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Commentary :: Human Rights : Race : War and Militarism
Dispatches from the Border
09 Sep 2006
Experiences from my one month stay in Nogales Mexico, working with No More Deaths, a humanatarian aid coalition advocating for immigrant rights and a humane border policy.
August 2006- Six days they had been in the desert. I hand the woman an alcohol pad, who begins to clean the dirt smudged face of her 10 month old baby, loosely fastened to her back with a towel. Her two children, their clothes reeking of urine, remain disturbingly quiet and still for 5 and 7 year olds and sit down on the curb to unpack their remaining Red Bull and Doritos. Both children wearing open toe sandals for the six day journey, their feet have been ravaged by the hot desert days and cold and rainy nights. As we wash the children’s feet, I ask the boy in broken Spanish where they are from. Chiapas he tells me, which I learn is over 1500 miles from our camp in Nogales. Now they sit here, 1500 miles away from home, their only possessions packed in small Sponge Bob Square Pants and Little Mermaid back packs. Hundreds of flies crawling in and out of their cut feet, we try to dress the blisters as best as possible, hand them some new socks and send them off. Most likely, the family will meet up with a Coyote, an expensive and often unscrupulous guide, to reattempt the perilous journey North. I get a sickening, helpless feeling in my stomach, watching them walk further down the road into Nogales, thinking that they too may join the season’s rising toll of migrant deaths.

Stories like these are all but uncommon along the border- 400 to 500 deportees are received daily in Nogales alone, one of the dozens of border cities and merely a fraction of the estimated 1 million immigrants deported annually. Immigration between the United States and Mexico is not a new historical development and can only be expected in societies of great wealth aside great poverty. The sharp increase in immigration flow however, and the subsequent rise of border deaths is a recent phenomenon, one that can be traced back to 1994, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). To understand why NAFTA and this acute surge in migration patterns, it is necessary to confront a median often purposely absent from immigration discourse; that is, why do people leave families and communities, to literally risk life in hopes of cleaning toilet bowls or wash dishes for 10 hours a day?

The passage of NAFTA in 1994, an accord asserting neo liberalism in the global south, has brought economic, social and cultural misery to the working class of Mexico. Liberalization of the Mexican economy has severely intensified immigration, mainly the large campesino population, overwhelmed by the influx of cheap, subsidized U.S corn. Alfonso, a 28 year old from Mexico City was one of the thousands forced to head North, leaving his wife and 2 year old daughter. “There are no jobs here” he tells me, “we cannot survive on 50 pesos (roughly $5) a day, it is not enough.” Alfonso is one of the thousands of victims of NAFTA, who will make the dangerous journey north in hopes of merely finding minimum wage work in the States to send back home. “I don’t want to leave, my family, my life, it’s all here.” With the implementation of NAFTA, migration for the working poor like Alfonso becomes an act of desperation and survival, not choice.

Not coincidently, with the signing of NAFTA, the U.S has dedicated billions in militarizing the border, increasing border enforcement and security. Operation Gatekeeper, one of the many efforts to enhance border enforcement, has been scrutinized as the leading cause of death for crossing immigrants. Gatekeeper heavily increased enforcement among the more urban popular routes of migration, channeling immigrants to more rural and lesser known areas. Hoping to discourage people by forcing them into more dangerous areas, not surprisingly the opposite has happened; a steady increase in migration with a disturbingly massive rise in deaths. A conservative estimate suggests that at least 4500 people have died in the Sonoran Desert since 1998. Since that time, the number of border agents has more than doubled, now approaching 10,000. This past May, President Bush deployed an additional 6,000 National Guard for further support. Further militarization appears on the horizon, as plans for 700 additional miles of fencing as well as the government soliciting bids from military contractors including Boeing, Lockheed Martine, and Raytheon for the rights of providing military technology along the border.

One afternoon at the camp in Nogales, I meet Rosie a 12-year-old girl from the faraway southern state of Oaxaca. Rosie, her two other sisters and mother looking in concern, has been vomiting after 3 days in the desert. Only bringing a few empty milk cartons of water, the family ran out shortly into their second day and was forced to drink water from the cow tanks in the desert, infamous for parasites and bacteria. Noticing her father is absent, I come to find out that they have left their home in Oaxaca in hopes of meeting him in Atlanta, where he has been for 3 years. Young children and mothers trying to reunite with husbands and fathers is commonplace along the border. An unintended consequence of Operation Gatekeeper and the increased resources dedicated to boundary enforcement is that unauthorized migrants are staying in the U.S longer. Before 1994, many of the seasonal migrant workers would make the journey North and then return home after a few months. Yet with the increased risk and danger of reentering the U.S many of these workers are ultimately separated from their families and communities. Rosie is one of the countless children forced to risk life merely to reunite with family members.

We cannot divorce current immigration conversations from the United States’ long history of racism and rejection of “the other”- a history that is tied to a context of severe exploitation and marginalization of people of color. Border enforcement and current repressive anti immigrant legislation is an outgrowth of this structural racism. The current debate must be one that recognizes the historical weight of white supremacy and subjugation of people of color. Around the country, people who have been living in the States for 10 to 20 years, are picked up and deported for minor violations. Gilberto, a deportee at our camp, had lived in San Jose for 25 years with 4 children who remain in foster care until he is able to return home. In Tucson, Border Patrol and Police arbitrarily ID anyone resembling Latino descent; my first night in Nogales I hear the story of a pregnant women walking home from the grocery store, stopped by police and deported that night, unable even to call her husband and two children. Fear is widespread among immigrant communities- no one, even families who have settled for upwards of 20 years, is safe from deportation. These people are being criminalized for trying to seek a livelihood and survive poverty.

A just border policy means first addressing the structural roots of not only migrant deaths, but immigration itself. We must first recognize that first world comfort and privilege is largely possible because of the exploitation caused by institutions like the IMF and WTO and their respective free trade agreements. Border and immigration policies that continue to deny people the ability to escape poverty and reunite with family members must be critically examined if we are to truly respect the fundamental rights and dignity of all.
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