Deadly Border Crossings

Revolutionary Worker #1163, August 18, 2002, posted at

For much of the spring and early summer, high pressure systems have hovered over the southwestern areas of the United States. Across the Sierra Nevada in southern California the weather has been clear and warm, the dry breeze laden with a desert scent. Sunny skies and warm temperatures have replaced the "June gloom," the usual fog and low clouds in Los Angeles and other areas near the coast. But in the vast Mojave and Sonora Deserts that spread from northern Mexico to southern California and Arizona, the heat can be deadly.

In June 2002, 67 people on the U.S. side died crossing the border, walking through remote desert plains and barren mountains. The Mexican government says another 22 were found dead in Mexico. This is the largest number of deaths in one month since the U.S. started building walls and high-tech barriers along the southern border in 1994. This is a new record for a policy that has killed an average of one immigrant a day for nearly eight years .

Many have died in especially cruel ways: drowned in rivers, suffocated in closed vehicles, killed in traffic accidents, struck by lightning, fallen off cliffs or shot and killed by the Border Patrol. But most have died in the summer months, from heatstroke or dehydration.

The first group of bodies this year was found on arch 14--four young men, in their late teens or early 20s, floating in the All-American Canal in Imperial County, California. The Imperial Valley was called the Valley of Death before water from the Colorado River was used for irrigation-based agriculture. The four immigrants drowned trying to cross the swift-flowing canal, or perhaps trying to get relief from the unbearable heat. Already people are dying in groups trying to cross the border and it isn't even the hottest part of summer.

In May, 14 more immigrants died together near Yuma, Arizona after getting lost in the desert and losing their guide. To the east in the "Tucson corridor," the area where most people cross, the risk of death is increasing. There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of people trying to cross the border--many migrants come to work at specific jobs, in restaurants, in construction or agriculture, and there is just less work in the U.S. economy. But the number of deaths has remained about the same. According to official Border Patrol statistics, 81 immigrants have died since October 1, 2001. In the same period last year, the INS reported 82 deaths. Other reports in the press say over 90 have died so far this year. And local activists have pointed out that some who die in the desert may never be found, because the area is home to the coyote and other animals who scavenge the dead.

A deputy coroner of Imperial said, "We're finding more multiples--bodies in threes, fours and fives. They're really trying to avoid detection, so they're going to more and more remote areas."

If you drive the interstate along the southern border, you can see the sights and sounds of the government's militarization of the border. For miles on each side of every little border town, there are formidable physical barriers that immigrants call el muro , the wall--high steel and concrete walls, ditches and dikes, stadium-style lights that can be seen for miles at night. There are 10,000 Border Patrol agents along the border, in SUVs, all-terrain vehicles and helicopters, equipped with night-vision equipment and infrared sensors.

Each day as the sun sets, up to 1,500 immigrants go up against this paramilitary operation and try to cross the border into Arizona. They call the way the "Devil's Path." It is marked by discarded water bottles, abandoned bags and possessions, and little wooden crosses marking the death of someone on the desert sand. In the desert, heat and dehydration can kill in less than a day. But to avoid el muro , people must sometimes hike for four days or more.

U.S. Policy of Death

"Operation Gatekeeper is the policy of death. It stains our land with the blood of our neighbors, and pierces the hearts of our people."

Henry Ramon, tribal vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, referring to the government's efforts to stop immigrants from crossing the border

The Tohono O'odham, the "desert people," are an ancient people who have lived in the area since 300 BC. Many of the immigrant deaths have occurred on or near the Tohono O'odham Nation, which is an area the size of Connecticut.

The indigenous people are themselves targets of U.S. border policies. As Henry Ramon, tribal vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation pointed out, "Our people do not recognize this imaginary line that is an international boundary." But the U.S. government has divided them into "Mexican citizens" and "U.S. citizens."

The merciless pursuit of border crossers and the constant loss of life has caused division and controversy in southern Arizona. Writers Dennis Wagner and Pat Flannery pointed out in the Arizona Republic , the "$2.99 all-American breakfast" is cooked by immigrants. The oranges for the orange juice were picked by immigrant workers in Florida. The strawberries for the jam were picked by immigrants in California. The bacon is from a meat-packing plant which now employs mainly Latino immigrants.

Immigrant labor is part of the fabric of the U.S. economy, especially in construction, custodial services, meat-packing, garment, and food service. Immigrants clean the houses, care for lawns and raise the children of the wealthy and many in the middle class. People in the agricultural industry say that 75% of their workers are undocumented.

But the demand for immigrant labor is only part of the story. People are forced to leave their countries by U.S. economic policies that have ruined whole sectors of industry and agriculture in Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

"Globalization has affected us greatly," Sebastian Hernandez, a 55-year-old immigrant told the Arizona Star . "I'm told that it will be a benefit to us someday, but from what I can see it hasn't been." Sebastian owns a 250-acre farm in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico. "We have good, productive lands, compared to the land I saw in Arizona and Texas. The soil is much better there, and we are surrounded by water. But these days there's no buyers for the corn and beans we grow." Mexican agriculture has been devastated by the dumping of cheap farm products from the U.S. Midwest.

His son, Abel Hernandez, talked about crossing the border in April, walking for four nights with a group of friends. "We walked at night, so sometimes you can barely see. You're falling over rocks, and everything you touch has thorns. We could see the helicopters in the valleys below us, but they didn't fly into the mountains where we were."

Sebastian and Abel were speaking to a reporter in La Perra Flaca, an immigrant barrio of trailer homes in Cochise County, in southeast Arizona. It is the destination for many immigrants. They work in the chili fields and try to earn enough money to send some home. This can be difficult. Most migrant farmworkers in the U.S. work 120 days a year, according to the Labor Department. Their average income is only $5,000 to $7,000 a year. Nonetheless, Mexican immigrants send home $8 billion dollars a year--the largest source of foreign exchange in the Mexican economy after petroleum exports.

July 1, a group of faith community activists in Tucson, Arizona held a press conference to announce the formation of the "Samaritan Patrol," which will maintain daily patrols of border areas, looking to assist migrants who are in danger from the harsh conditions. The Samaritan Patrol is supported by nine religious groups and includes Quaker, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish supporters.

Speaking at the press conference was John Fife, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, and one of the founders 20 years ago of the Sanctuary Movement--a network of over 300 churches that sheltered immigrants from Central America. "From the perspective of faith communities," he said, "it is essential that we do this. We have to cry out for an end to the policies that have led to record- setting migrant deaths. It is a sin."

The urgency of their actions was underlined by the fact that two days before, the deaths of two more immigrants were reported by police of the Tohono O'odham Nation. A 55-year-old immigrant was found with two friends, and died after being taken into custody. And the body of an 18-year-old migrant who had died some time earlier was discovered.

Meanwhile, the policy of the U.S. government remains brutally deadly: more Migra, more equipment, more weapons and more fences.

All this will only make the situation more desperate for people like Maria, a woman from Chihuahua, Mexico, who crossed the border with her husband and daughter, to work and survive. She told one reporter, "For me, there was no border. I had to come here for my family. I've got to eat."

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