Monday, May 14, 2007


U.S. Border Policy Increases migrant deaths 20 fold in Arizona Desert.

US border policy increases migrant deaths 20-fold in Arizona desert


In the mid-nineties US policy towards Mexico changed in two significant ways that eventually set the stage for the current "immigration crisis." In January 1994, NAFTA went into effect and a new era of prosperity and progress was to begin in Mexico. At the same time, a new strategy was enacted along the southern border intended to stem the flow of unauthorized migrants. The policy of “prevention through deterrence” involved quintupling border-enforcement expenditures, building new fortified checkpoints, high-tech surveillance, and deploying thousands of additional Border Patrol Agents. Additionally, border barriers were built along portions of the California and Texas border to prevent migrants from entering through the most highly trafficked urban areas.

More than a decade later it's become evident that the promises of these two policies, rather than bringing economic change to Mexico and decreasing unauthorized migration to the US, have led to conditions that more than doubled the flow of immigration….and brought added death to the border.

NAFTA, while bringing trade and investment to Mexico, has had unintended negative consequences on both sides of the border for working people and the poor. Whole segments of the US manufacturing sector have been relocated to Mexico resulting in job loss for US workers. At the same time, the lifting for trade restrictions in Mexico have allowed cheaper US commodities to enter the country, decimating Mexican agricultural markets and throwing millions of small farmers out of business. Additionally, the availability of even cheaper labor sources in places like China has forced manufacturing wages to go down.

As for the policy of "prevention through deterrence", all it has really accomplished in the past thirteen years is a movement of the routes of migration from relatively safe urban areas like San Diego and El Paso to the hostile desert and mountainous regions where enforcement is difficult. This "funneling effect" of forcing migrants into least hospitable areas has had devastating effects for those on both sides of the border. A new study just released by the University Of Arizona examined the consequences of shifting migration patterns from California and Texas to Arizona and found it had increased migrants deaths by 20-fold.

The failures of NAFTA to bring prosperity to Mexico are well documented. It's moved 19 million more Mexicans into poverty, forced more than a million small farmers off the land due to the lifting of restrictions on cheaper US subsidized agricultural products, lowered real wages, and in the end forced "millions …to abandon their native homelands. Entire indigenous nations -- the Zapotecs, the Mixtecs, the Tzotzil Maya -- have moved by the tens of thousands, creating the largest migration of Native American peoples in North America since the Trail of Tears in the late 19th century."

While trade policies have brought suffering to the poor of Mexico, border policies have brought death.

Migrant Deaths Increase

Since 1994, between 2000 and 3000 migrants have died trying to cross the inhospitable regions left unsecured after numerous security measures like "Operation Hold the Line", "Operation Safeguard", and "Operation Gatekeeper" were put in place - 1000 of those in Arizona.

A study just released by the Binational Migration Institute (BMI) of the University of Arizona’s Mexican American Studies and Research Center looks at the effects of the "funneling effect" by compiling data on those who perished trying to cross the Arizona desert in the Tucson Sector.

A national border enforcement strategy that funneled illegal immigrants through Southern Arizona from Texas and California led to a dramatic increase in illegal-entrant deaths in Southern Arizona, according to a University of Arizona study released Wednesday.

The study by the Binational Migration Institute — paid for by in part by the Pima County Board of Supervisors — is not the first to reach that conclusion. Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that Arizona accounted for at least 78 percent of the increased Southwestern border deaths between 1990 and 2003.

But the UA study is the most detailed examination of known border deaths in Southern Arizona to date, said Melissa McCormick, a senior research specialist with the institute, which studies issues related to human rights and immigration as part of the university's Mexican American Studies and Research Center.

Among the unusual aspects of this latest study is that it is based on a detailed examination of more than 900 autopsy reports from the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office from 1990 to 2005. Previous studies had based their research on vital statistics from death certificates, which don't account for all illegal-entrant deaths since unidentified deaths are assumed to be U.S. citizens, McCormick said.

Arizona Star

(BMI) has undertaken a unique and scientifically rigorous study of all unauthorized border-crosser (UBC) deaths examined by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office (PCMEO) from 1990-2005


Because the PCMEO has handled approximately 90 percent of all UBC recovered bodies in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, an analysis of such deaths serves as an accurate reflection of the major characteristics of all known unauthorized border-crosser deaths that have occurred in this sector since 1990.


The BMI study was designed specifically to measure this “funnel effect” created by U.S. immigration-control policies. The BMI study found that there has been an exponential increase in the number of UBC recovered bodies handled by the PCMEO from 1990 to 2005.

BMI’s findings unambiguously confirm previous evidence that U.S. border-enforcement policies did create the funnel effect and that it is indeed the primary structural cause of death for thousands of unauthorized men, women, and children from Mexico, Central America, and South America who have tried to enter the United States. During the “pre-funnel effect” years (1990-1999), the PCMEO handled, on average, approximately 14 UBC recovered bodies per year. In stark contrast, during the funnel effect years (2000-2005), on average, 160 UBC recovered bodies were sent to the PCMEO each year. Over 80 percent of the unauthorized border-crosser bodies handled by the PCMEO have been under the age of 40, and there is a discernable, upward trend in the number of dead youth under the age of 18. There also has been a statistically significant decrease in the number of recovered bodies of unauthorized border-crossers from northern Mexico and a significant increase in the number of such decedents from central and southern Mexico.

American Immigration Law Institute

Yet, despite the obvious failures of these two policies, policymakers insist on using them as a model for future programs. NAFTA has been replicated in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) passed by Congress in 2005 and similar trade agreements with Panama, Columbia and Peru, based on the NAFTA model are now pending in Congress.

As for relying on increased border security measures as a deterrent to unauthorized migration – it's become the cornerstone of Republican immigration reform policy.

The Human Cost

Lost in all the discussion of "unauthorized border crossers" and the death in the desert are the stories of those who never completed their journeys only to become statistics in any of the myriad of studies and reports on the topic.

For instance there is the story of Antonio Torres Jimenez, a long-time Tucson resident, whose body was found in the desert in May of 2006:

Antonio Torres Jimenez perished while coming back into Tucson from Mexico. After the Border Patrol ended their search, Torres’ friends continued to look for him (24 people fanned out across the desert to find their friend). They found him in less than 24 hours

The reason Torres went back and forth across the border illegally?

“A couple of years after Torres earned permanent residency, his eldest daughter died in Mexico…. Torres returned to La Loma [Mexico] to be with his wife and remaining children. When he came back to his construction job in Tucson, he learned that he’d violated the terms of his green card because he stayed in Mexico too long. He lost his legal status…. With few jobs back home, Torres continued living and working in Tucson. Torres’ wife and children stayed behind and he would travel to see them” (LoMonaco 6/3/06).

Binational Migration Institute

Or the story of Lucrecia Dominguez Luna:

Fifteen-year-old Jesus Abran Buenrostro Dominguez memorized the silhouette of Baboquivari Peak as his mother lay dying on the desert floor.

If he could remember where they were, maybe he could get help. His mother, 35-year-old Lecrecia Luna Dominguez, died before he had the chance.

Now all he wants is the chance to find her body and bring her home.

Home is the small village of San Martin Sombrerete in Zacatecas. Jesus' father works in Texas, and it was hoped the family could reunite. They crossed with Jesus' 7-year-old sister Nora. When Luna Dominguez fell ill on the third day of the journey, the group of village friends they were traveling with continued on with Nora. Jesus stayed behind to be with his mother.

"She kept begging me to go on without her, but I couldn't leave her," Jesus said.

Tucson Citizen

When she lost consciousness, Jesus struck out alone to try to find emergency help. Three days later, Border Patrol agents found him lost, wandering and disoriented in the desert. Although Jesus was dehydrated, in shock, suffering from heat exhaustion and terrified about his mother's status, the agents gave him a little water and then left him at the federal line in Nogales, a practice known as "expedited removal." Once there, Jesus placed a frantic call to his grandfather for help.

ePluribus Media

Cesario Dominguez, Lucrecia’s father, spent weeks searching the Altar Valley for her remains. The humanitarian-aid group No More Deaths assisted him; Border Patrol officials helped for only one day. Miraculously, Cesario eventually came upon his daughter’s skeletal remains, recognizing her three rings. “What was left was that hand with those rings, there in the sand,” said her father.

Binational Migration Institute

These stories and thousands more just like them are the reality behind the statistics. Lucrecia Dominguez Luna is but one of the women whose death accounts for the two-thirds increase in female migrant deaths in recent years. She is one of the 61% of all migrants who die of exposure; up from 39% from the period before the funnel policies went into effect. … But she was also someone's wife, daughter, and mother. How did Lucrecia's last moments pass?

Luis Urrea in his book Devil’s Highway describes what death from “exposure” really entails:
Your heart pumps harder and harder to get fluid and oxygen to your organs. Empty vessels within you collapse. Your sweat runs out....Your temperature redlines ---you hit 105, 106, 108 degrees. Your body panics and dilated all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off. You blush. Your eyes turn red: blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimson. Your skin gets terribly sensitive. It hurts, it burns. Your nerves flame. Your blood heats under your skin. Clothing feels like sandpaper. Some walkers at this point strip nude. Originally, BORSTAR rescuers thought this stripping was a delirious panic, an attempt to cool off at the last minute. But often, the clothing was eerily neat, carefully folded and left in nice little piles beside the corpses. They realized the walkers couldn't stand their nerve endings being chafed by their clothes.

Once they're naked, they're surely hallucinating. They dig burrows in the soil, apparently thinking they'll escape the sun. Once underground, of course, they bake like a pig at a luau. Some dive into sand, thinking it's water, and they swim in it until they pass out. They choke to death, their throats filled with rocks and dirt. Cutters can only assume they think they're drinking water. Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream. Proteins are peeling off your dying muscles. Chunks of cooked meat are falling out of your organs, to clog your other organs. They system closes down in a series. Your kidneys, your bladder, your heart. They jam shut. Stop. Your brains sparks. Out. You're gone. [3]

ePuribus Media

As policymakers in Washington mull over the newest proposals for increasing foreign markets for US products, discuss the merits of the global economy and the free movement of capital, or the need to build more walls and barriers along the southern border to prevent the flow of the economic migrants caused by these policies ….do they think of Antonio Torres Jimenez or Lucrecia Dominguez Luna dying terrible deaths in the desert? Do they think of the thousands of others who have come before them or the thousands more to come in the future?

We will never know the stories behind each an every one of the 3000 migrant deaths that have occurred along the border. No one will tell us about their individual decisions to make the arduous journey, or the grief of family and friends when they didn't survive. In fact, for many migrants, the details of their deaths will always remain nameless, faceless statistics.

But thanks to the work done by the University of Arizona we can at least attach names to roughly one thousand of those who never completed the journey to el Norte.

Perhaps they should be read aloud in the halls of Congress each time a new trade or immigration policy is debated ….maybe then policymakers might think about the human cost of their actions.

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