Killer Heat on the Border

The Deadly Mixture of Heat Wave and La Migra

Revolutionary Worker #968, August 9, 1998

This summer, a deadly heat wave hit several states in southern United States, especially Texas. The thermometer soared above 100 degrees for many days straight, and more than 115 people had died of heat-related causes by the end of July.

This heat wave may have been a phenomenon of nature--but it was the cold-blooded nature of capitalism that determined who were the main victims. In the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, most of the 550 people who died lived in the poor communities of the city. In this year's Texas heat wave, many of the victims were elderly people living on fixed or limited incomes; they had no air conditioners or were afraid to turn them on because they could not afford the high electric bills. In Houston a 36-year-old homeless man died when the unrelenting sun heated up the metal shed he stayed in like an oven.

The heat wave has been particularly deadly for immigrants making the crossing from Mexico to Texas. From this May to the end of July, the U.S. Border Patrol recovered the bodies of more than 50 immigrants who died from the heat while walking through the desert-like brush country of south Texas. And nobody knows how many more may have died without their bodies being found.

Hidden Stories

While the heat wave in Texas and other southern states has made national news, the deaths of dozens of immigrants on the border have been pretty much hidden from attention. A few stories about the hellish ordeal of these immigrants have come out in various media reports, and here are some of them.

Two of the immigrants who died were 18-year-old José Giles Hernandez and 26-year-old Armando Trejo Castaneda. They and three others crossed the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande between the towns of Del Rio and Laredo. Everyone was from a small town near Mexico City, and they were headed for jobs in Austin. The coyote--the guide--had said they would have a three-day walk. But they were still walking on the fourth day. As their water ran out, José, Armando and another man became too sick to walk. The two others, including José's brother, went on to get help. After they were caught by the Border Patrol, the two men led agents to those they had left behind--but it was too late for José and Armando.

On that same day, July 15, Border Patrol agents discovered 13 immigrants locked in a freight car in a Del Rio train yard. The temperature inside the car was more than 150 degrees, and the men, all in their early 20s, were severely dehydrated. They had paid $500 each to be transported from Ciudad Juarez to San Antonio so they could work. But the trip almost cost them their lives.

Juan Alvarado Morales also managed to survive--after going to the brink of death. He had left a wife and two children behind in Mexico to seek work in the U.S. In south Texas, he became sick after drinking from a stagnant pool of water. The heat wave and drought has dried up many of the creeks, springs and wells that normally supply drinkable water. When Juan could no longer go on, his companions left him. Fortunately, another group of immigrants found him, and together they finally made their way to a highway northwest of Laredo. Juan was taken to a hospital and treated for severe dehydration and kidney failure. And the people who bravely carried Juan through the desert and saved his life? They were detained by the Border Patrol, given showers--and immediately deported back to Mexico.

Mario Antonio Hernández Reyes from Veracruz was one of those who didn't survive. He crossed the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande with a group of other immigrants. But Mario became too dehydrated to keep up. A cousin stayed at Mario's side while the others went for help. They spelled out a large "SOS" on the ground with mesquite branches, but no one saw the appeal for help. By the time help arrived, it was too late for Mario. He was 13 years old, on his way to Atlanta where his mother works.

Deadly Crossing

The heat and drought have made the crossing from Mexico into Texas much more dangerous this year than usual. Most of the deaths have been on the isolated stretch of borderland between Del Rio and Laredo. According to the Border Patrol, the death toll of immigrants along this area so far this year is already more than double of all last year's.

But in any year, the immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without legal documents risk their lives to seek work in the garment sweatshops of Los Angeles, the restaurants of Dallas, the fruit orchards of Florida, and other places. Hundreds of immigrants die each year trying to cross the border.

Last year the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston released a report entitled "Death at the Border." This was the first systematic study of deaths of immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. 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. One of the researchers who wrote the report pointed out, "It's the equivalent of a large planeload of people crashing every year. But they do not all die at once, so these are like invisible, silent deaths."

As the report noted, "Undocumented immigrants who cross the border between Mexico and the U.S. 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."

More than two-thirds of the deaths were caused by drowning in the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande or other rivers and canals near the border. This year, while more than 50 immigrants died from the heat, at least 40 have drowned in the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande.

The Government's Cold-Blooded Hypocrisy

The response of the government authorities to the immigrant deaths from the heat wave has been full of hypocrisy and cruel calculation. La Migra (Immigration and Naturalization Service) is even posing as "saviors" who care about the lives of the immigrants. The San Antonio Express-News described the Border Patrol's "Operation Lifesaver" as "an initiative not only to rescue people who get into trouble crossing the brushlands, but warn them about the heat and identify their bodies if they die."

The Border Patrol has also unveiled a new "public service announcement." The brief video shows poisonous snakes, rugged terrain and other hazards of crossing the border--as well as "graphic footage" of bodies of immigrants who died in the heat. The video is being distributed to Mexican TV stations to discourage immigrants. And it is also reportedly being shown to immigrants who are detained by the Border Patrol. Officials say that the video is meant to "save lives." In reality, the video is part of the U.S. government's attempts to tighten control over the border. And the showing of such a video to detained immigrants can only be a means to terrorize these people whose only "crime" is to come to the U.S. to work.

At the end of the video, a Border Patrol spokesperson warns, "It's better to live poor than to die trying to be rich." The ugly message is that the immigrants themselves are to blame for dying during the border crossing.

But for the immigrants, making the dangerous crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border is not a matter of choice. U.S. imperialist domination has made a shambles of the Mexican economy. The intense poverty in Mexico compels many workers and peasants to seek work in the U.S. so they and their families can stave off starvation. They come to the U.S. not to "get rich"--but to work at low-wage, back-breaking jobs that make the capitalist exploiters rich.

The U.S. rulers profit from the labor of these immigrants. At the same time, the government seeks to tighten control over the border with Mexico. Enormous amounts of weapons, high-tech equipment, communications systems and military and police personnel have been placed at the border. This militarization of the border has made crossings near populated urban areas--like El Paso or San Diego--much more difficult. Faced with this wall of military firepower, immigrants have been forced to make their crossings in more remote desert areas or deep in the mountains.

The U.S. government cynically claims that they are "concerned" about the immigrants. But it is their own policy and actions that are forcing the immigrants to take more life-threatening risks in their journeys north. The immigrants who died in this year's heat wave in Texas--and others who lost their lives making the dangerous crossing--are casualties of the heartless, one-sided war that the U.S. government is waging along the border with Mexico.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)