A recently released study by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (h/t abbyjean) shows that there has been an increase in migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year:
Marking the 15th anniversary of the misguided border strategy known as Operation Gatekeeper, the report makes visible the following:
- In the past 15 years, as many as 5,600 people have died.
- These deaths were anticipated in the design of the U.S. border strategy, which deliberately pushes migrants away from inhabited areas into harsh desert and mountainous terrains.
- The rate of deaths has increased despite the economic decline and a drop in migration.
- The number of rescues has decreased despite a massive increase in Border Patrol agents.
And of course this study is only looking at deaths, and therefore leaves out injuries that don’t result in a fatality, as well as the extraordinarily high rate of sexual assault committed against women crossing the border.
Though it’s important to have the numbers, both to be able to quote them and to be able to attract media attention, none of this should come as a surprise. In fact, advocates for immigrants rights have long warned that exactly this would happen in the event of “border security” being increased, and particularly in the event of the border fence being expanded. It’s only logical: people do not attempt to cross the U.S. border in hopes of finding work without documentation unless they’re facing some sort of desperation, and fences don’t make desperation go away, make the legal route to U.S. entry any less expensive or any more accessible, or put food on family’s tables. Build a fence, and many people will find another, more dangerous way — and those who authorized and built the fence knew that damn well at the time they did so.
Analysts have long acknowledged that a U.S. crackdown begun in 1994 in California and Texas increased the hazards for illegal immigrants by driving border crossers from urban centers such as San Diego and El Paso into more remote areas.
The strategy, reflected in plans with names such as Operation Gatekeeper, was intended to focus Border Patrol personnel in places where illegal crossers could disappear quickly into neighborhoods, reasoning that authorities would have more time to catch people trekking through the desert and that the difficulty of such crossings would be a deterrent.
The enforcement push, however, has channeled migrants to places such as Arizona, increasing the number of deaths in the region’s inhospitable mountain ranges, Indian reservations, military proving grounds and cactus-filled wilderness.
In the 15 years since the United States began beefing up patrols along the 2,000-mile border, deaths have occurred at a rate of one every 24 hours, the human rights report alleges. Citing Mexico’s foreign ministry and media sources, the rights groups say that at least 5,607 deaths occurred between 1994 and 2008.
People are dying. They are dying because the U.S. has decided that Mexicans who cannot afford the official process of entering the country are better off dead than working here. They are dying because of American racism and political posturing. They are dying because those who have power are horrifically abusing it. We, Americans, are responsible for this. These deaths are on our heads.
But the apathy of many Americans towards this fact is at the root of the problem. The ACLU blog writes:
Americans are repelled by injustice. We don’t want to contemplate the awful deaths from dehydration of men, women, and children crossing the desert—not a few hours’ drive from lovely vacation oases like San Diego, Scottsdale, and San Antonio. This cuts both ways. On the one hand, we don’t want to think about it so we put it out of our minds. On the other, when confronted with these realities and the policies responsible for them, we want these problems solved and our lawmakers to make them go away.
And, you know, in terms of lobbying elected officials, I imagine that this would be an intelligent line of argument to take.
But while I wish it was true, I instead had to go no further than the ACLU blog post’s own comment section (which in line with their work, I can only imagine is not moderated) to find evidence that many do not feel the way described above at all. One comment rants about undocumented immigrants being rapists and murderers, and thus deserving of the death we’ve been inflicting on them. Another talks about “anchor babies,” says something about how the immigrants in question have no emotion, and seems to suggest that we ought to deport every Mexican in America, whether they are in the country legally or not. Lest you think that this might be some sort of abnormality, you can rest assured that the Washington Post comment section is a much larger cesspool (including one gem about the importance of teaching the “illegals” “harsh lessons”). And it’s awfully hard for Americans to see these deaths as something to be concerned about when they keep coming up with new and inventive ways to dehumanize those who are dying.
The reaction to the people dying as they cross the border is sadly but predictably similar to the reaction to those who are raped in prison, or who die there from a lack of medical treatment. Far too many believe that if a person breaks a law, no matter how irrational, unfair or minor that law may be, they have lost their basic human rights. People who break the law, in this world view, do not have a right to not experience violation of their bodies, do not have a right to medical treatment, and do in fact deserve to die in a hot desert. If you attempt to cross the border illegally and die, they say, that’s not only okay, it’s also a desirable outcome. And of course, they would claim, it’s merely coincidence that those they’ve decided are no longer worthy of life are predominantly poor people of color.
As long as we keep deciding that some lives are valuable and others are not, as long as we keep deciding that it is particularly people of color who do not matter or have a right to go on breathing, as long as we keep deciding that our line in the sand is worth more than human lives, that fence is going to stay up. Because politicians have shown us time and time again that their continued power is worth more to them than their souls. And America’s just going to go right on killing.
But you can help make your own tiny dent in this thinking by contacting your congressional representatives here.