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Ignored Tragedies Remain in Wake of Giffords Shooting Anniversary

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Reminiscent of an international incident concerning a tense a Thatcher family affair, a year following the brutal Arizona shootings invokes ignored victims and invisible tragedies.

In January 1982, a "very upset and very distressed" UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked the world to pray for her son who went missing while motor-racing in the Sahara desert. The affair prompted an international rescue mission and the year's greatest national news story second only to the Falklands War. But others--a silent majority, in a sense--saw things differently. South African human rights activist Ghadija Vallie recalls when she and fellow South African women heard Thatcher's plea and instead responded by spontaneously marching to the British Embassy in Cape Town to call on Thatcher to express equal compassion for their relatives who, while suffering under the brutal apartheid regime, had never been the object of such immense national attention. Today, the initiative of the South African women illuminates the disparity between worthy and unworthy victims in a society favoring racism over universal equality.

During the enormously publicized anniversary of the Giffords tragedy, similar uneasy questions arise about worthy and unworthy victims, particularly in the Arizona and the US/Mexico borderlands.

Following the 8 January 2011 rampage in Tucson, Arizona by a lone gunman who killed six and injured thirteen, President Obama drew a solemn veil over a national "community in mourning" with respect to the victims of the massacre. But the pervading culture of sympathy surrounding the attack did not extend similar compassion, much less any regard at all, for the thousands of victims of a deliberate federal border enforcement policy that resigns many people's stories of death and suffering to an abyss of national oblivion.

Just days prior to the Giffords shootings, in Nogales, AZ-Sonora, a border community near Tucson, a U.S. Border Patrol agent mortally shot 17 year-old Ramses Barron Torres as the boy scaled fencing of the heavily U.S.-militarized border. In sharp contrast to the remarkably compassionate pageantry resounding through the state and nation for the victims of the Tucson tragedy, the snuffing-out of this boy's life was barely reported in the U.S. (outside scant local news coverage), and passed virtually without comment.

Since the United States claims to be a nation that cares about human life, one can conclude that Torres was less than human.

The Torres case is one illustration of a broader federal policy of aggressively tightening the border, which dramatically increased in 1994 under President Clinton. At that time, the US instituted inequitable trade agreements favoring U.S. agribusiness which depressed economies of the Global South and created desperate migrations northward--"a development of which the Clinton Administration was very much aware," noted the American Public Health Association.

Part of Clinton's strategy known as "deterrence" militarized urban border areas in order to push the increased migration into "more remote and hazardous border regions" (mostly through the Arizona desert) where the terrain's "mortal danger" would "deter" migrants from crossing. When hundreds of deaths predictably started to mount by the early 2000s, a rare public criticism of the new policy by former Tucson Border Patrol sector chief, Ron Sanders, appeared in The Nation magazine: "By every measure, the strategy is a failure. All it's accomplished is killing people....If you had airplanes crashing in this country with the same numbers [of deaths], you'd have everybody after the FAA. But since these people [dying] are Mexicans, no one seems to care."

The strategy didn't stop at the border but crept nationwide. In its 2009 report, Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty International quotes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)'s Former Executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination, James Pendergraph, speaking to attendees of the 2008 Police Foundation Conference: "If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear."

This largely invisible incarceration of migrants has become a billion dollar industry, the numbers of detainees having tripled since the Clinton years, along with the expansion of hundreds of contracted private and state prisons (while detention beds skyrocketed from 5,000 to 33,000).

Still, Pendergraph's operative verb "disappear" is a rare acknowledgement of "illegal" people. The latest (Dec. 2011) national news reports tell that Border Patrol apprehensions of undocumented migrants have "plummeted" to all-time lows, concluding that illegal immigration is "less of a problem now." But literally nowhere is a single word paid the to the stubborn facts of medical experts on the ground in Arizona who--if inquired after--reveal that migrant mortalities in the desert are still at record highs since the killings began.

Drawing on Sanders's conclusion, many of the dead, like Torres, are Mexican, so "no one seems to care."

Today, the mortal toll continues, with 180 known deaths in this past fiscal year alone, which ended on Sept. 30. Forty-four more human remains have been recovered this fiscal year as of Jan. 1, 2012, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.

In this setting, prominent human rights and humanitarian group No More Deaths/No Más Muertes released a report in late September 2011, "Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term U.S. Border Patrol Custody," to demonstrate widespread patterns of systemic abuse, displacement and violent separation of families.

Though while migrant communities are literally under siege in many areas nationwide--and massacred in the killing fields and mass graves of the desert borderlands--migrants themselves have risen to demonstrate they are not un-human and will not be disappeared. An emerging Migrant Justice movement has lately mobilized nationally focused, grassroots campaigns including targeted divestment against Wells Fargo and other corporations involved in the creation of the AZ-brand legislation that imprisons migrants and profits from their suffering.

This week as communities the world over justly mourn the victims of last year's Tucson's shootings, the violent death of young Torres--one case in a larger pattern--remain barely known as the yearly death toll of desert deaths (also largely unreported), disappearance detentions, raids and removals persist unabated.

Any free society--from Margaret Thatcher's Apartheid-era Britain to Obama's currently anti-immigrant America--cannot expect to adequately deal with the sort of violence that prompted the Tucson shootings while refusing to address, much less acknowledge, the greater violence connected to government policy plaguing our neighbors in the AZ-Sonora deserts and cities, and communities nationwide, year after year.