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Trade agreements, border patrols, and militias: A death sentence for displaced migrants

A flashpoint of xenophobia, neoliberalism, and militarism—the US-Mexico border is the center of an international debate about undocumented people in the US. What the debate does nothing to address, however, is why so many people are fleeing their lands to come to the US.
Lucresia Dominguez Luna didn’t know a soul in Tucson, but nearly 70 people gathered at a local church in late July for her funeral. The 35-year old Zacatecan woman perished a month earlier while traversing the Sonora desert.

A community all too familiar with the brutality of the US-Mexico border, Tucson activists and the grief-stricken father of Dominguez assembled not to mourn just Dominguez’s death but also to mourn the 98 people who died in the month of July while crossing the desolate, 2,000 mile-long border the US shares with Mexico.

Three days after entering the US from Mexico with her two children and another group of migrants, the scorching 120-degree heat easily overcame Lucresia. Her 15 year-old son, Jesus, stayed with her until her last pained breath, leaving her body to search for help. Eventually arrested on the brink of dehydration, the US Border Patrol deported Jesus back to Mexico without bothering to search for his mother’s body. The Mexican government granted a visa to Lucresia’s father, Cesario, to scour the desert himself for his daughter’s remains. Almost a month after her death and an exhausting search, Cesario located her corpse where Jesus described it, identified by three rings on her left hand.


While Cesario retraced his daughter’s last steps in Arizona, the newest wave of border vigilantism installed itself on the California border of Mexico. Calling themselves the California Minutemen, dozens of armed individuals camped out in the desert of Campo, east of San Diego, “to protect America’s borders from unwelcome intruders.? During the California Minutemen’s three-week sojourn, two migrants were mysteriously shot and three migrants were “arrested? by the group’s leader Jim Chase. In its media campaign to win the public’s attention, the Minutemen feigned not to be a racist organization. Meanwhile, unabashedly racist members of the National Vanguard, neo-Nazis and the National Alliance rallied in nearby Orange County in a “Save Our State? protest, calling for massive deportation of illegal immigrants.

At the beginning of July, 48 undocumented workers were arrested in Greensboro, N.C. after US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents staged a fake Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training at a local Air Force base. The workers believed they were attending safety training, as OSHA regularly provides assistance to immigrant workers. The ICE later raided a poultry factory in Arkadelphia, Arkansas on July 28, arresting 119 suspected undocumented workers and leaving more than 30 children without parents.


On the same day, the US-Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement narrowly passed in the House of Representatives with a 217-215 vote. Mirroring the North American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA will create a job market where the poorest of workers from the impoverished region will compete with each other for jobs that pay pennies per hour.

This was just July. The month’s events encapsulate the myriad complexities of immigration within the US—an inhumane border enforcement policy that creates an increasingly deadly situation, the marked rise of xenophobia, the US pursuit of an economic policy that inevitably fuels migration to the US and the criminalization of 11 million undocumented workers employed in an economy that thrives off their cheap exploited labor.

What we are left to grapple with in the US is the refusal of the powers that be to recognize the direct correlation between its foreign economic policy and migration to its borders. While turning a blind eye, the US has failed to craft a fair immigration policy that would grant undocumented people in the US more human and labor rights.

Mexican journey

Once coined “the quintessential American journey,? immigration is now a journey of alienation, fear and discrimination. With a post 9-11 climate of recession and war, people from other countries and namely people of color are shouldering the blame of a vengeful populace. Mexicans compose a large portion of immigrants in the US and the highest percentage of undocumented people living in the US; immigration is also a Mexican journey.

According to the US Census, the US received its largest number ever of immigrants during the 1990s. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics reported that of the 9.1 million documented immigrants that arrived between 1991 and 2000, 45.5 percent of that number was Mexican. The Pew Hispanic Center believes that of the 35.4 million foreign-born people currently residing in the US, roughly 11 million are undocumented, 81 percent of those people are Latin American, and 57 percent are Mexican.

Mexican immigration to the U.S is not a recent phenomenon. Cheap Mexican labor was in demand in the late 1800s. Mexican immigration experienced ebbs and flows until the 1940s when the bracero program was established to put Mexican workers in vacant farm fields that had been abandoned for work in the US war machine. Five million Mexicans were brought into the US between 1942 and 1964. Since 1976, the US has permitted an immigration cap of 20,000 people from every country in the Western Hemisphere.


Most undocumented workers arrive to the US to find employment in four areas: dirty, dangerous, dull and domestic. They work in farm fields, meatpacking plants, in the backs of restaurants as kitchen staff, as housekeepers and day laborers. Many people live in hovels, packing as many people into a house or apartment to lessen the rent payments so that more money is sent home for families to eat, children can go to school, and homes can be built.

LA Weekly recently gave a glimpse into what working conditions are like for people out in the fields of California

Wages among California’s 700,000 farm workers, 96 percent of whom are Mexican or Central American, more than half of whom are undocumented, are at best stagnant, and by most reckonings are in decline. With almost all workers stuck at the minimum wage of $6.75 an hour, it’s rare to find a farm worker whose annual income breaks $10,000 a year.

“Without those people our economy would crumble. If you look at California, the fifth largest economy in the world, without undocumented people working in its agricultural fields, its economy would be in shambles,? said Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in San Diego, a group that focuses on border militarization and migrant communities.

Mexican workers sent home $16.7 billion dollars in remittances last year. These remittances are the second largest source of income for the Mexican economy, between oil and tourism. Mexico’s participation in NAFTA hasn’t helped reduce Mexico’s dependence on remittances.


As part of its inclusion in NAFTA, Mexico was forced to adjust its constitution’s article 27, which guaranteed Mexican people’s rights to communal lands or ejidos. Article 27 was omitted and people were left without their ejidal lands to farm. NAFTA eliminated tariffs on foreign imports. Government-subsidized agriculture and industry got the ax as well.

One ostensible goal of NAFTA was to lower migration by creating employment inside Mexico. Miguel Picard from the Center for Economic Investigation and Community Political Action in Chiapas, Mexico said his country’s adoption of neoliberal economic policies like NAFTA have definitely spurred migration to the US.

“Basically NAFTA destroyed sources of employment here in Mexico. Mexicans have been left without a market to sell their goods,? Picard said. “[Mexicans] have limited options to survive. One of them is to migrate, another is employment in the informal economy and the other is unfortunately in the criminal sector.?

A symbolic example of NAFTA’s effects is the fate of Mexican corn, a staple in the Mexican diet for centuries. To comply with NAFTA, the Mexican government eliminated Mexican farmers’ corn seed subsidy. Since corn from the US was cheaper to produce and subsidized by the US government, US corn became cheaper to buy inside Mexico than Mexican corn.

Millions of farmers were left without a market. The American Immigration Legal Foundation said that from 1994 to 2002, the Mexican economy added about 500,000 export-oriented manufacturing jobs, but lost 1.3 million jobs in agriculture. NAFTA displaced people from their lands and forced them into the maquila factories along the northern border, but enough jobs never came—or they had already left for a cheaper Asian market.

Second wave

Pedro Rios of the AFSC said the new response to create employment is to promote a second wave of maquiladora industries in southern Mexico through Plan Puebla Panama and CAFTA.

Rios said the effects of CAFTA would be like those of NAFTA, resulting in millions of people losing their land, the creation of a fiercely competitive job market and waves of millions of Latinos traveling to the US looking for work. “This is a race to the bottom,? he said.

Jonathan Shapiro with Borderlinks, an experiential border education group in Tucson, said free trade policies like NAFTA and CAFTA have hundreds of pages devoted to the free travel of goods and capital but there’s nothing that allows labor to move freely.

“If NAFTA were designed to be humane and create an economic equilibrium on the continent, it would have involved some kind of revamped immigration policy,? Shapiro said.

Border militarization

To discourage migration to the US, the government decided to militarize its border. Beginning in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper, the US border enforcement strategy began blocking traditional urban border crossing areas by adding more Border Patrol (BP) agents and building walls that stretch for a few miles to push people into crossing more difficult terrain.

The government will spend $6.7 billion on border security in 2006. The budget includes an additional 210 Border Patrol agents to the current number of 11,000, money for new aircraft, radiation detectors, unmanned drone airplanes, underground sensors and surveillance systems. Eighty percent of the entire BP force is concentrated along the U.S-Mexico border, which is about half the length of the US-Canada border.

The U.S-Mexico border has become a convenient front in the US war on terror. The government says the border is too porous and would facilitate the entrance of terrorists into the US. The BP says its catches one-third of the estimated 3 million people who cross into the US annually. Rios and Shapiro believe the detention level is actually lower.

“None of the money that they spend, none of the manpower that they put into it and none of the political stuff that they say is ever going to stop people from crossing if they need a job that badly,? said Shapiro.

Instead of crossing in traditional urban areas, migrants are now forging across the desert, which no matter what time of year is an inhospitable passage. Summer daytime heat can climb to 130 degrees. Nighttime winter temperatures plunge to below freezing, creating the possibility for hypothermia. 3500 people have died while crossing the desert since border militarization began in 1994.

An anti-border-militarization group, Stop Gatekeeper, says that Operation Gatekeeper was developed with help from the US Department of Defense’s Center for Low Intensity Conflicts. The strategic plan recognizes that “illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses...can find themselves in mortal danger.?

“The government acknowledged that people were going to die and they thought that the deaths on the terrain would deter people from crossing into the border,? Shapiro said.

“Border militarization turns migration into immigration. It becomes so difficult for people to come into the US and go back with any regularity, that they will stay and reside here.?

Frontier mentality

The US-Mexico border was created 150 years ago with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty ended the Mexican-American War and annexed much of the southwestern US from Mexico. “The border was born out of a legacy of violence,? Rios said.

Much of the frontier mentality that began with the border persists today. Believing they are still living in the Wild West, gun-wielding Minutemen set up their first encampment in Arizona in April. The Arizona Minutemen Project said they were stepping in where the federal government had failed.

Then the California Minutemen camped out east of San Diego for a few weeks in July. “We’re here for national security,? said Mike Byrd a Georgian who was in Arizona and California. “There’s drug smugglers out there and someone could sneak a nuclear bomb through the border.?

The Border Patrol even admitted that the Minutemen did nothing to stifle the flow of border-crossers, who would circumvent their encampment and find other routes to cross.

Although the Minutemen attracted considerably small numbers during the summer, they plan to post themselves on all four Mexican border-states in October. With an uncritical mainstream media covering them, at times calling them “border activists? and “border watchers,? the Minutemen have easily crept into the public conscience.

“They managed to get the Minutemen in the papers in Arizona everyday for six months along with a lot of national and international coverage. They’ve been very successful at pushing this racist, anti-immigrant sentiment further into the public discourse,? Shapiro said.


The last time the federal legislature dealt directly with the issue of immigration was the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The legislation vastly expanded the categories of criminal activity for which both documented and undocumented immigrants can be deported and began border militarization. It did nothing to address the continuous flow of migrants entering the US.

Taking on the subject of immigration during his first term, President George W. Bush’s administration has largely sidestepped the issue, relegating it to the war on terror. The administration considered opening the border up but after the 9-11 attacks their main approach has been to try to seal the borders shut.

This spring, the government passed the REAL ID Act as a rider on an emergency defense-spending bill. The act creates a uniform, nationwide identification system that requires all people to show proof of US residence before receiving official identification. In three years, any person living inside the US will need a federally approved ID card to travel on an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments, or take advantage of nearly any government service.

The REAL ID Act contains even more alarming elements. It toughens the process for refugees to seek asylum in the US. It also includes provisions that exempt the DHS from environmental protection, labor, safety, discrimination, and local and state laws as it builds its security fence along the border.

Recently, two bills have been up for debate in Congress that address immigration reform. The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy would expand the channels for legal immigration by setting up a guest worker program. The bill would fine undocumented workers a $2,000 fine, make them pay back taxes, and put them in the process of obtaining a green card.

Myopic response

Once again, however, the nation’s lawmakers have offered a myopic response. Ultimately, the immigration reform bill will do nothing to create better economic conditions that would enable people to stay in their home countries. It does not address labor or human rights issues. The REAL ID Act makes life more impossible for undocumented immigrants in the US. The two-faced policy of the US government will continue to portray the government as tough on border security enforcement but will allow its economy to thrive off exploited undocumented labor.

“Who’s to say that in 20 years we won’t be dealing with the same issues?? Rios said. “Unless we start dealing with the root cause of immigration problems, and that is the inequities in trade policies between the two countries.?

Jen Lawhorne is an indymedia writer and activist, currently traveling through the US and Mexico. Her next project involves producing a documentary about indocumentados in the US, the lives they leave behind in Mexico and the politics of immigration. You can contact her at j_law (at)

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