The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

In Quest for Living Wage, Many Immigrants Make Ultimate Sacrifice

by Gabriel Thompson

With more would-be immigrants dying in the process of migrating from Mexico to the US, their opponents and advocates north of the border argue not just over the solution to "the problem," but also its definition.

Feb. 4, 2005 – Even without the gory details or grim photographs, it makes for unsettling reading:

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Oscar, Maria, Margarito and the two unidentified bodies make up just five of the 193 immigrants that died while crossing the Arizona-Mexico border during 2004, according to the Arizona Daily Star, which has developed an online database to document the tragedies. Along the entire southwestern border, more than 300 people perished last year while crossing rivers, deserts and mountains in order to arrive in the United States. Yet even these near-daily fatalities represent inevitable undercounts; many corpses lie buried in debris or picked clean by vultures, still waiting to be stumbled upon by border agents.

Many of the bodies that are discovered, like the three listed above, are never identified; the victim’s fate remains a mystery even to close family and friends. What begins as a journey for economic advancement, with dreams of higher wages and money proudly sent home, has resulted in more than 3,000 deaths since 1994, according to the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLA). Though each death is unique, they follow a similar pattern. A call is placed, alerting relatives that a cousin or brother is heading north. Families make preparations for a reunification celebration. Days pass, then weeks. No one arrives.

As a result of dehydration and sunstroke, disorientation can easily overcome border-crossers, who may even experience hallucinations.

It was in August of last year that Karina Cortez, 49, set out to visit her gravely ill son, Juan Carlos. From the city of Cholula, in the southern state of Puebla, Mexico, she knew that late summer meant a scorching desert sun. Still, Karina was determined to make the trip to visit her son in New Jersey, afraid that he might pass away without warning.

Edih and Alejandro look through Border-crossing guide.
PHOTO: Edih, whose sister died last year in the Arizona desert, and her husband, Alejandro, in their Bronx apartment, look through the recently published Guide for the Mexican Migrant. (Gabriel Thompson/TNS)

"It was an emergency," said her sister Edih, seated on a bed in the living room of her Bronx, New York apartment. Edih’s face exhibited pain while she recalled the details. "She had never come north before," Edih said of Karina, "but she wanted to be able to take care of her son."

And while the strategy of increased border security has not deterred migrants from venturing north, it has added a new wrinkle to the immigration equation: death.

Edih’s husband, Alejandro, seated on a folding chair, nodded. "You see, before it was easy," he said. "When I crossed in Nogales, Arizona in 1992 it wasn’t so difficult. I only had to pay a coyote $500, and we had no problem," he explained, referring to a human smuggler. "But now, crossing is much more dangerous -- and expensive. Karina paid $2,000, and for what?"

The details of Karina’s last days are sketchy. Edih and Alejandro heard from family back in Mexico that she had somehow become separated from her group. As a result of dehydration and sunstroke, disorientation can easily overcome border-crossers, who may even experience hallucinations. Once they lose their coyotes, chances of survival are slim. By the time border agents found Karina she was already dead, a victim of dehydration and exposure to the relentless summer heat.

In the end, Karina died in the desert more than 2,000 miles from her ailing son -- and though hundreds of migrants like Karina perish each year she is but one among a growing number of casualties to die as a direct consequence of a border program launched by President Clinton eleven years ago.

Pushed into Hostile Territory

The logic behind Operation Gatekeeper was simple: close off the most popular points of entry along the southwestern border, and migrants will be deterred from crossing. In 1994, the federal government launched Gatekeeper as a sweeping border control initiative focusing on the major smuggling thoroughfare of Tijuana and San Diego

Yet despite more than doubling the resources available for border patrols from the Pacific Ocean all the way along the Rio Grande, programs intended to reduce crossings met with the opposite results. The major difference, according to Ken Ellingwood, author of Hard Line: Life and Death on the US Mexico Border, was the moving of preferred crossing points to more and more dangerous areas.

In the eyes of progressives and conservatives alike, deaths along the border are the result of a failed border policy.

As a gauge of the shifting migration trends, the INS reported that in 1994 there were 477,806 apprehensions of migrants crossing in California, which by 2000 dropped a significant 18 percent, to 389,807. Yet in Arizona, home to the most hazardous desert terrain, the apprehension count rose steeply. From 160,684 captures in 1994, the number of migrants caught by Arizona agents in 2000 had jumped to 725,093. By 2004, Arizona border agents were apprehending more migrants than in California, New Mexico and Texas combined.

And while the strategy has not deterred migrants from venturing north, it has added a new wrinkle to the immigration equation: death. Forced into harsh deserts where temperatures can reach 140 degrees (F), the number of dead migrants continues to grow.

It was not until 1998 that the US Border Patrol began to track fatalities along the border, under increasing pressure from immigrant rights advocates. According to the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, the number of migrant dead along the California-Mexico border was 23 in 1994, prior to Operation Gatekeeper. By the year 2000, with migrants pushed further east into increasingly dangerous terrain, the number of dead along California’s border had increased six-fold, to 140.

The pattern of death has recreated itself across the entire southwestern border, where more than 300 migrants have died annually since 2000, according to CRLA. The Arizona border in particular has become a mass graveyard for people desperate enough to cross its scorching deserts. In 2003, the Border Patrol’s official death count for the state was 139. The following year, reporters at the Arizona Daily Star documented 193 deaths, an increase of nearly 40 percent. And with the five month "Season of Death" beginning on May 1, the coming year promises to again bring tears and tragedy for hundreds of Mexican immigrants and their families.

Amid Casualties, Comic Book Angers Immigration Foes

In the face of increasing casualties along the border, last December the Mexican government printed 1.5 million copies of a Guide for Mexican Migrant. The 31-page pamphlet, which has been distributed across Mexico and is reportedly slated for a second printing, includes comic book-style drawings throughout. The first section of the guide is entitled "Dangers of Crossing in High Risk Zones." In it, prospective border-crossers are warned of the dangers inherent in making the illegal journey north.

help us meet Noam Chomsky's Challenge"The highways and towns are very far, and it can therefore take many days to find your way," the guide warns in text accompanied by drawings of burly men crossing a river and a line of migrants walking in a desolate desert. The booklet instructs people to drink water with salt in order to retain bodily fluids and to avoid traveling during hours when the sun is at its peak. It also cautions readers not to trust coyotes to keep them safe.

The guide advises migrants to avoid using false identification documents, tells them to be truthful with US border agents, and counsels that the only safe way to emigrate is to do so legally with a passport or visa.

Predictably, the publication sparked an outcry among US politicians in favor of stricter border control and who view the Mexican government as aiding and abetting a systematic "invasion." Representative Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) issued a press release on January 5, arguing that the guide was a "great example of how hooked Mexico has become on remittances," and that the publication was "not an action of a friendly neighbor." He advised the Mexican government to "stop encouraging their nationals to put their lives at risk in the desert."

Tancredo spokesperson Carlos Espinosa told The NewStandard that another concern, aside from encouraging illegal immigration, was that the guide could inadvertently assist terrorists looking to gain passage into the US undetected. "You don’t know who is coming here just to look for a job, and who is coming to kill your family," Espinosa said, adding, "You’ve got to remember that the facial structure and skin color of Arabs and Hispanics is pretty similar."

Many immigration advocates, however, believe the guidebook did not go far enough in detailing the dangers of the desert. "They’ve got to become much more explicit about the distances involved and the dangers they will encounter," said Reverend Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, an organization that is working to stem border deaths by building water stations in the desert. "Arizona has now become ground zero for immigrant deaths."

Hoover told TNS that during 2004, the Humane Borders’ stations dispensed more than 25,000 gallons of water for thirsty migrants. With ever more people forced into the desert, Hoover’s water station work is a growth industry. "We will dispense quite a bit more water this year," Hoover predicted. Beginning in May 2005, the organization will have a total of 70 stations in Arizona, including a few in the Mexican state of Sonora, Hoover said. "Look, it’s not rocket science," Hoover argued. "You put more water out where people are dying, and they have a tendency to stop dying."

Espinosa agreed that the guide did not give migrants a clear enough idea of the dangers they might face. "It doesn’t even tell people how many have died while crossing," he said, mentioning that Mexican relatives of his had also tried to cross illegally, but were apprehended.

But Espinosa suggested that placing water stations in the desert ultimately causes more deaths than they save. "While it may save a life or two, you’re encouraging people to come, which will lead to many more deaths. It’s more harm than help, since you’re dangling the carrot out for people," he told TNS. Such arguments sound unconvincing to migrant advocates on the front line like Hoover, who operates under a simple premise: people dying from dehydration deserve water.

Is There a Solution?

In the eyes of progressives and conservatives alike, deaths along the border are the result of a failed border policy. Their points of divergence center not only on differing perspectives on just what that "failure" is, but also on the appropriate way to solve a problem each camp defines differently.

Progressives point to a contradictory system that depends upon the work of low-wage immigrants but forces them to traverse hazardous terrain to arrive. Meanwhile, conservatives tend to see the deaths along the border as a result of lax border security, possibly in need of a military solution.

In the coming months, the issue of border security is again set to become a hot-button issue -- mentioned explicitly in President Bush’s recent State of the Union Address. On the border itself, humanitarians like Rev. Hoover will refill water stations, only to see them quickly empted by thirsty migrants. And in the halls of Congress, politicians like Tancredo will crusade for ever-greater resources to block illegal immigration in its tracks. In the meantime, one phenomenon is assured: Mexicans and other hopefuls will keep migrating, officially invited or not.

Back in the Bronx, relatives of Karina are adamant about this fact. Asked whether so many deaths might deter people from crossing, Alejandro paused momentarily, then eventually replied: "Look, this is not going to stop. People in Mexico are hungry, and they will do whatever it takes to survive and improve their lives. I don’t think people are going to stop coming just because some die in the desert."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Gabriel Thompson is a contributing journalist.

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