Donald Kerwin

Yolanda González and Hermilo Hernández Velasco grew up in families of subsistence-level farmers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. After they married, Hermilo traveled to the United States and found work as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Portland, Ore. In May of 2000, Yolanda, 19 years old, hired a smuggler and set out to join Hermilo with the couple’s 10-month-old daughter, Elizama. As her group of 10 migrants approached the U.S.-Mexico border, the smuggler told them that it would take six hours to walk to the United States. But the group wandered in the desert for four days, ultimately reaching the outskirts of Sells, Ariz. During this time, Yolanda gave most of her two gallons of water to Elizama. When Yolanda could no longer walk, two men from her group stayed with her, as others went to search for help. Yolanda died in the desert. Elizama, badly dehydrated and sunburned, ultimately recovered.

The U.S.-Mexico border has been called the world’s most violent border between two nations at peace or, more accurately, not at war with each other. The Mexican government has recorded more than 1,800 migrant deaths along this border since 1998, and nobody disputes that the vast and unforgiving border land holds many bodies that will never be found. Hundreds have been buriednot identified, not honoredin pauper’s graves across the southwest. In fact, the death toll may be far higher. Border residents regularly find migrants near death. Border Patrol search and rescue teams have saved nearly 5,500 migrants in distress over the last three years alone. But this crisis receives only scant press coverage.

Last year the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (Clinic) released a report on at-risk migrants and newcomers along the U.S.-Mexico border. The report traced the current crisis to a 1993 decision by the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector to concentrate agents and technology along traditional (largely urban) crossing routes in an attempt to cut off and deter undocumented migration. This new blockade strategy quickly spread to other areas of the border, spurred by an unprecedented build-up in enforcement resources. Border Patrol funding quadrupled from 1990 to 2001, and the number of agents more than doubled. Immigration and Naturalization Service funding for enforcement and border affairs now exceeds the general fundslocal taxpayer-supported fundsof all southwest border counties combined. The administration’s 2003 budget calls for further spending increases.

The United States has also effectively pushed the border, for enforcement purposes, beyond its own territorial limits. In 2001 Mexico intercepted and deported an estimated 200,000 migrants, most from Central America, in what many commentators view as an attempt by the Fox administration to pave the way for expanded legal migration by Mexican nationals to the United States. Migrant interception programs will certainly increase as Mexico, the United States and Canada attempt to harmonize their immigration policies and, perhaps, to create a kind of North American security zone in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A delegation of U.S. bishops to Central America in November 2000 warned that U.S.-supported interception programs fail to include adequate screening or safeguards to assure that migrants will not be persecuted or killed if repatriated to their countries of birth.

The architects of the border blockade strategy badly miscalculated in assuming that migrants would not attempt to use more treacherous crossing routes. Three studies have now confirmed that the new policy has pushed migrants into dangerous situations that have led to significant increases in deaths from hypothermia, dehydration and other environmental causes. Not surprisingly, more remote Border Patrol sectors in Arizona and Southern California have seen record numbers of deaths over the last year. The blockade policy has also led to the emergence of organized and predatory criminal smuggling networks, which frequently abandon migrants and extort money from their families.

The policy has failed, on its own terms, to stem undocumented migration, as evidenced by high rates of Border Patrol apprehensions after 1993 and a massive increase in the U.S. undocumented population. In arguing that it has begun to succeed, the Border Patrol points to its own statistics (that do not count crossing deaths that occur on Mexican soil), indicating that 383 migrants died in fiscal year 2000, 336 in FY 2001, and 320 in FY 2002. The Immigration and Naturalization Service also cites migrant apprehension rates that decreased by roughly 25 percent in FY 2001 and fell another 28 percent in FY 2002. These statistics offer no cause for celebration. Instead, they point to the highest rate of crossing deaths and the most dangerous border in recent memory.

Decreased migrant traffic, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001, shows that migration does not depend primarily on enforcement policies, but on larger socio-economic forces. After the terrorist attacks, many migrants decided to forego visits home and to remain in the United States. Others opted not to come because of the U.S. economic slump and their fear of further violence. Mounting evidence shows that strict border enforcement policies do less to keep undocumented migrants out of the United States than to seal them in. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, between 1992 and 2000 return rates (to Mexico) by Mexican nationals in the United States fell dramatically. Increased migration and fatalities among women and children seeking to join their husbands and fathers in the United States confirm this trend.

Migrants leave home for powerful reasons. Clinic’s report highlighted cases of persons fleeing desperate poverty, political persecution, natural disaster and appalling domestic violence. Most immigrants come to support their families. In 1999, Mexican immigrants remitted an estimated $7 billion home. Given the high wage differential between the United States, Mexico and other sending countries, they will continue to come.

Many immigrants believe that strict enforcement policies, combined with weak labor protections, conspire to marginalize them in the workplace. Newcomers work disproportionately in jobsin the garment, meatpacking, poultry processing, agricultural, hotel and restaurant, and construction industriesthat pay little (sometimes below the minimum) and provide few benefits. According to the Department of Justice, the long-term need for immigrant labor will only grow. Many employers actively recruit immigrants and profit from their work, but leave it to local communities and charities to meet their employees’ health, housing and other basic needs. Undocumented immigrants, in particular, face significant barriers to fair treatment in the workplace. A Supreme Court decision announced in March 2002 will provide unscrupulous employers with greater incentives to hire and to exploit them. In the Hoffman Plastic case, the court held that undocumented immigrants who were illegally fired for union organizing could no longer receive back pay under the National Labor Relations Act.

Clinic’s border report identified several problems that the I.N.S. can resolve on its own. Border search and rescue efforts should be expanded. The Border Patrol should discontinue its use of hollow point bullets, which fracture on contact and cause massive internal injuries. The I.N.S. should reform its own complaint system, which does little to stem civil rights violations or to identify trends in abuses that could be addressed pro-actively. The Border Patrol should also stop conducting enforcement activities at churches, schools, hospitals, charitable agencies, homeless shelters and other places of sanctuary. U.S.-funded migrant interception programs should include refugee screening, so that migrants at risk of persecution, torture or death are not repatriated.

A meaningful reduction in crossing deaths, however, can only be achieved through policy changes made at a level well beyond the Border Patrol. To keep would-be migrants at home will require economic development and targeted aid to sending communities. To keep undocumented people from taking perilous crossing routes will necessitate a revised or new enforcement strategy. And to remove significant numbers of migrants from the desert will require more avenues for legal migration, particularly for those with strong work histories, families and other equitable ties to the United States. The dialogue between the United States and Mexico on migration and economic development has provided one forum for consideration of the kind of wide-ranging reforms that are needed to address this crisis. At a minimum, the dialogue should be revitalized.

In late September 2002, Sonia Guadalupe Hernández de Canett came to meet with policy makers and the press in Washington, D.C., as part of a U.S.-Mexico border delegation. Earlier in the summer, two of Sonia’s brothers, José and Jaime, paid a smuggler $1,000 each to take them to the United States. The brothers began their attempt to cross the border on June 18. On June 19 Jaime called his family in Mexicali. He had become sick and abandoned the trip. He had tried unsuccessfully to convince José, who was also struggling, to return to Mexico with him. In fear for his brother’s life, Jaime reported José and his group to the Border Patrol. Meanwhile, the family began a frantic search. Four days later, they learned that José’s body had been found, along with that of another man. The other three migrants from their group remain missing. José Luís Hernández Aguirre was the youngest of six children. He left a wife and two children, ages seven and one. He had been working in construction in Sonora, but did not earn enough to support his wife, children and mother.

Donald Kerwin is the executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., a legal support agency for 145 Catholic immigration programs.