The Guardian July 24, 2002


Deaths in the desert
The sad price of US border policy

by James Jordan

Three months pregnant, Norma Rodriguez Amado had watched her husband, Paez 
Martinez, as he left his home in Morales, Mexico, for the United States. He 
would support his family from afar, working in the states of Tennessee and 
Florida. After almost two-and-a-half years of living and working in these 
faraway places, Paez returned to Morales to see his son, Alexander, for the 
first time.

When the time came to leave again, Paez and Norma decided to go together 
with their son and thus maintain the family unit. Paez had crossed the 
border without problems previously, as had others whom he had known.

Unfortunately, he did not foresee the possibility for danger; he was simply 
waiting for a life happier with the presence of his loved ones.

However, this time, the family found themselves crossing a long stretch of 
the Tohono'O'odham reservation in the middle of the day during one of the 
worst droughts in the history of that desert.

After two hours of walking, Norma collapsed. Their "guide" chose to abandon 
the family and continue on with the rest of their group. Only 45 minutes 
later, this mother and wife died, becoming one of the latest victims of an 
inhumane and murderous border policy.

According to Mexican government statistics, since 1998 more than 1500 
persons have died crossing the US-Mexico border. Another study reports 3676 
such deaths in 14 years.

Meanwhile, in the very hot area of the border that divides the traditional 
lands of the Tohono 'O'odham, such casualties are a sad but regular 
occurrence.

Last year, 27 immigrants died there. This year at least 77 persons have 
died crossing the Arizona border, according to a recent study by The 
Arizona Daily Star.

The majority have died in the isolated stretches of desert between Tucson 
and Yuma, with deaths concentrated in or near the Tohono O'odham 
reservation.

This is by far the worst year since any records have been kept for such 
casualties, a point neither critics nor proponents of US border policy 
would dispute.

However, due to the lack of uniform record keeping among agencies that 
police and maintain the border, it is difficult to assess the full extent. 
According to US Border Patrol numbers, the death toll since June 6 is past 
double for the same period last year.

Operation Gatekeeper

The vice-chairperson of the Tohono 'O'odham nation, Henry Ramon, explains 
the problem:

"In 1996, the United States Government instituted Operation Gatekeeper. 
This program closed down the border, but left a huge hole - the lands of 
Tohono 'O'odham nation, the hottest, most dangerous, and most inhospitable 
point to cross on the southern border. ... It is estimated by the Border 
Patrol that 1,500 persons cross our lands per day. As a result, hundreds 
have died."

Patricia Flores, of the Alianza Indigena sin Fronteras (Indigenous Alliance 
Without Borders), notes that the increased presence and strategies of the 
Border Patrol have created an oppressive atmosphere for everyone in the 
area, including the residents of reservations near the border.

She says, "The Native American people in these communities are constantly 
harassed by the Border Patrol. Grandmothers are held at gunpoint to provide 
papers to prove their identities....

"The roads that are being built for the Border Patrol on Tohono 'O'odham 
nation land ... are destroying the medicine plants that our people have 
used for centuries. They are destroying the environment. They are 
destroying the economic security of the people."

This intolerable situation exists not only in the Sonoran Desert, but along 
all the southern US border.

Therefore, Alianza Indigena sin Fronteras and Derechos Humanos (Human 
Rights), both based in Tucson, Ariz., held a press conference on June 12 to 
announce a new effort, the Mobilization to End the Deaths, with 
participation from groups representing all the regions of the southern US 
border.

The Mobilization issued a declaration stating, "Our border must remain a 
border of neighbours and not enemies."

The Mobilization demands that Congress immediately cease the militarisation 
of the border and end neo-liberal trade agreements, such as the North 
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which have resulted in so much 
economic devastation throughout Mexico, and which now threaten to extend to 
all the Americas in the form of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Furthermore, Mobilization signatories are calling for an open immigration 
policy that acknowledges the work and the many contributions that 
immigrants make to our society.

Especially, they are demanding protection and equal rights for all workers 
in this country [US], whoever they are, with or without papers, separating 
immigration policies from those connected with the so-called war against 
terrorism.

A statement from Casa de Proyecto Libertad (Project Liberty House) in 
Harlingen, Texas, said, "The immigration policy of the United States 
excludes people by reason of their poverty, race, and social class. People 
migrate in response to political and social problems that exist in their 
native countries....

Treated as criminals

"Immigration policies ... treat immigrants and other border residents as if 
they are criminals and potential threats to national security."

The US-Mexico Border Program of the American Friends Service Committee 
(AFSC), in San Diego, presented a statement calling attention to the 
relationship between border militarisation and immigrant deaths.

The statement said, "We ... recognise the dichotomy of a border that is 
openly militarised and channels migrants to cross through one of the most 
inhospitable terrains in the world, and, at the same time, offers search 
and rescue operations."

Daniel Brito of the AFSC said there is a connection between border 
militarisation and labour issues that compel migration to the United States 
of a workforce without rights, who labour for low wages but nevertheless 
contribute so much to US society in the form of work, taxes, and culture.

Brito said that every day on the border there are almost 4600 troops 
involved in operations.

He said, "We need to be aware of the history of how this border was 
erected, how this legal fiction was created. The border system relies on 
shamefulness, on people having to pretend that they are not really needed 
workers....

"Everyone understands that there is a need for this labour in this country. 
Yet we go through this legal fiction pretending that they're not real 
people and that they don't deserve rights."

Lorenzo Torrez, district organiser of the Communist Party USA in Arizona 
and chair of the Party's Chicano/Mexican-American Commission, said free 
trade agreements increase illegal immigration, despite the assertions that 
these accords would raise wages for the participating nations and thus stop 
the flow of people crossing the border looking for jobs.

"These programs tend to make the countries poorer, the workers poorer  
and that's why they have to immigrate", Torrez said.

"These programs are not the answer and the only people that I think can 
stop them are us, the citizens of the United States. We have the 
responsibility to stop these programs and to call for something different."

Continuing this theme, Isabel Garcma Gallegos, director of Derechos 
Humanos, asked, "Has the phenomenon of mass migration been stopped by the 
free trade agreement? Of course, the answer is a resounding 'No!' In fact, 
it has exacerbated the situation."

Gallegos said the American people must pressure Congress and the Bush 
administration to drastically change border policies and, thereby, help end 
these deaths in the desert. She insisted that the blame for these deaths 
must be placed "at the feet of Congress and this administration."

Militarisation and free trade

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) is the point man in Congress on immigration, 
border issues, and free trade, she said.

"We have asked Congressman Kolbe to help us in stopping [US border policy] 
and, consistently, he has refused", instead advocating "more militarisation 
of the border...where we are living in dying fields", Gallegos said.

Many words of anger, of resolve, of analysis, of faith, of power were 
voiced at the Mobilization to End the Deaths press conference. But in the 
background behind the speakers was a visual reminder of the sad price paid 
for US border policy: small, white crosses bearing the names of those who 
have recently died in the desert, the majority while crossing the remote, 
dry land of the Tohono'O'odham nation.

One name was that of Arturo Gomez Castro, from Chiapas, Mixico, a young man 
of 16. His body was found in the shade of a mesquite tree, with two empty 
water bottles and an open address book. Why the open address book? Perhaps 
he found some comfort reading the names of his loved ones one last time.

Or perhaps he was making a kind of last call - to those who would find him, 
and, by extension, to the citizens of the United States.

The call?

That we change US border policy, that we cease the militarisation, that we 
extend equal rights to all who work in this county, that we end neo-liberal 
trade agreements that literally kill, and that no one, ever again, should 
have to die of thirst and exhaustion in the desert, looking for a job and a 
good life full of hope, health and happiness.

* * *
This article is from People's Weekly World paper of Communist Party USA: http://www.pww.org/article/view/1541

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