"From a Boundary of Death to One of Life"

Speech given at the Volunteer Celebration and Fundraising Banquet of No More Deaths, Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2005

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. It is a real pleasure and honor to be here in Arizona with activists and supporters of No More Deaths, and to have an opportunity to share some ideas on where we find ourselves, and where we might head.

No More Deaths is one of the most important and inspiring organizations in defense of the human rights of migrants to emerge in the Southwest in many years. By bringing much-needed attention to and refusing to accept the growing fatalities of migrants–people whose only “crime” is to seek work so that they can realize their basic needs and live a life of dignity, or to unite with family members on this side of the U.S.-Mexico boundary–No More Deaths serves as a direct challenge to the inhumane practices of the federal government and to the politicians on both sides of the increasingly narrow political aisle who champion “get-tough” policies toward “illegal” immigrants. Let us remember who these so-called illegals are: fellow human beings who weren’t fortunate enough to be born in parts of the world where sufficient wealth and security accumulates.

No More Deaths affirms migrants’ humanity and, in doing so, probably has saved many hundreds of lives in a direct sense by providing assistance to individuals in distress. And, by serving as a humanitarian thorn in the side of U.S. immigration control authorities, by having a physical presence in the most arduous areas of the border region, the movement has undoubtedly saved countless additional lives by forcing the Border Patrol and U.S. authorities more broadly to take action to save lives endangered by their own practices.

Despite such success–something we need to acknowledge and celebrate–we face an increasingly well-armed opposition, armed in terms of material and political resources, one championing ever-higher and ever-longer walls and fences, greater numbers of Border Patrol agents, as well as more draconian laws and penalties aimed at those entering and residing in the United States without authorization. No doubt, the rise of such reaction is in part a response to No More Deaths and allied organizations.

And while we face a formidable opposition, we also face an ugly reality in terms of how many deaths we have not been able to prevent. As we well know, the recently completed federal fiscal year was the deadliest on record with 460 confirmed migrant fatalities in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Over the last ten years, the grim toll–and a conservative one given that it only includes bodies that have been found–is over 3,600. That’s an annual average of 360 people–in other words, more people are dying per year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico boundary than died trying to flee East Berlin during the roughly 28-year existence of the Berlin Wall.

Many might argue that that’s not a fair comparison, that most of the deaths associated with the Berlin Wall took place as a result of direct actions–shootings in a majority of the cases–by East German authorities. In the case of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, by contrast, the murder of migrants by Border Patrol agents is a very rare event. Yet, the U.S.-Mexico boundary’s enforcement regime, like that of Berlin used to, systematically denies people’s humanity and associated rights. It thus regularly produces death and does so predictably. If we assume that we are responsible for the likely consequences of our actions, and that we should be first and foremost concerned with outcomes rather than means, is there really any difference between someone slain by a bullet and some killed by an immigration policing web? In that regard, the United States’ southern boundary is just as violent as the Berlin Wall. But it is an institutionalized violence, one widely accepted nationally and even internationally. As such it is far more complex than the brute, direct violence of the Berlin Wall, and, as a result, it is one more difficult for people to see and to challenge. It is also one that manifests itself on all sorts of levels from the mundane to the dramatic.

I came to appreciate this to a far greater degree than I used to a little more than two years ago, when I was in Douglas, Arizona for the first time. While there I met with Ray Ybarra who, at the time, was a Racial Justice Fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Having grown up in Douglas just a couple of blocks away from the actual boundary with Agua Prieta, Ray had been witness to the dramatic changes in the border law enforcement infrastructure that had taken place over the previous decade through the federal government’s “Operation Safeguard.” In communicating the effects of these changes, Ray tried to impress upon me how profoundly and negatively they shaped people’s everyday lives in and around Douglas.

The importance of what Ray told me hit home the next day. It was a Monday morning at around 10am. I was wheeling my 19-month-old daughter around in her stroller. We were several blocks from the Douglas port of entry when I decided I wanted to cross the boundary and go into Agua Prieta to take a look around.

Ignorant as to whether or not I would need documents for my daughter in this post 9-11 era, I asked a man in his early 20s working out in front of a Church’s Fried Chicken if he knew what the requirements were for re-entry. He wasn’t sure, but he admitted that even he–a U.S.-born Latino–no longer liked to go to Agua Prieta because U.S. authorities
would often give him a hard time when he tried to return to Douglas. Given his uncertainty about what I would need, he went inside to find a fellow employee–a Mexican national from Agua Prieta who crossed daily (apparently with some sort of visa) and told me that they would definitely not allow me to bring my daughter back into the country without a birth certificate.

So instead of entering Mexico, I only went to the actual entrance to take a look at it and peer through to Agua Prieta. So I walked past the Customs inspectors to the turnstile, but without going through, looked into Mexico and after about 30 seconds turned around.

When I passed the Customs inspectors again, one of the officers–someone by the name of Valdez–stopped and asked me where I was going and where I was coming from (the turnstile about 50 feet away), and then requested identification. I showed him my NY driver’s license. He then asked me what I did for a living. After consulting with a Border Patrol agent, he asked me who the child was in the stroller and if I had papers for her. Quickly realizing what was going on, I became irritated and said to him that they had seen me walk by the first time, that there was no way I could have entered from Mexico on that side of the road as the turnstile only operated in one direction, that it was impossible that anyone could have passed me the baby through or over the fence in their plain view, and that if they had any doubts all they had to do was to check their surveillance cameras which blanketed the entire area. After I spoke, he let me go.

Although this was a minor incident, what struck me about it was how easily my daughter and I–a white male who had not even left the United States–had become targets of suspicion on that particular day. It made me appreciate how I could only begin to imagine the mistrust and surveillance that Latinos in the area must regularly undergo and endure.

While all this was happening, my partner, who is a documentary photographer, was on a ride-along with a Border Patrol agent out of the Douglas station who was in his late-20s. Given that the agent had received training in public relations from the Border Patrol, my partner was surprised by some of the things he said.

She asked him about the high level of turnover within the organization. He responded by saying that it was difficult to be a Border Patrol agent because, unlike police officers who catch criminals, help people, and are sometimes seen as heroes, agents such as himself catch women and children going to look for work in the United States, and that doesn’t make him and his fellow agents feel good. A little later in the conversation, however, the agent told her that there are things that make one feel proud to be in the Border Patrol–like helping to fight terrorism. He explained that one could never know what threatening items migrants might carry in their backpacks. He went on to say that he had information that Islam was growing in influence in Mexico and that radical Muslims were inculcating Mexicans with their violent ideas. Given the propensity of Mexicans to dislike the United States and the fact that many of them were poor and ignorant, he explained, it wouldn’t take much to convince one of them to strap a bomb on his back and blow himself up. To show how real the threat was, he let it be known that the Border Patrol in Douglas had recently captured nine unauthorized immigrants from Egypt, thus implying that they were likely or potential terrorists just because they happened to be from a particular country.

Now if this is what a public relations person says to someone he doesn’t know–on tape, no less–one can only imagine what is said in the locker rooms of the Border Patrol. His words, combined with my experience elsewhere in Douglas, illustrate the paranoia that permeates Washington and, by extension, the federal enforcement apparatus here in the border region. More important, these encounters demonstrate how profoundly people who are perceived as even possibly being out of place, doing something defined as out of the ordinary (like crossing the boundary without papers) become potential threats–a key step in the process of dehumanization, one that inevitably involves violence of some sort.

It is this move of identifying threats that is the first step in the dehumanization that results in the deaths that we see. For, if we deem that so-called illegals don’t merit what we deserve and thus, by being here, they threaten us, we have the right to do anything within reason (always a slippery concept) to stop them and anyone that supports them. This helps us understand why migrant deaths have become a way of life here in Arizona and throughout the region. The fatalities are just part of the border landscape, they are the collateral damage of a particular type of national security–security against people who steal “our” jobs, who alter the country’s socio-cultural fabric, and its ethnic and racial composition in a direction away from the “American” majority. The migrants are also calling into question one of the ultimate sacred cows in the modern world: national sovereignty–not just any national sovereignty, but that of the United States: They do so by daring to cross the U.S. boundary without the permission of federal authorities. And they do so by demanding respect once they are here. As David Bacon wrote recently in the October 24 issue of The Nation magazine, the effect of U.S. immigration enforcement is not so much to stop migration, but to define the status of people–as subordinate–once they’re here. As such, migrants that succeed in crossing still have to deal with the indignities and insecurity associated with being “illegal”–from divided families to the threat of deportation and the types of socio-economic exploitation that their non-legal status facilitates.

The notion that this is “our” territory and that we have an unquestionable right to determine who cannot and who can come in–and under what conditions–is the ideological underpinning of the institutional violence mentioned earlier. Such institutional violence typically can only come about through the deployment of direct, physical violence as one must take control of the land in the first place, which in this part of the world involved a large number of killings and widespread dispossession of the indigenous and Mexican populations. What was taken away was not only land but all the rights that go along with it, like the right to move, live, and work within. The theft was an inextricable part of the process to Americanize what is now the U.S. Southwest.

Typically, people don’t quietly accept such gross injustice. They make efforts to get back what is theirs. Thus, the violence of foundation normally necessitates efforts to maintain the spoils of treachery–a violence of conservation, in the words of historian Arno Mayer.

One of the tricks required in moving from a violence of foundation to one of conservation is to erase the original violence from our collective memory and thus normalize what has been stolen, to make seem just what is unjust. Through this, the violence of conservation becomes legitimized and, to most, invisible as violence.

My premise in saying all this is that freedom of movement and residence across the space of our planet is a basic human right, and to systematically deny this right is an injustice. International human rights covenants do not specifically recognize such a right. But they do embrace a number of relevant rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights–a document that all member-states of the United Nations are obligated to uphold (at least in theory)–says, for example, that all people have a right to life, a right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment, a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their families, and a right to work for a just wage. It also says–in Article 28–that all people have a right to an international and social order in which these rights can be realized. (Imagine if we took that right seriously!)

In a world of profound inequality, massive instability, and pervasive poverty, it is simply not possible for many to realize these rights if they are not allowed to go to the places where the necessary resources are. In other words, if we take these rights seriously, freedom of movement is an absolute necessity. In this regard, the U.S.-Mexico boundary as an enforced line that systematically denies freedom of movement is–in and of itself–a human rights violation, regardless of whether it results in the types of deaths we collectively decry.

To say this is controversial–even among some here today I imagine. It is also dangerous–dangerous to those conserving the violence mentioned earlier. It is especially dangerous when people within their political community call the legitimacy of their violent practices into question–even implicitly–and take action accordingly. Again, this legitimacy is the ideological underpinning of the larger apparatus of injustice. Without it, it is much more difficult to preserve an institutionalized wrongdoing. It helps us comprehend why the Border Patrol and its overseers in Washington have gone after No More Deaths with such a vengeance, arresting and prosecuting volunteers who dare to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in distress in the scorching desert.

To speak against what is seen by a huge majority of people in this country as common sense–in this case that the U.S. government has a right to regulate migrant crossings–is undoubtedly very difficult. It makes those of us who utter statements that negate that supposed legitimacy seem somewhat crazy, beyond the pale, unreasonable, naïve, and idealistic–in the worst sense of the word. And, if this is how we are seen, how can we be effective in our advocacy, one might ask? Of course, given the growing death toll–and what’s on the horizon in terms of future plans for boundary enforcement–it is questionable how effective a so-called safe, “realistic”, more conservative approach is in terms of realizing our collective goals. Given the nature of our world, any boundary enforcement regime that allows for the systematic denial of freedom of movement will result in migrant deaths. This is shown by the fact that migrants have long died trying to beat the enforcement web, albeit typically in numbers much lower than we see today. More than one hundred years ago, for example, Chinese migrants died in the desert trying to circumvent controls put in place due to the racist Chinese Exclusion laws. Given this, tinkering with the current policies will not prove to be sufficient. We need to advocate for and make fundamental change. By not systematically denying the underlying legitimacy and logic of what U.S. authorities do in bringing about the deaths, we actually aid their cause. (Just to be clear: when I say “we,” I mean a movement that is not limited to No More Deaths, but one that shares its broad goals of putting an end to the carnage along the U.S.-Mexico boundary, a movement with which I identify.)

We here say “no more deaths”–a negative. The question is, what do we want? As was written on some of the crosses this past June on the Migrant Trail from Sasabe to Tucson –a march I was privileged to take part in for a couple of days–the answer is quite simply “life.” We need to say that more often, while being a lot clearer and more precise about what we actually mean.

As long as there is place called Mexico and one called the United States, a boundary between them is inevitable. What is not given is the nature of that divide. There’s a boundary between Arizona and New Mexico, for example, but it is not one of death: it allows people to live a life of dignity, to realize their human rights. In thinking about the possibility of a radically different type of boundary–one that could still potentially allow for checking the identities of people to address public safety concerns, but without systematically denying their fundamental right of movement–it is important to keep in mind just how new boundary enforcement is. In terms of the U.S-Mexico boundary, it is only within the last 30 years or so that it has become significant. More broadly–here and throughout the world–it is only about a century old. Just as it once was very different, it can be very different again.

To fundamentally change the nature of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, we need to become far more politically engaged, sophisticated, and powerful. In addition to building power through organizing, we have to recast the parameters of what pathetically passes for debate on border and migrant issues.

We also have to be good students. In terms of combining the power of faith-based or morality-based principles of the highest order with a highly sophisticated political strategy and grassroots organizing, we can learn a great deal from the Civil Rights movement, the Sanctuary movement, and various antiwar movements here in the United States. We can also learn a lot from friends outside the United States who are struggling against similar problems along international boundaries elsewhere. Indeed, given the global nature of migrant deaths–and the international injustices that underlie them—our strategy must include transnational solidarity. We also need to do this because we can’t beat our adversaries–those who champion the violence of conservation–on their terms. We need to globalize the struggle, frame our position in terms of human rights, to challenge their basic assumptions. And we need to do so unabashedly.

Finally, we have to combine our principles with pragmatism. Because we’re not going to realize our big goals in the foreseeable future, we need to figure out how we can win relatively small victories in the short and medium term–but without compromising the principles that underlie our much larger strategic goals. This, I fear, would be the result of supporting the McCain-Kennedy bill–a piece of legislation that would potentially regularize the status of millions, but would lead to greater levels of migrant policing not only in the Southwest, but in Mexico and Central America as well, thus closing the door to far more and leading to even more deaths in the process.

We’re already doing some of these things to varying degrees, but we must greatly sharpen and intensify our efforts in these areas. If we fail to do so, the future that only looks grim will be sure to come.

If we want to have an idea what it might look resemble, we should take a look at the boundaries between Morocco, and Ceuta and Melilla–two Spanish enclaves, residues of colonialism, in North Africa. In late September, hundreds of desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa tried at once to scale the double fencing at that divides Ceuta from Morocco. Moroccan and Spanish authorities fired on them from both sides with rubber bullets and live ammunition; at least five were killed. The next week, a similar mass storming of the fences took place along the Melilla-Morocco boundary. Six were killed–by gunfire and beatings by border guards, and from falling off the 10-foot high fences–and over one hundred individuals were injured. In the wake of this the Spanish government announced that it will build a third layer of high-tech fencing around the African enclaves. In addition to these atrocities, hundreds more die each year, by drowning, trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain, and untold numbers more perish trekking through the Sahara just to have a chance to try to reach Spanish-controlled territory within Africa.

While we have not quite yet reached the point of Ceuta and Melilla here, we are not far from that ugly reality in terms of U.S. boundary and immigration policing–especially in an era when grossly exaggerated threats of terrorism are used by the federal government to override any sort of local and state-level concerns and laws in the name of homeland security. But we cannot let the ugliness that we see and the real potential that it will get worse deter us from pursuing a beautiful vision. As Eduardo Galeano, the great Uruguayan writer, one said, reality is not destiny, it is a challenge.

One thing going for us in meeting that challenge is the ultimate futility of building bigger and better walls along the boundary. As they long have, additional resources will fail to block the entry of unauthorized migrant workers and their families into the United States. The world’s profound socio-economic inequality and instability–one greatly increased by the so-called free trade policies so loved by White House administrations and Wall Street–produce intense pressures to migrate. Meanwhile, the growing social and commercial ties that transcend national boundaries and the voracious appetite of wealthy countries for low-cost immigrant labor guarantee that migrants will come here. Given such factors, international migration is inevitable and unstoppable. For these reasons alone, it is plain foolish to treat unauthorized international migration as a law-and-order issue. Instead, we should recognize it for what it is: largely the result of an unjust world order and the breakdown of social systems. Were we to do so and act to remedy these root causes, while instituting a boundary and immigration regime truly respectful of human rights, most migrants would have far less reason to leave home in the first place. And the U.S.-Mexico border region would cease to be one scarred by the corpses of our sisters and brothers from “south of the border” and beyond.

My family and I have recently befriended a woman from the state of Veracruz. About two years ago, she unfortunately felt compelled to leave her homeland because of inadequate opportunities there, and crossed the U.S.-Mexico boundary, here in Arizona. She carried with her a baby daughter, who was only a few months old at the time. Her beautiful daughter is now two-years-old and lives with her mother and grandmother in Poughkeepsie, a small city where we live north of New York City. The two of them could have easily died like so many others. I celebrate the fact that they did not perish, that they were not apprehended, and that they arrived safely in their intended destination. Should there be any question that they have a right to life, one of dignity, one in which they can fully realize their human rights?

No More Deaths and its sister organizations have helped to put that question front and center. That is no small accomplishment. I thank you for your inspiring example, and applaud you for your work, dedication, and perseverance.

Undoubtedly, we will need a lot more of all of them. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that all truths must pass through three stages. First, they’re ridiculed. Second, they’re violently opposed. And, third, they’re accepted as self-evident. In terms of a recognition that human beings have an inalienable right to move, live, and work where they would like, our struggle is between the first and second stages. We’ve made significant progress, but we have a long way to go. In that regard, I look forward to working with you over many years.

Thank you.

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.