Dangerous Crossings

The U.S. war on immigrants and the death toll on the U.S./Mexico border

Revolutionary Worker #923, September 14, 1997

In early August, a group of immigrants tried to cross the border from Mexico into Arizona. In an effort to avoid the Border Patrol and the U.S. military, they walked through a drainage pipe that runs from the Mexican town of Agua Prieta into the U.S. side. Suddenly, an unexpected storm flooded the tunnel with rainwater. Two women and a 2-year-old child survived by clinging to a ladder. But five men and one woman were found dead immediately after the storm, and two more bodies were discovered later in the pipe.

Several weeks later, 20-year-old Santos Francisco Sapón García, an immigrant from Guatemala, crossed the border near Brownsville, Texas with a friend. Heading to jobs in Houston--and trying to steer clear of the Migra--they walked 150 miles in 15 days through the harsh brushland. They drank water from cattle troughs and ate the fruits of prickly pear cactus. Santos collapsed from dehydration and exhaustion. His friend, Dionicio García López, dragged him through the brush in a desperate attempt to get him medical help. But Santos was dead by the time Dionicio reached a highway.


These are a few of the hundreds of people who have lost their lives while trying to make the dangerous crossing between Mexico and the U.S. They are the casualties of a heartless, one-sided war that the U.S. government is waging along the 2,00-mile border with Mexico. Enormous amounts of weapons, high-tech equipment, communication systems and military and police personnel are being sent into these regions. This intense militarization of the border is leading to the deaths and disappearances of countless immigrants.

The Center for Immigration Research at University of Houston recently released an important report titled "Death at the Border." The report makes clear how extensive the war on the border is--and how long the casualty lists are. This is the first systematic effort to study the deaths of immigrants along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. (Last year, the Center released a study concentrating on immigrant deaths along the border between Texas and four Mexican states.)

According to the report, at least 1,185 immigrants died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1993-96 period. This averages out to almost 300 deaths a year.

More than two-thirds drowned while trying to cross the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande or other rivers and canals on the border. Other causes of death include: being hit by cars, "environmental causes" (such as dehydration and heat stroke), train accidents, auto accidents. The largest number of deaths--almost 800--were on the border between Texas and Mexico. The largest number of deaths in any single U.S. county was in San Diego County, where 193 immigrants died during the four-year period covered in the study.

"It's the equivalent of a large planeload of people crashing every year," said Nestor Rodríguez, one of the researchers who wrote the report. "But they do not all die at once, so these are like invisible, silent deaths."

The Disappeared

Often, the immigrants who die on the border end up with no names on the police reports, described as "unidentified." Their families in Mexico and Central America never know what happened to them.

During the 1980s, when the U.S. was directing reactionary wars against the peoples of Central America, thousands of people became los desaparecidos--the disappeared. They were kidnapped and killed at the hands of death squads financed and trained by the U.S.

The victims of the U.S. war on the border are the new desaparecidos.

The authors of the Center for Immigration Research study point out that the numbers of deaths they report are very conservative estimates. There are probably many more than 300 immigrants a year who have lost their lives at the border.

The researchers note that it is difficult to make a full count of the deaths based on official statistics. Some bodies are never found by officials. The study covered only the immediate border areas, but many immigrant deaths occur further away from the border.

Also, some immigrant deaths on the border are not registered in the official statistics. The reason for this is revealing. In most counties in Texas, the cause of death of immigrants and other poor people is guessed at by a Justice of the Peace. According to last year's report from the Center for Immigration Research, "The investigative process involves the practices of local discrimination when a drowning death is presumed to be that of a migrant. One Justice of the Peace hinted at the prevalence of this informal common practice: `It's a field judgement. If a judge has reason to think that a body is from this side, it's a good idea to order an autopsy. If it's from the other side...' " As a result, hundreds of dead who wash up on the banks of the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande are never identified, and their deaths never entered into official records.

On the U.S. side of the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande, the authorities have a cynical and racist term for the bodies of people they find in the river--they call them "floaters."

A Deadly Policy

The Clinton administration points to the militarization of the border as one of its "achievements." A congressman from El Paso recently praised the military clampdown for improving the "quality of life" for residents on the U.S. side of the border.

In reality, the border militarization is a shameful and deadly policy that has killed countless immigrants--people whose only "crime" was trying to find work to keep them and their families from starving.

And the militarization is making life hell for many living on the U.S. side of the border as well. Last May, Marines patrolling the hills near the West Texas town of Redford killed 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr. with an M-16 bullet. Until the shooting, people in the area never knew that camouflaged soldiers were prowling the hills near their homes.

The study by the Center for Immigration Research points out that in recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of deaths from "environmental causes." This is a direct result of the U.S. government's moves to saturate the areas near urban areas--like El Paso or San Diego--with Border Patrol agents and military units.

Faced with this wall of military firepower, immigrants are being forced to make their crossings in remote desert areas or deep in the mountains. The study by the Center for Immigration Research points out: "Undocumented migrants who cross the border between Mexico and the United States confront many dangers. Seeking to escape detection by U.S. authorities, many undocumented migrants take substantial risks. Tragically, these dangers can lead to fatal consequences."


For the immigrants, making the dangerous crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border is not a matter of choice. U.S. imperialism has made a shambles of the Mexican economy, and the intense poverty compels many poor peasants and workers to seek work in the garment sweatshops of Los Angeles, fruit orchards of Florida, meat-packing plants of Iowa....

On the Mexican side of Rio Bravo/Rio Grande recently, a group of people waited for a chance to slip by the Border Patrol into the U.S. side. Rafael Martínez, who was making his third attempt to cross in 10 hours, said, "It's not right. We should have the same right to travel the border as American citizens that come to Mexico. For Mexicans, there are always problems. We just want another life." His friend, Hector Alvarez, was trying to cross in order to work as a flower vendor in the streets of Brownsville, Texas. "If I don't sell flowers," he said, "I don't eat."

How many more will die as a result of the cold-blooded and criminal U.S. war on the border?

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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