A few years ago I grew concerned about the massive escalation of security infrastructure that was being built along the U.S. Mexico border. I was born in Tijuana, Mexico and grew up on the flip side of the border in San Diego, California only a few hundred yards from the actual borderline. As a kid, there were always border patrol around but I never felt threatened by our proximity to Mexico. As an adult, I couldn't figure out what had changed. Why, six long years after 9/11, were Mexico and our neighbors to the south a threat to our safety and sovereignty? They were not the perpetrators of 9/11. Why did we need to spend billions of dollars on border walls, technology and thousands more border guards? I decided this would be the subject matter of my next film and I would try to answer these questions.
From 2007 - 2009 I followed the construction of what is now close to 800 miles of border security infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico international boundary. Vehicle barriers, pedestrian fencing, virtual fences, cameras, sensors and miles of new roads were being rapidly installed. I went from Brownsville, TX to San Diego, CA and points in between and what I found was disastrous. Dozens of environmental laws were waived in order to acquire land and build the new border walls and infrastructure. New technology was unproven, over priced and non-functional. Deserts and mountains were permanently scarred - all to protect "us from them." The assessments from scholars, government agencies and even border patrol was that this multi-billion dollar effort was not going to solve America's immigration problems. All of those details may have made a compelling documentary film. Even with all the blunders and cost overruns there was something else that caught my attention - something that the media left out of their "illegal immigration" reporting. The effect of increased border security was proving to be a massive killer.
Since 1994, when the first border fences were built, migrants began to perish in the deserts and mountains of the American Southwest. Because of the new border wall, they stopped crossing in the mild climate area of San Diego and for the first time, attempted to traverse deserts and mountains. With the exponential growth of border security infrastructure in recent years, migrant death continues to escalate. Migrants are being funneled into even more remote areas than ever before. More people are dying year after year and increased border security is the culprit. In 2009, because of the slumping economy, migration was down by thirty percent yet migrant death was up - less people crossing and more people dying. If that is not enough, the federal government is well aware that their effort to "secure the border" results in more death. It is U.S. border policy to make the migrant journey as treacherous, difficult and dangerous as possible. It is on purpose, it is intentional - I have the official U.S. Border Patrol document that reveals this inhumane strategy. It is called, "prevention through deterrence."
That's what caught my attention and is what our latest film, The 800 Mile Wall exposes. There is a human rights crisis occurring on U.S. soil. Thousands of people have died and thousands more are likely to perish. The human death toll is increasing at an almost exponential rate. I commend President Obama for reducing spending on the virtual border fence and halting construction projects but the infrastructure and policies that are now in place remain deadly. The only solution is not to keep the status quo but to reform it. If it is broke - fix it. If it is a killer - stop it. Comprehensive immigration reform has the potential to move migration from deadly deserts and rugged mountains to a legal port of entry. With reform, workers, relatives, and friends would be given visas, green cards and passes and have an opportunity to cross the border safely and legally - instead of risking their lives as the failed system supports and encourages today.
Migrants are drawn like a magnet to the U.S. with the promise of low wage jobs and then forced through a deadly obstacle course to get here. U.S. border policies are inhumane and not worthy of a country that calls itself a nation of immigrants. Many say, "If they didn't come, they wouldn't die" or "they should stay in their home countries." To those statements I say, I agree. They shouldn't come and they should stay in their home countries. BUT THEY ARE COMING AND THEY ARE DYING! All the logic, wishes and hopes will not keep migrants in their destitute, corrupt and broken home countries. They will come where there is opportunity and America has secretly and insidiously welcomed clandestine workers to our fields, meat packing plants, hotels, restaurants, constructions sites and homes as long as they risk their lives to get here and keep their mouths shut while they stay here and work and work and work so we can benefit before we scapegoat them and deport them. What part of inhumane don't you understand?
The 800 Mile Wall is about to embark on a nationwide tour to raise awareness about this under reported, ongoing atrocity. It is nothing less than that. A man made atrocity is occurring within the confines of the United States of America. Those that want to criminalize the undocumented population and block life saving immigration reform are contributing to the systematic death by dehydration, hypothermia, hyperthermia and exposure of thousands of economically deprived people. Those that blame the migrants themselves for their own demise know nothing of poverty or desperation and have an immature view of America and the world.
Hooray to the Obama administration for recognizing the failures of the "virtual border fence." Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, called for a reassessment of the project. She stated that the failed border security system was unacceptable and is searching for a "more efficient and economical approach." If the current administration believes border security will be achieved through more militarization or better militarization of more economical or efficient militarization, they will get what we have today - a failed border policy and more dead bodies. If comprehensive immigration reform fails to deal with migrant death at the U.S. - Mexico border, it is neither comprehensive nor reform. People will continue to risk their lives to flee oppression, seek opportunity, feed their families or unite with them. Forcing people to risk their lives by funneling them through deserts and mountains is inhumane. As a nation that prides itself on respecting human rights, it must be at the foundation of any immigration reform policy and the first place to start is by removing the death penalty from U.S. border security policy.
Follow John Carlos Frey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johncarlosfrey