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On the Migrant Trail

No More Walls, No More Deaths

by JOSEPH NEVINS


On Sunday, June 4, about two hundred people filed by individuals wailing over what appeared to be corpses in front of the U.S. Border Patrol’s sector headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. The march and the guerrilla theater-a "die-in"-were the culmination of a seven-day, 75-mile trek from Sasabe, Sonora, a small Mexican border town and a major staging area for migrants clandestinely entering the United States.

The march, known as the Migrant Trail, took place for the third consecutive year. Sponsored by variety of border and migrant rights, humanitarian, and religious groups-including the Tucson-based Derechos Humanos/Alianza Indígena, No More Deaths, Borderlinks, the Christian Peacemaker Team, and Witness for Peace-it seeks to bring critical attention to the growing death toll along the U.S.-Mexico boundary and the fundamentally flawed border and immigration policies that make the fatalities inevitable.

More than 3,800 migrants have lost their lives since 1995 while trying to cross from Mexico into the United States. The estimate is conservative in that it only includes confirmed deaths. Many more bodies are never found. As such, the grim toll is surely much higher.

The deaths peak during the summer months. And the summer started early this year in southern Arizona, the epicenter of the borderlands’ killing fields. In mid-May, a three-year-old boy, David Rodriguez Reyes, died in the desert in his mother’s arms. Twelve more migrant bodies would be discovered in Arizona before the end of the month.

The fatalities, on the rare occasion that they are discussed in Washington and the halls of power, are either treated as a public relations problem or cynically used to justify more of the very policies-such as the boundary build-up-that contribute to the death toll. Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican from the San Diego area and the individual most responsible for the walls and fences that increasingly litter the border landscape, argued to Bush administration officials in May, for example, that more barriers are a good way to prevent deaths. "If you can save lives by fencing the desert, why not fence the desert?" he asked.

But it is the call for "security" that most typically underlies support for more walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico divide. Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), for instance, stated in February that "Yes, many who come across the [U.S.-Mexico] border are workers. But among them are people coming to kill you and me and your children."

Although few are as hysterical as Tancredo, the basic assumptions regarding boundary and immigration enforcement are shared by most Democrats and Republicans, resulting in a stale congressional and national debate and a narrow set of policy options. While the infamous Sensenbrenner bill (HR 4437) requires 700 miles of additional walls and fences, the alternative offered by the Senate calls for 370 miles of triple fencing and 500 miles of barriers to block vehicles. It would also add another 14,000 agents to the Border Patrol by 2011, more than doubling the agency’s current size. It is on this basis that advocates of "reform" hope that some sort of compromise will be achieved between the House and Senate.

In this impoverished context, the plan offered by the Bush White House (one that combines legalization of status for most, but not all, of the undocumented population with far greater repression along and within the country’s boundaries, and one largely mirrored by the Senate bill) has become the "reasonable" standard. At a forum on international human rights workers in late May, former president Jimmy Carter called Bush’s approach, one that includes the deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops to the border region, "quite admirable." A few days earlier, Bill Clinton, while speaking to a Las Vegas convention of shopping mall developers, stated that Bush was doing a "good job" on the matter.

In speaking as he did, Bill Clinton was being true to form. It was his administration that launched the massive boundary build-up that now scars the borderlands, and enacted the legislation that has resulted in a massive increase of deportations (over one million since 1996). He was also playing the role of a supportive husband.

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who, in late-March, characterized the Sensenbrenner bill as both "un-American" and "un-Christian," has positioned herself as a border hawk. In late-April-only two-weeks after attending a huge immigrant rights march in New York City at which she seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the marcher’s goals-she called for additional border walls "in certain places" along with high-tech "smart fencing," while suggesting that Israel’s wall might serve as a potential model. "A country that cannot control its borders is failing at one of its fundamental obligations," she explained.

Meanwhile, the death toll in southern Arizona and throughout the border region continues to rise, and will surely do so for the foreseeable future as migrants are pushed into increasingly risky routes. During the Migrant Trail walk across the desert, the media reported the deaths of one male migrant in Arizona, and of two men in New Mexico to where some migrant traffic has gone in response to the build-up in Arizona. Another six died this past weekend in Arizona. More undoubtedly died beyond the view of the media.

There have been so many migrant deaths in Arizona of late that Pima County’s medical examiner’s morgue in Tucson is overflowing. It still contains bodies from last summer as the examiner struggles to identify the corpses. As a result, the county has rented a refrigerated trailer to store bodies and is now in the process of building a new cool room for 300 bodies, almost doubling the morgue’s current capacity.

To stop this carnage and the underlying injustices will require much more political conviction and imagination than is now on offer in Washington. Only by stepping outside the hyper-nationalist, Democrat-Republican box-one also generally supportive of neoliberal policies abroad that exacerbate the conditions that lead to out-migration-can we begin to bring about a world in which migrant deaths are a phenomenon of the past. This requires, among other things, that all people have a basic right to international mobility and residence.

JOSEPH NEVINS is an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College. He is the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2002) and, most recently, A Not-so-distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Cornell University Press, 2005). His email is jonevins@vassar.edu.