria, Texas, it was the woefully predictable outcome of a century and a half of mounting tension. Nineteen Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran nationals died in total, making it the greatest loss of life in a human smuggling operation in modern history.

Law enforcement and government officials from across the political spectrum called the incident a tragedy, but no one dared to claim responsibility for a border policy gone horribly awry. Instead, Victoria became a prime opportunity for political posturing, an opportunity to set the tone for the next round of the immigration reform debate on Capitol Hill. Bob Wallis, Regional Director for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told CNN it was a "heinous, heinous crime." From Homeland Security in Washington, Asa Hutchinson, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, said, "This grim discovery is a horrific reminder of the callous disregard smugglers have for their human cargo. These ruthless criminals, who put profit before people, will be tracked down, apprehended and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." Hutchinson and others in the Bush administration may paint themselves as the heroes in this scenario, and curry favor with legislators in time for the upcoming debates on immigration reform.

Avenging Ruthless Behavior

Much as the Bushies love to simplify things, the notion of "bringing the perpetrators" of north-south violence "to justice" is a bit perplexing. Who is really perpetrating, after all? Homeland Security deploys in excess of 10,000 patrol agents along the southwest border; arms them with heat-detecting scopes, night-vision goggles, ground sensors, 24-hour video surveillance, and guns; and in many areas, wards off would-be invaders with a 15-foot steel fence. California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF) says they've documented 2,400 migrant deaths in the border region since 1995 from drowning, dehydration, heat stroke, hypothermia, suffocation in trucks and trains, traffic accidents, and homicide. It's easy to blame the multi-billion-dollar smuggling industry for placing migrants in perilous situations. But we're not talking about pleasure travel here. "Don Leopoldo," an immigrant advocate in San Diego's Oaxacan community explains most migrants' mindframe: "They say to themselves, 'If I'm going to die of hunger, I'd rather die walking.' If Immigration keeps putting up barriers, we'll keep coming and the polleros [smugglers] will keep profiting."

Despite real demands for low-income labor in the U.S., the current border policy makes it necessary for workers to set out under cover of night, risking everything, to pursue "help wanted" jobs. This setup is anything but accidental, many scholars and activists believe. Fear and secrecy are actually part of the equation. "A cheap labor flux without the necessary quotient of fear and uncertainty imposed by illegality might cease to be cheap labor," author Mike Davis writes in the introduction to Joseph Nevins's Operation Gatekeeper. The Border Patrol's military front at the U.S.-Mexico border perpetuates--and perpetrates--class--and race-based violence, effectively fueling the smuggling industry and keeping it in business. Border deaths won't disappear without policy changes; but, says CRLAF Director Claudia Smith, "Unless 19 migrants die in a single day, there isn't much consternation."

The Victoria incident may have rattled George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, but probably not enough to get Bush back to the negotiating table on a new immigration pact. With the economy faltering and so much else in turmoil, the cowboy presidents are unlikely to agree on the so-called "whole enchilada" plan, which would have included legalization of undocumented U.S. residents, provision of more visas to U.S.-bound emigrants, and development of a safer border region (in both the "national security" and the danger-free sense). According to Mexican Consul General Georgina Lagos in San Francisco, the best we can hope for in this post-9/11 climate is a settlement on one tiny corner of the "enchilada" that deals with a temporary worker agreement. Both presidents, progressive and conservative Americans, and international human rights activists can all agree on regularizing workflow, but the terms of any specific arrangement will be hotly contested.

Democrats have gone silent on the blanket amnesty issue. Republicans are vying for a non committal, employer-contingent guest worker program that will benefit big business. Progressive interfaith leaders and immigrant rights advocates argue that humans have a basic right to move safely and legally across a border in search of work, and they should not be wed to any employer contracts in order to remain in the country. Ultra-conservative lobbyists, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) contingent, still pipe in every so often with their pleas for a temporary halt on all immigration. The legislative proposals, which a handful of Republicans plan to present beginning this summer, prioritize labor demands over labor protections. As Consul General Lagos indicated, finding the murky middle ground amidst such disparate opinions is probably the best we can hope for.

Gatekeepers Hold the Line

If we got of rid of immigration enforcement, we'd be absolutely flooded. Instead of a slow steady influx of hundreds of thousands a year, you'd have tens of millions. You'd have these slums popping up and the environmental effects of that. You'd essentially take whatever misery is in Mexico and Central America and just bring it here.

--Special Agent, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, L.A. County

Since the Border Patrol's inception in 1904, the agency has been caught up in the business of intercepting unwanted trespassers--primarily working-class people of color. According to the agency's official website, the first 75 mounted guards from El Paso to San Diego spent most of their time repelling Chinese immigrants who were attempting to enter the country in violation of the Chinese exclusion laws. During the Depression, hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican descent were "repatriated" to Mexico although more than half of them--it turned out--were U.S. citizens. As Juan Ramon Garcia documents in Operation Wetback, migrants in the 1950s were already dying by the hundreds each year, attempting to bypass the Border Patrol.

With the onset of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the Border Patrol began to clamp down on increased flow of northbound migrants, who were, oddly enough, fleeing the effects of NAFTA in their home countries. In his book Upside Down, Eduardo Galeano explains, "Paradoxically, while workers from the South migrate North, or at least risk the attempt against all odds, many factories from the North migrate South. Money and people pass each other in the night." INS Commission Meissner foresaw this pattern unfolding and warned Congress just before NAFTA kicked in (as Joseph Nevins quotes in Operation Gatekeeper) that "responding to the likely short-to-medium term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border."

The federal government responded to Meissner's message by launching a series of law enforcement offensives, intensifying the U.S. border presence in major cities and towns. As their dramatic names indicate, the premise of El Paso's Operation Hold the Line (1993), San Diego's Operation Gatekeeper (1994), Tucson's Operation Safeguard (1995), and McAllen's Operation Rio Grande (1997) was that if you shut down the popular, easy-access crossing routes, you could deter migrants from crossing altogether. These strategies presumed migrants would change their plans when confronted with the baking heat of the desert or the harsh cold of the mountain regions. A July 2002 report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that in spite of this eight-year effort, which cost the feds more than $2.5 billion annually, border enforcers in the southwest failed to reduce unauthorized immigration. Four months later law professor William Aceves testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that the federal government had violated international law by knowingly carrying out an operation (Gatekeeper) that threatened human life and dignity. Wayne Cornelius, Director of UCSD's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies told the commission that current border patrol policies constitute "the most obvious, the most acute, and the most systematic violation of human rights occurring on U.S. soil today."

Enchilada a la Carte

This is not a policy that's targeting al-Qaeda terrorists. That's not who we're finding in the boxcars or in the semi trailers.

--Margaret Swedish, Director, Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico

For the time being, fighting terrorism has taken precedence over any other policy considerations. In April, Tom Ridge and Mexican Interior Secretary Santiago Creel kicked off plans for a high-tech "smart border for the 21st century." In May (after Mexico failed to support Bush at the U.N. Security Council), Colin Powell cautiously addressed the possibilities of an immigration accord: "We haven't lost the vision," he said, "but it is going to take us a lot more time and a lot more effort." One item lingering on the agenda is the "Partnership for Prosperity," which promises to revitalize economically poor regions in Mexico through a public-private partnership so that "no Mexican feels compelled to leave his home for lack of jobs or opportunity."

"People don't just cross the border and go anywhere. They go where friends or relatives tell them there are job opportunities," said Consul General Lagos. President Fox wants a legal, orderly immigration plan, with visas and screening for all; however, in July, the Mexican news media reported that Ambassador Juan Jose Bremer in Washington would not press the issue until Congress had an opportunity to discuss it. Unfortunately, the future of the debate looks to be in the hands of pro-corporate, anti-immigrant legislators like Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and the infamous Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) who plan to introduce guest worker proposals in the next few months. Tancredo, who champions homeland heroism at the border and is treating American "victims of open borders" to a D.C. dinner on the eve of September 11, is unlikely to be concerned about workers' rights. But no one will stand up to him on the other side of the aisle just yet. Mexico policy expert Sean Garcia at the progressive, D.C.-based Latin America Working Group predicts there won't be much movement on any of these proposals until after the 2004 elections.

While Asa Hutchinson may bemoan the "grim discovery" in Victoria as "a horrific reminder of callous disregard," out in the Sonoran desert, the mercury is rising at record rates. "We have a higher death rate than we did last year at this time," said Kat Rodriguez of Coalicion de Derechos Humanos. "This year heat-related deaths started earlier."
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Title Annotation:report
Author:Banks, Gabrielle
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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